Can religion play a role in evidence-obsessed governance strategies? Lessons from Tanzania

March 21, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Next up in the Twaweza series, Aikande Clement Kwayu reflects on the development sector’s blind spot with religion

When it comes to social change, religion is a double-edged sword. It can be both a force for good and/or for bad. The world-wide positive contribution by religious organisations in providing public services such as health and education is undisputed.  The role of religion in areas of human rights, democracy, accountability and governance has been inconsistent. However, that does not reduce the role that religious organisations and leaders have played in demanding and promoting good governance, including defending human rights, democratic ideals, and civic space for citizen participation. Religious groups and leaders often possess moral authority to speak out against injustice.  Religion often incubates and facilitates some of the strongest civil society arrangements in many developing countries.

So why has it been so difficult to incorporate the positive role of religion into the mainstream development agenda?  My PhD research (2012), which analyzed the relationship between DFID and Faith Groups, found that DFID treated faith groups as exactly the same as other NGOs and/or charities. Any relationship was based purely on a pragmatic rationale, just like with any other development NGO. There was no special consideration given to religious organisations’ unique ability to reach sensitive areas that many NGOs could not access, such as in the 2011 famine crisis in Somalia. Theories of modernisation and the promotion of secularism in development discourses rendered religion a sensitive and private, perhaps even slightly embarrassing, matter, unsuitable for discussion in ‘grown-up’ aid circles.

Occasional efforts to change this by the International Development Industry have been half-hearted and short-lived.  In early and mid-2000s, the World Bank tried to bring religion onto the development agenda through the creation of the World Faith Development Dialogue. Yet the momentum did not last.  The growing appreciation of religion as a civil society actor and subsequent academic interest in the same did not soften development partners’ rigidity in engaging with (or failing to) religious institutions. The question remains, why?

Could the budding obsession with evidence- and results-based programming partly explain the persistent reluctance to involve religion in governance and other development agendas?

Two weeks ago, at the Twaweza Ideas and Evidence conference, there was a rich discussion on what counts as evidence in governance. There were questions and debates on the role of Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) and to what extent such research can help in bringing change.  The various research presentations and discussions underlined the evidence-obsessed ambience in the international development space.  The unfortunate thing is, evidence is often equated with numbers. Quantified evidence seemed to be more revered than the qualitative variety.

This matters because one of the barriers that development partners find in working with religion is the difficulty of measuring impact.  The impact of religion in influencing people’s thinking and actions, for example, is profound yet hard to measure. So are the roles of religious leaders in influencing change.  Development organisations that are evidence–obsessed may find it difficult to work with religion out of an unconscious fear of dealing with something that is considered sensitive, private and that cannot always be evaluated on the basis of numbers.  Yet there is an adequate literature that has shown the role of religion in influencing and shaping norms around political ideas and economic attitudes. Norms shaped by religion have also been shown to be persistent over time and can play a role in economic and development performance. In the real world, ‘faith-based policy making’ may be more common than the evidence-based variety, but that is neither recognized nor discussed in the aid and development bubble.

In Tanzania, religious institutions have done great work on several crucial areas of governance.  An interfaith committee carried out effective advocacy against unfair tax regimes. In Chapter 12 of this recent book, I analysed the efficiency of the interfaith committee advocacy strategy on extractive industry with its two groundbreaking publications in 2008 and 2012.  The voices of religious leaders in calming the situation in the 2013 protests in Mtwara in relations to gas and new gas pipeline should also be recognized.  Of late, religious leaders have been outspoken against the diminishing civic space in the country.  Yet we still do not see active incorporation of religious groups as key governance stakeholders and strong civil society representatives by development partners in the country.

In these testing times for democracy and shrinking civic space, it is high time for development partners to rethink their strategies and find ways through which the strengths and potentials of religious organisations and leaders can be marshaled for the common change we all want to see.

Previous Posts in this series:

When does Tech → Innovation? Here’s what 178 projects tell us

Which Citizens? Which Services? Unpacking Demand for Improved Health, Education, Roads, Water etc

How can researchers and activists influence African governments? Advice from an insider

Can Evidence-based Activism still bring about change? The view from East Africa