6 ways Aid Donors can help harness Religious Giving for Development

June 5, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

One of the consequences of writing a blog that covers some off-beat topics is that when someone’s organizing an event on one of them and can’t find qualified speakers, you get invited along to make up the numbers. So it was that I, a lifelong atheist, ended up on a panel at DFID last week on religious giving for development. DFID has identified this as an issue it wants to do more on, so it was looking for ideas.

The other speakers, Zenobia Ismael from Birmingham University (see her report on zakat here), and Jamie Williams from Islamic Relief Worldwide, were excellent, and focussed on Islamic giving. This comes in 3 main forms:

Zakat: Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their savings every year, for a set of 8 philanthropic purposes set out in the Quran

Sadaqah: This is voluntary, and there are no restrictions on usage

Waqf: an endowment, used mainly to finance buildings, such as schools and mosques, but with the potential to be used for development programming.

Most attention has centred on Zakat, (which I’ve likened in the past to a global wealth tax), but Islamic Relief actually gets more money through the Sadaqah channel. This is partly because there are big arguments about how/when development qualifies under Zakat rules. Can it be spent on non-Muslims? Does it have to be spent within a year, near to where it was paid? There’s a lot of disagreement, and getting Islamic scholars to rule on this sounds pretty much like shopping around QCs to get a legal opinion that you like.

Beyond the scholars, there are big disagreements among Muslims – one young DFID staffer attending the discussion said that, as a Muslim, she could not understand why funding the SDGs would not be Zakat-compatible, but many Muslim donors think very differently – Islamic Relief has had to suspend some of its advice on this because of pushback from its donors.

When it came to me, I made the point that trying to get the aid business to take religion seriously is much bigger than just who gives what:

  • If you’re serious about ‘Working with the Grain’ of local societies and institutions, understanding the role of religion is crucial – eg see this study on educational reform in West Africa
  • There’s increasing interest about how social norms affecting attitudes and behaviours can be influenced on everything from violence against women to hand washing – it’s hard to think of any institutions that have more influence on norms than faith organizations. Not that all that influence is positive of course – lots of arguments over gender rights in many religions.
  • The closer to the ground you get, the more faith and religion appear on the radar – faith plays a crucial factor in agency and ‘power within’ among activists and communities in struggle
  • If you’re serious about pushing power and resources down to local level when responding to emergencies (aka ‘localization’), then faith organizations should definitely be in the mix – they are often where people turn when disaster strikes, and play a crucial role in helping communities recover
  • The faith organizations that ‘get’ development are often linked to shrinking religious congregations (liberal Protestants and Catholics). We need to understand and engage with the new, expanding evangelical churches.

But then we got back to giving, and since DFID was looking for advice on how to support it, here’s what we suggested:

  1. Be part of promoting a shift in understanding from charity to development. Worth seeing how to apply the lessons of previous norm shifts, eg on universal welfare as a right
  2. Collect and publicise positive examples of religious giving
  3. Use DFID match funding to convey the message to Muslim and other donors that they are valued
  4. Data: I don’t normally suggest this, but there is a real vacuum here. Estimates of religious giving vary wildly, and we have precious little idea where it ends up. Measuring and tracking the amounts and purposes could go a long way to raising the issue’s profile
  5. Promoting religious giving as a way to wean southern CSOs off their reliance on fickle aid flows (see previous post on Fundraisers without Borders)
  6. Use its influence to get some of the other big donors on board (paging Melinda Gates….)

See also Aikande Clement Kwayu on donors’ blind spot on religion, and this longer read on religion and development by Manini Sheker