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Engaging with Faith and Faith Actors on Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development

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Viewpoint by Sudarshan Reddy Kodooru

The author is Convener of the Asia Pacific Faith-based Coalition (APFC*) for Sustainable Development and Regional Director, Faith & Development, East Asia at World Vision International. The following is based on his speech during APFC’s first annual meeting on August 29-31, 2018 in Tokyo, Japan. – The Editor

BANGKOK (IDN) – We live in an age unparalleled by any other and hovering at the intersection of various and often-competing forces. Any traces of the thin veneer of isolation have been wiped away by globalization. Today, we face challenges incomparable in magnitude to any previous age, many look to faith for developmental solutions.

By nature, faith and development share “enormous areas of overlap, convergence, concern and knowledge, and a core common purpose”. Religion plays an inextricably important role in the lives of people around the world, particularly in the context of developing nations, and, more so, for the Asian context where majority of the populations are religious.

And “faith is arguably the terrain where justice, peace and the struggle against inequality interface”. It is necessary, then, that practitioners and policy-makers, understand and explore the ways that faith interacts with development, specifically in the work of faith-based organizations (FBOs).

In many parts of the world, Faith Leaders are influential in both the political and social spheres, and have a broad following in society. Their presence in local communities, coupled with their capacity to deliver critical services, allow them to mobilize grassroots support, earn the trust of vulnerable groups, and influence cultural norms – all of which make them vital stakeholders in development. FBOs and Faith Leaders can link development actors with beneficiary communities, and engaging them in the right conditions can enhance development impact and sustainability.

How to engage with Faith Leaders and FBOs

  1. Develop partnerships based on shared values, objectives and commitments
  2. Ensure their meaningful participation in policy dialogue processes
  3. Include them in programme design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation
  4. Moral voice/moral imperative. Faith leaders can be very critical stake holders in raising moral voice on the issues that matter to vulnerable populations
  5. It is important to understand the missions of Faith groups and their capacity to deliver, and carefully assess the extent to which a common ground can be found on the basis of shared values and common issues.

Value add from the Faith Leaders and Local Faith Communities

  1. FBOs and Local Faith communities bring a huge humanitarian and development experience that can be an asset
  2. The statements of faith leaders often have more respect and impact in communities than any other actors
  3. In remote and conflict-prone areas, houses of worship can often provide space for humanitarian response
  4. Faith actors have a strong grassroots presence, working in inaccessible areas often part of the local community
  5. For many religious organisations it is more than a development work; they see their work as serving a higher call to support humanity, action motivated by compassion, service, unity, justice and reconciliation
  6. FBOs and Faith Leaders are seen as gate-keepers, opinion leaders and in some contexts are more trusted and influential than secular leaders in their communities
  7. FBOs can be great advocates on behalf of the most vulnerable and play key role in public policy influence
  8. Reinforcing moral and social values: one sermon from the spiritual leader can send a large number of people this way or that and can address deep rooted issues
  9. FBOs and Faith Leaders have extensive networks of congregations and can serve as channels of communication as well as human and financial resources.

Dogma in Development

Religious faith has always had an intense but uneasy relationship with development. The role of faith in development was once too uncomfortable a subject to grapple with publicly. Now, the contribution of faith-based organisations (FBOs) and local faith communities (LFCs) to the development agenda is increasingly studied and widely debated.

According to a 2009 report by the Woolf Institute, when it comes to efficiency or building bridges with local communities, faith-based NGOs can make enormous contribution. Writing for Insight on Conflict, Joey Ager notes that “local faith communities … are often equipped with valuable resources (buildings for shelter and protection) and social capital (volunteers, staff and access to wider networks) that form the physical basis for faith communities’ response to emergencies”.

All the above make a good argument for a big place for dogma in development. If the contributions of faith based organisations cannot be ignored, how can the benefits that come with belief be maximised over the disadvantages, and what can the wider development community learn from them? As important, what is the best practice in engaging with local faith communities?

As Ager puts it: “Many humanitarian actors are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the language, structures and operations of local faith communities.” Hence, there is a need for various actors in humanitarian industry to get better and intentional in engaging with FBOs and LFC.

Other opportunities

We also notice donors are currently seeking greater engagement with faith-based organisations. This positive shift needs careful consideration. Faith can be a powerful medium for positive change.

Donors, some governments, UN and World Bank are increasingly recognising the potential of faith-based organisations and local faith communities as ‘agents of transformation’, mobilising the moral energy of faith communities in support of the Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

All Actors in humanitarian industry need to embrace a less material and less secular vision of well-being and move towards a more culturally inclusive approach to partnership and work collaboratively towards promoting and strengthening the emerging ‘faith and development’ interface.

Having recognized the need for various faith based agencies to come together in order to engage various faith groups to tackle the complex issues that are adversely affecting human well-being, we have formed the Asia Pacific Faith-based Coalition (APFC) which is a Regional Interfaith Network with an objective to provide greater impetus to the voices of faith communities and effectively engage in Asia pacific regional development discourse feeding to global processes, such as the SDGs.

*APFC was set up in September 2017 and officially launched in March 2018 at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok, Thailand, by the World Vision International in partnership with ACT Alliance, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), Arigatou International, and Asia Civil Society Partnership for Sustainable Development (APSD). [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 September 2018]

Photo: APFC Convener and World Vision International’s Sudarshan Reddy Kodooru (with microphone) flanked on his right by Nobuyuki Asai, Program Coordinator in the SGI Office of Peace Affairs in Tokyo; and on his left by Ajit Hazra, World Vision International; and Atallah FitzGibbon, Islamic Relief Wordwide. Credit: SGI

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