Moman Diano, center, is a community leader and imam in Bamako, Mali. His community benefited from several water points installed by Muslim Hands. Photo by: Muslim Hands

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — As the Rev. Lindani Dube delivers his sermons to his congregation of 150 in Harare, Zimbabwe, he intersperses prayers and hymns with messages on hygiene and hand-washing. An ordained minister, he also serves as Living Water International’s church and community mobilization director for Africa.

This article is part of our Focus on: Faith and Development series

This focus area, powered by GHR Foundation, illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

While holy practices and hygiene may not seem like an obvious partnership, delivering critical messages this way has real impact, according to experts.

“I’ve seen many behavior changes being much faster and more sustainable since faith leaders have been involved,” said Esther Lehmann-Sow, partnership leader for faith and development at World Vision. “It definitely unlocks a lot of the doors, which we haven’t been able to unlock [otherwise], to move behavior from A to B” on issues around water, sanitation, and hygiene, she said.

According to research, more than 80% of the global population identified as religious in 2010. And if people say something is important to them, organizations should connect to it, Lehmann-Sow said, arguing that progress in many areas of WASH is lacking because of a failure to do this.

People are more likely to trust a faith leader than a nongovernmental organization they may not be familiar with, said Umar Rashid, health and WASH lead of aid group Muslim Hands, adding that the organization is more welcome in communities where it has religious partnerships.

“When you’re mobilizing local faith actors, you’re not just making them an instrument to what you want to accomplish but authentically engaging with them.”

— Nathan Mallonee, senior director of program development, Living Water International

Muslim Hands trains imams across Africa and the Middle East to embed hygiene training — the importance of staying clean, preserving water, and protecting the environment — within their sermons. “The faith leaders then put a religious spin on it. For example, the imams will talk about the importance of washing and hygiene within the Islamic perspective,” Rashid said. This helps generate more community buy-in to the WASH programs.

Living Water International and Tearfund take a similar approach within the Christian faith. Churches select representatives for training on the sustainability of WASH projects, communication and mobilization skills, and safe water chains. These individuals then form “church mobilization groups,” performing WASH demonstrations, hosting community meetings, and conducting house visits to share WASH-related messages.

This engagement results in better WASH outcomes, according to the Rev. Donnell Foster Mwachande, founder of Word of Life Pentecostal Church in Luchenza, Malawi, and the nonprofit Christian Compassion Committee. “For sure, there would be increased hygiene and sanitation in the homes, decreased incidences of waterborne [and other] diseases — such as cholera, diarrhea, coronavirus ... and increased access to clean water and sanitation,” he wrote in an email.

Projects also become more sustainable because community buy-in is more likely to last beyond the scope of a project, Dube said, adding that church leaders acquire certain practical skills that help once an NGO leaves.

Living Water International works with church representatives to spread messages around water, sanitation, and hygiene. Photo by: Living Water International

Nathan Mallonee, senior director of program development for Living Water, said the organization wants to work alongside faith institutions because if those institutions are healthy and advocating for the most vulnerable, the community will be more resilient — not just in areas of WASH but in general.

Failing to engage faith leaders was a missed opportunity for the development sector for many years, said Earnest Maswera, Tearfund's country director in Zimbabwe. The HIV epidemic and role of churches in disseminating prevention messages changed this, he said, adding that faith leaders today work with NGOs in various areas. Following online or phone training by Tearfund, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe and Anglican Diocese of Manicaland have reached 292,000 people with information on WASH practices to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

How engagement with religious groups can help fight COVID-19

To help combat COVID-19, nonprofit organizations and U.N. agencies rely on influencers within communities who are trusted. However, in places where discrimination and lack of trust abound, they are also confronted with the limited power they have.

In Malawi, Mwachande — in partnership with Freshwater Project International — has also been distributing hand hygiene and COVID-19 prevention flyers and engaging local stakeholders to combat the virus.

From the perspective of faith leaders, engaging with NGOs can be an opportunity to go beyond proclaiming the gospel to demonstrating it by getting involved in development efforts. “You can have a congregation where people are literally suffering … socially, things aren’t good; politically, things are not good. And there we are proclaiming that God is good. … And the question that comes to mind is: ‘What is God going to do about that?’” Dube said.

How to engage effectively

While some best practices on working with faith leaders are starting to emerge, Mallonee said the WASH sector is still figuring out what it means to engage effectively.

“Accepting that [religion is a huge influencer] and not trying to fight that is a first step,” Lehmann-Sow said, adding that engaging with faith communities should be considered a technical skill. “Looking at it not under a spiritual aspect only, but under a technical understanding of how that relates to behavior, mindsets, and values perpetuates a paradigm that helps [people] wrap their minds around it.”

While many NGOs do work with faith leaders, they often do not do so in a way that incorporates faith as part of the development dialogue, Mallonee said. He suggested creating space and time to develop “a shared envisioning process.” This involves faith leaders and development workers discussing what development means to them and their shared values and understanding where those values come from.

“That’s a really important part in ensuring that when you’re mobilizing local faith actors, you’re not just making them an instrument to what you want to accomplish but authentically engaging with them,” Mallonee said.

When such dialogue is successful, churches are not just seen as carriers of the gospel or spiritual proclaimers but are appreciated and accepted as co-development partners, Dube said.

Rashid echoed the importance of transparency. “We tell our faith leaders what the criterias of the project are and, many times, get them involved with the acceptance part of the project. … They obviously want to see a benefit for their communities, so as long as you can show that, they’ll be happy.”

But Mwachande said that while the vast majority of faith leaders offer their services on a voluntary basis, NGOs should consider providing allowances to cover travel, meals, and accommodation. “How NGOs take care of particular faith leaders working voluntarily may also be considered [to achieve] remarkable results,” he said.

While convincing faith leaders to partner up with an NGO may seem challenging, Rashid said working with one faith leader often leads to a network. As a first step, he suggested identifying local faith leaders and engaging with them prior to the start of a project.

“There is a structure that already provides an opportunity for training, sharing information, sharing correct messaging in any development issue,” Maswera said, adding that many people in government are also church members.

Dube said effective engagement and mobilization of places of worship is critical in producing resilient communities and “bringing holistic national transformation.”

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.