Working with faith groups: What can donor agencies learn from Germany?


Graham Gordon is Head of CAFOD’s Policy Team. Here, he reflects on what development agencies can learn from a new strategy published by the German Development Ministry for working with faith groups in development.

Photo 1 - Graham Gordon is Head of Policy at CAFOD

Graham Gordon is Head of Policy at CAFOD

Religious beliefs and practices are complex and often intertwined with culture. Faced with this complexity, many international donors tend to underplay religion’s role in development, or to use faith groups as instruments for advancing their agendas or reaching the most remote groups.

BMZ, the German Development Ministry, seems to be making a genuine attempt to do things differently and to engage with the complexity and tensions. Earlier in 2016, it published a strategy on working with religious communities as partners for development.

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The political drivers of the strategy are clear: the worldwide rise in religiously-motivated violence; increased migration to Europe and new migrant communities with strong religious beliefs and practices; and the rise of anti-immigrant political rhetoric across Europe and countries such as Australia and the US.

However, the strategy cannot simply be seen in the political context of migration and extremism, but also as a genuine attempt to think more deeply about the role of religion in development.

What can other donor agencies learn from Germany’s approach? 

We must promote genuine dialogue

At the heart of the BMZ strategy is dialogue. This is a two-way process, with both sides willing to learn and change: what Pope Francis has called “dialogue and generous encounter” (Laudato Si’, §47).

Photo 2 - Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga speaking during a peace and reconciliation meeting

Bangui’s archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga during a peace and reconciliation meeting. PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE for CARITAS INTERNATIONALIS

It includes supporting interfaith dialogue to promote peace, often in countries where there is tension between different ethnic and religious groups. Religious leaders have often had a crucial role in promoting peace. Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Process and Monseñor Héctor Fabio Henao has been important over many years in supporting the Colombia peace process. Currently, the Council of Churches in South Sudan is one of the few civil society groups that has any influence over the warring factions in government.

Dialogue also extends to human rights. This is particularly with regard to the right to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination. The aim is to tackle human rights violations where religious groups can make the most difference – and may have even been complicit or directly involved – as well as to support people within religious institutions who promote and defend human rights. In Mauritania, for example, BMZ has supported Muslim scholars in the fight against female genital mutilation.

This is not an easy task, and engaging with the complex power structures of religious communities is a challenge. However, BMZ seems to be seeking a genuine partnership in which it is explicit about the values behind its engagement, respecting the values of the religious communities whilst not sweeping difficult issues under the carpet. This approach aims to build trust in order to have difficult conversations, seeing some faith groups as part of the problem and the solution.

We must treat faith groups as more than sub-contractors 

Many donors reduce the role of religious groups to the ‘Heineken effect’: as sub-contractors who can reach target groups that donors can’t reach themselves. The German strategy takes a welcome approach in recognising that have multiple functions: “Religion tries to explain the world and give meaning to it. If we view religion exclusively from a functional point of view, we will fail to recognize its complexity.

This recognises what is a blind spot in most international development cooperation. It twins an innovative commitment to increase ‘religious literacy’ among staff to enable them to engage with religious actors professionally and sensitively, as well as include an in-depth analysis of the role of religious groups in their country diagnostics.

We must recognise that religion is at the heart of most communities 

Religion is at the heart of the majority of communities worldwide. 80% of people worldwide affiliate with a religion, (Pew Foundation (2015)) and this figure is much higher in many countries. This does not just involve belonging to a community; religion clearly influences people’s thinking and actions, from how they view the environment – as God’s Creation – to how they view government, family relations and wider responsibilities.

Religious affiliation is usually one people’s main identities, sometimes taking precedence over national, community or ethnic identity. Simply by recognising this in the strategy means that a different approach – and a different partnership – is possible.

We must respect that religious institutions are trusted and rooted in communities

Faith communities provide many of the social services such as health and education. In sub-Saharan Africa, religious groups provide between 30% and 70% of such services. Faith communities can react quickly and effectively in humanitarian disasters as they are rooted in those areas. This was seen in the the response to Ebola in West Africa and the role of faith-based organisations in tackling HIV and AIDS. The Catholic Church has development, peace and justice offices in every diocese in the world – institutions of the Church that are part of its fabric and of people’s everyday lives.

Read about CAFOD’s humanitarian policy work

Photo 3 - CAFOD supported local Church partners like Fr John in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis

CAFOD supported local Church partners like Fr. John in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis

In my own personal experience ten years ago in Peru, many Church leaders were elected to positions in local government as they were trusted by the communities they served and were seen as acting in the wider interest.

In an age where trust in institutions is at an all-time low, religious institutions and religious leaders in many developing countries are the most trusted (far above government, media and NGOs) and often have a key role in promoting development, social cohesion and active citizenship.

However, donors have often been slow in engaging with these actors. This was shown in the response to both the HIV and AIDS and Ebola crises. Faith groups are often small and closely-connected with the community, but they also face challenges in meeting donors’ demands of professionalism, transparency and accountability. BMZ has recognised this needs to be addressed to make the most of these partnerships, ensuring quality and impact of aid while not changing the nature of the local organisations.


Dialogue is at the heart of true partnership. It is often the most enriching but challenging part, yet it risks being squeezed out when there is too much emphasis on results, value for money, log frames and reporting – important as these may be.

The challenge to national donors and aid agencies is to have a more nuanced and informed approach to the role of religion in development.

The challenge to religious groups is to engage in dialogue and to use their reach, rootedness, credibility and influence for the greatest good, willing to be challenged where this is not currently the case.

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