“Religious leaders have a say in almost all aspects of life” – my colleague Khalid’s assessment of the influence of religious leaders’ moral authority in rural Afghanistan is comprehensive. In many of the contexts in which we work, religious leaders have remained somewhat outside of the “comfort zone” of development organisations (particularly non-denominational ones). The intersection between religion and social change is often complex and politically sensitive. There is a certain amount of mutual suspicion that our values and vision for society may be at odds with one another. And yet, there are certainly cases where it is possible to work together and jointly advocate for change. In Afghanistan, Helvetas (like many other development organisations) works directly with religious authorities, and I think it is an experience from which much can be learned.
Khalid shared that when Helvetas first started working in rural Afghanistan in 2006, it was challenging to work on social development issues, like education. People were suspicious of external organisations, an impression reinforced by some religious leaders who suspected hidden agendas and discouraged people from working with development organisations. Through opening up a dialogue with religious scholars, Helvetas was able to gain their support for basic literacy courses taught by the local madrassa teachers, as well as courses in English and computers. The latter were taught in learning centres (a women’s centre and a men’s centre) after showing an influential religious leader that the internet does not only contain material he might disapprove of, but that it also can function like a giant library.
Gradually Helvetas started working with government schools as well, trying to reduce the high drop-out rate of girls by helping to recruit women teachers and improving the safety of school buildings. In this context, the local religious authorities served as intermediaries connecting us to the local population. We needed their support in order to have the community on board and this support was gained through awareness-raising, lobbying and – most importantly – trust-building.
Of course the importance of religious authorities as mediators and connectors (or indeed advocates) is not limited to Afghanistan. In many contexts where trust in state institutions is low, people rather depend on institutions they perceive to be more trustworthy to have information, mediate conflicts and even access services. In 2014, I did a study with a team of researchers on the role of religious authorities in local governance in Macedonia (as part of a broader reflection on the role of informal local governance institutions). In the municipalities we visited the municipal administration told us that when they need to engage the population, they bring religious authorities like the imams and mosque councils on board. The municipal administration proactively requests religious leaders to transmit information that the municipal administration would like to communicate to citizens. They consider this much more effective than posting the information on a notice board outside the office of the municipal administration. This role is also recognised by citizens: our interviewees suggested that they consider the mosque to be a place where one can go to be informed and educated about different issues.
What I find quite interesting about Khalid’s story from Afghanistan is what happened next. A number of the girls who graduated from the local high schools Helvetas had supported were interested in studying to become teachers. There was a teacher training centre at the district centre, but the students were all men and parents were reluctant to send their daughters there. It is at this juncture that Helvetas’ own potential as an advocate emerged. Our colleagues had contacts at the Ministry of Education and lobbied to have a small women’s branch of the teacher training centre opened in the district. This proposal was approved and the first cohort of women teachers educated at this centre are expected to graduate in 2017, some ten years after our first forays into literacy and computer skills training in the district. It is hoped that these women teachers will be recruited to work in the district so that there are enough local women teachers to staff education opportunities for girls in the area.
Thus both the religious leaders and we as a development organisation were engaged in advocacy for educating women and girls. In a sense, both religious leaders and development organisations have the potential to act as connectors and as advocates, as we have access and influence in different places. When this advocacy potential is brought together towards a common objective, as in the case shared by Khalid, the results can be significant. However, it is important that such joint action is based on a thorough analysis: though connectors in this case, religious authorities (like any other actor) can also act as dividers within society. Instrumentalization of religious authorities by development organisations (in the name of gender equality or other objectives), and vice versa, remains a risk. And while religion is a powerful and important way of bringing people together around shared beliefs, we should be attentive to the plurality of ways of coming together and shared beliefs in a society. This may imply a more broad-based range of partnerships in advocating for gender equality.