Fair and Equitable: Developing new ways of producing research and evidence on faith dynamics in the development, humanitarian and peacebuilding sector
The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) is working towards shifting power, resources and leadership in its faith-focused research and evidence work to a regional level – to the Middle East, East Africa, South East Asia, and beyond
In many parts of the world, individuals or groups whose actions are motivated by their faith make up an important part of civil society. Local faith actors (such as churches, imams but also informal religious leaders including respected elders) often play significant roles in their local communities, serving those most in need, providing hope, and addressing vital societal functions, especially in areas where the state’s role of providing for its citizens is limited. However, their contributions are often not acknowledged by secular international actors and states, who are often wary of religion and religious actors.
Working with local faith actors
Due to their diverse approaches in framing and engaging with different events (e.g. interpretation of scripture, institutional and political power dynamics), there may be risks involved when religious actors contribute to development, peacebuilding and humanitarian efforts. However, existing evidence also shows the multiple benefits of including as wide a range of societal actors as possible. Indeed, faith actors themselves, in addition to their faith diversity, work through a variety of structures from community based to international organizations, religious institutions to multifaith religious networks. They often enjoy the trust of local communities and tend to have wider reach and stronger networks than other development, peacebuilding and humanitarian actors. Ignoring them (rather than opting for informed engagement) is a lost opportunity. If we believe in principles of diversity, inclusion and participation, we must engage with all actors, including faith actors.
An international collaboration on faith, development, humanitarian action and peacebuilding
The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) is an international collaboration of researchers, practitioners and policymakers with an interest in the roles of faith actors in development, humanitarian action and peacebuilding. With around 800 individual and organisational members around the globe, we have been producing and disseminating evidence on the contribution of faith actors and the dynamics between local and international as well as secular and faith-based actors in the development, humanitarian and peacebuilding sectors since 2012.
A radical rethinking of our work
While reflections on the tensions of working as an international network with local, regional and international members have been part of our work since the beginning, the intensified debate about racial justice, global inequalities and decolonised approaches to development from the summer of 2020 onwards made us realise that a more radical rethinking of our work was needed. We made a first step in June 2020 when we published our commitment to action for racial justice and solidarity, acknowledging the need to work together against racism and for decolonised approaches in development, humanitarian and peacebuilding work.
The JLI Fair and Equitable Initiative
Since then, we have been taking our efforts towards more fair and equitable research and learning partnerships forward. Building on our rich network of global research partnerships and learning communities, we are developing our existing collaboration with development, humanitarian and peacebuilding actors from the global south, shifting more power and visibility to the stories and voices of local faith actors, and investing in context-driven learning communities at local, national, and regional levels. We are calling this work the JLI Fair and Equitable Initiative.
Evidence on MEAL and faith
While many of the challenges and opportunities related to faith as it intersects with development, humanitarian action and peacebuilding are universal, some are specific to certain regions. Our regionalization journey was inspired by the work of our current global learning hubs (which are collective research and evidence communities that meet regularly to share learning and produce evidence on a given topic as it relates to faith), such as the JLI Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) Hub. In January 2021, the JLI MEAL Hub launched the Compendium of Good Practices on Conducting MEAL in Partnerships with International Actors and Local Faith Actors. The compendium included a discussion of the challenges of local-international partnerships on MEAL in which faith is an essential element as well as ten case studies from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The case studies have highlighted the specific needs, approaches and capacities of faith actors doing MEAL and encouraged conversations around potential tensions in their partnerships with secular organizations.
MEAL and faith in the Middle East
Research for the MEAL compendium showed that there is a lack of evidence on MEAL and faith in the Middle East, a region that has been on the receiving end of collective international interest and significant funding over the past 20 years, which too often restricts to an agenda that does not align with the specificities and needs of the local context. The research for the MEAL compendium showed that any international donors have strict MEAL requirements but little awareness of faith-sensitive MEAL approaches. Tension between local and international needs and priorities might occur at different phases starting with the choice of investment itself and its appropriateness to the local context. The gap between foreign donor organisations and local actors is further deepened by other MEAL-related issues including pre-defined (but contextually inappropriate or unsuitable) reporting templates and deadlines, locally untested MEAL methods and tools, a lack of participatory MEAL approaches, stereotypical assumptions about local faith actors, and breaches of local communities’ privacy and safety.
Developing a Regional MEAL and Faith Learning Hub in the Middle East
Convinced that a regional MEAL and Faith Hub would allow local researchers and practitioners to produce and disseminate evidence on the intersection of MEAL and faith in the context of development, humanitarian and peacebuilding work, we set up a group to develop the concept for such a shared learning community. In partnership with local and regional actors, we are laying the ground for our work in this area, bringing together local practitioners and researchers from a variety of different backgrounds in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and beyond who together develop the parameters of the future hub’s work. Once the hub is formally set up, hub members will produce alternative and locally-rooted resources and tools on MEAL and faith in the region through regular peer learning meetings, collective research, and networking. Building on both local knowledge and the JLI’s ten year’s experience in shared learning, the hub’s work will include strong practical elements and case studies and acknowledge local sensitivities and specificities. Hub members will have the opportunity to design and implement small MEAL and faith focused learning projects within their communities through seed funding grants. Wider learning will be facilitated through local hub members’ engagement with secular, faith-based, and international actors in regional and international conferences.
Amplifying local voices
Regionalization does not give local actors a voice—they already own their voice and narratives. Instead, the process amplifies local and regional voices and pressures actors from the global north to actively listen. With a view to help unsettle existing power structures in development, humanitarian action and peacebuilding, regionalization in the work of the JLI prioritizes local research and evidence agendas beyond the needs of outsiders and international donors.
Local faith actors should not be excluded—intentionally or unintentionally—by international or secular organizations, nor should their experiences and priorities be diminished because they do not suit the MEAL requirements of international donors. They are a crucial element in decision-making and multipliers of positive impact on the ground. Local faith actors can produce meaningful data and stories, hold donors accountable, build bridges with wider communities, and constructively address local and community-rooted challenges. They add primary value to decision-making circles, and we have an obligation to listen and amplify their voices.
For more information on the Fair and Equitable Initiative, visit JLI Fair and Equitable Initiative - JLI (jliflc.com). To get involved with the JLI Middle East Hub on MEAL and Faith, contact Zainab Chamoun, JLI Projects Officer at [email protected] or Dr Jennifer Philippa Eggert, JLI MEAL and Faith Lead at [email protected].