Are grassroots faith organizations better at advocacy/making change happen?

September 28, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

As part of thinking about how power operates in fragile/conflict states (for the LSE’s new Centre for Public Authority in International Development, CPAID), I’m doing a bit more reading around the role of different kinds of ‘non state actors’. One of the most influential in many fragile/conflict settings are faith organizations, so I finally got round to reading ‘Bridging the Gap: The role of local churches in fostering local‑level social accountability and governance’ from Tearfund, which describes itself as a ‘Christian charity passionate about ending poverty’.

The report looks at Tearfund’s support for grassroots advocacy by its partner in Uganda, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG).This is part of a wider church and community mobilisation (CCM) process.

‘CCM approaches differ according to the context. However, they all involve the local church congregations participating in Bible studies and other interactive activities together, which catalyse them to work across denominations and with their local communities to identify and address the communities’ needs with their own resources.

As the first step, the church leaders at the denominational level are trained as CCM facilitators. The local church then goes through the ‘church awakening’ phase, which aims to change people’s attitudes to see themselves as all equal before God, to identify the resources they have and to build a vision for working together towards developing the community. The local church then liaises with community leaders and invites the wider community to come together to identify their needs, resources and skills. They then elect a Community Development Committee (CDC) which, with the help of the facilitator, maps community assets and key stakeholders, preparing a vision and action plan. The solutions vary across contexts – sometimes savings groups are formed – and in response to a variety of issues depending on the community’s most pressing needs, including food security, health, water and sanitation, or livelihoods.’

With a few tweaks of language, this could have been written by any secular NGO working on similar issues, but I was looking for the special sauce – what’s different about working through the Churches, compared to non-religious partners? Here’s what Tearfund says:

Local churches are trusted

CCM advocacy has proven that local churches are regarded with a high level of trust. They are trusted by their congregations, by the communities in which they are located and by local government.

The trust that the congregation and the majority of the community place in the church was a key driver in motivating participation in the CCM process, the advocacy training and also governance more generally. In Uganda, more than 80 per cent of people are Christian and it became apparent in the research that the church is a trusted authority figure, both by church members and by the wider community. This has led to an increase in citizen engagement in those communities who have completed the CCM and CCM advocacy training. This trust in the church enabled the CCM advocacy process to be established successfully in the community, with good engagement, and for the trainings to be taken on board quickly and effectively.

Participants’ responses revealed the main reason why the church is trusted. Firstly, as many in the community have embedded Christian values, trust derives from shared values. Many people consider the Bible an authority and therefore, where the CCM advocacy included references to the Bible, there was more engagement and take-up.

‘It would have not worked well with a secular NGO: the Bible has teachings, it encourages people to share, people fear God, they know it is God’s language and know they should listen!’ Woman from Arapai, where there was CCM and some advocacy

Secondly, as the church is established in the community and has a good reputation historically, people are willing to be involved in its initiatives. Thirdly, linked to this is the way in which local church leaders and the church have existing relationships and links within the community. The process therefore did not require starting a new network or building new relationships. Finally, people felt safe to attend as it is a familiar environment for many. This meant that the church could become a ‘school for learning’ (to coin a phrase used in one community). Trust in the church allowed for this knowledge to be accepted and communities to use what they had learnt, as the knowledge had come from a trusted source.

Another key to the success of the engagement was the volunteerism encouraged by the church. Many groups explained that, whereas with NGO programmes the participants would expect handouts, the church is not expected to provide in the same way and people expect to volunteer their time at church. When discussing the motivation behind participating in CCM advocacy, more than 50 per cent of people referred to ‘my church’.

The training included biblical verses about advocacy: this encouraged community members to participate and understand that they have a right as citizens and a mandate to fight for justice, particularly on behalf of the marginalised such as widows and orphans. One hundred per cent of respondents who had had some of the advocacy training indicated that they had been encouraged by the church to attend government meetings, which they would never normally have been keen to do.

Government trusts the church

A key to ensuring increased good governance and accountability is the way in which the government sees the church and therefore the participating communities as trustworthy and honest. The government perceives the church as an important influencer in encouraging the community to obey the government and keep the peace. It is therefore willing to share information through the church, both about government programmes (eg immunisation schemes) and via sensitisation meetings (where government workers share learning on a particular topic, such as HIV prevention). The church is ‘faithful’ and embedded in the community, with a ready audience and an understanding of local issues.

‘We trust the church. We have so many organisations and individuals who come but, at the end, they disappear. But the church is there permanently. Even when there are changes in leadership, the church remains.’ Onya George, Regional District Councillor of Akonopeesa, Serere district’

Powerful and convincing stuff. The report acknowledges that things are not so easy when the community is less uni-faith, and that stirring it up with advocacy training might weaken its ‘trustworthiness’ in the eyes of government.

One thing I did wonder about was the use of ‘the Church’ in the singular. My experience of evangelical churches in Latin America is that they sometimes resemble ferrets in a sack, fighting for adherents, rather than cooperating – does that not complicate the effort to build an advocacy movement?

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m a lifelong atheist.

September 28, 2017
Duncan Green