In two provinces in eastern Zimbabwe, a multiyear program run by World Vision aimed to increase food security through economic empowerment and health outcomes through nutrition programs. But in some communities, local religious traditions precluded women from attending critical program activities such as care groups, where participants could access health services like antenatal care to ensure babies were receiving appropriate nutrition.
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Women “made up a huge population of the communities we were trying to reach, and it was really disheartening because we’re hoping to help them improve in health and nutrition, and yet there’s this fear, reluctance to participate,” said Buck Bradshaw, director of program quality and impact at World Vision.
But World Vision’s status as a faith-based organization allowed it to approach religious leaders to engage in a dialogue about the groups to better understand objections to women's participation and come up with a solution within the bounds of local belief systems.
“The one benefit of being a faith-based organization is that you get it. … You’re able to understand that people have beliefs that govern the way that they live, and instead of ridiculing or being uncompassionate toward that, we’re able to step in and say: ‘Can we talk about it? Would you be willing to have a conversation for us to better help you to understand what we’re doing?’” Bradshaw said.
“In the process with that group, in part because we’re also community-based, I think they saw over time that we’re not just some outsider coming in to tell them that they should do this or that, but they see that we’re invested in the community.”
“Having that faith and having that identity and that acceptance by the community really helps around nutrition.”— Shakil Sidat, director of programs, Muslim Hands
Through dialogue, Bradshaw said program organizers were able to make local religious leaders comfortable with the program, which led to community acceptance. By the time the program wrapped up in those communities, there was a significant increase in the number of women participating. This was key to improving nutrition outcomes, since mothers are vital in making nutritional decisions for households.
In addition to guiding how people live their lives and their daily activities, faith traditions also play a large role in what people eat. For Muslim Hands, a U.K.-based NGO that operates in over 30 countries, being a faith-based organization allows it to ensure dietary sensitivity in its nutrition programming, even in emergency situations.
“Working alongside some secular partners, they’re not able to understand — at a local level it might not be a problem, but at the higher level in terms of decision-making — being able to understand some concerns of the local community when it comes to faith. It can cause problems locally. As an organization that’s faith-based, it’s very easy to have that understanding with the local community really quickly,” said Shakil Sidat, director of programs at Muslim Hands.
“[For them] to say, ‘OK, these people understand … what’s allowed and what’s not allowed with regards to food’ … they’re a bit more accepting of aid and a bit more accepting of the work that we do.”
Muslim Hands has also helped facilitate relationships with secular organizations in communities where there was skepticism of food aid delivery due to concerns that the food wasn’t complying with halal traditions or other regulations.
“Having that faith and having that identity and that acceptance by the community really helps around nutrition,” Sidat said.
Muslim Hands runs a school feeding program in Yemen, where an estimated 80% of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. Facilitating access to proper nutrition in the midst of a humanitarian emergency acts as a building block for other aspects of development, Sidat said, taking away the immediate concern of feeding children and allowing families to focus on other needs like shelter and health care.
Connecting on a religious level provides a valuable tie to the local community, particularly in fragile contexts, where trust can be difficult to establish, Sidat said.
“It eases their burden … when people are at the most difficult [time] in their lives. They’re highly vulnerable. So they don’t have to worry about where is their food coming from, who is the agency that is providing the food, is there ulterior motives here,” Sidat said. “We’re able to use local faith actors because of our faith background to actually say: ‘Look, these people are here to help you. We’re not here with any ulterior motives. There’s no political agenda here.’”
Muslim Hands also taps into faith networks of local religious leaders to help promote particular nutrition interventions because such leaders are seen as trusted authorities in their communities.
Advocacy for nutrition funding
Outside of direct programming, faith-based organizations have also taken an active role in advocating for increased funding for food and agriculture programs.
Last month, the Vatican announced it was making an extraordinary contribution to the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s 12th replenishment. Monsignor Fernando Chica Arellano, permanent observer of the Holy See to the Food and Agriculture Organization, told Devex via email that Pope Francis sees support for the organization as a direct expression of Catholic values.
“Well functioning agriculture, food value chains, and trade are key priorities for the Holy Father and it is his hope that the leaders of all nations take decisive action to this end,” Chica Arellano said. “Family farming plays a key role in the production of healthy food and sustainable environmental services. Accordingly, it is crucial to build resilience among vulnerable communities and transform agriculture in the most remote and fragile places that are home to three quarters of the world’s poorest and hungriest people.”
Bread for the World, a Christan NGO in the U.S., works with a national coalition to encourage lawmakers to support additional funding for nutrition work. The organization was instrumental in the recent passage of bipartisan congressional resolutions in the House and Senate on reducing global maternal and child malnutrition.
Nancy Neal, director of church relations at Bread for the World, said the organization intends to use momentum around the resolutions to push for formal legislation that strengthens U.S. funding for global nutrition programs.
“We see [the resolutions] as a real commitment from members of Congress to the importance of nutrition. … As a bipartisan Christian organization, we think that the role of people in district is really critical, and the voices of the faith community in particular are really important. We bring a moral voice, a voice based on values of caring for other people,” Neal said. “We’re motivated by our faith, but we’re really grounded in science and the research to address these issues.”
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.