Cover Story

Faith Communities on the Sideline


Faith communities are too often underestimated in their relevance for efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In July, this year’s United Nations (UN) High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) has once again added further evidence to this claim. At the HLFP, representatives of UN Member States gather annually to monitor and review the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is the main intergovernmental UN platform on sustainable development which also allows for participation of civil society organizations. 
The exemplary statement of the coordinator of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Water Network, Dinesh Suna, speaking at a side event on faith communities’ contributions to achieve SDG 6, captures what many religious actors see as a challenge: “The multi-stakeholder participation leaves out faith communities, who are drivers of change, as underlined by Dr David Nabarro, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the 2030 Agenda.”[1] Reflecting on the review of SDG 6 in the context of the 2018 HLPF, Dinesh Suna pointed out that the synthesis report on SDG 6 has significant gaps with regard to faith communities’ contribution to the goal. SDG 6 refers to access to safe water and sanitation and sound management of freshwater ecosystems by 2030. Dr David Nabarro had previously highlighted the distinctive characteristics of religious organizations that enable them to contribute to the advancement of the SDGs. Religious organizations have the outreach to mobilize people for sustainable development. They possess expertise in delivering services to the hardest to reach, in line with the commitment of the 2030 Agenda ‘leaving no one behind’. [2]
Other organizations identify the same significant comparative advantages of faith-based communities and the necessity of more cooperation and inclusion on the part of governments. In an official statement published on the occasion of the 2018 HLPF, Caritas Internationalis pointed out: „Civil society and faith-based networks often have better access to communities because they’ve built up trust. Given this deep-rooted connection, governments should engage with civil society organizations in developing national indicators, contributing data and reaching out to vulnerable groups. The role of faith-based organizations also deserves to be acknowledged, given their widespread activity at grassroots level. The forum is an opportunity for governments to share mechanisms to include civil society groups and faith-based organizations in a meaningful way.” [3] Calling on governments to push harder on sustainable development, Caritas Internationalis made it clear that faith communities cannot be ignored given their relevance for realizing that the SDGs are met for all nations and people and for all segments of society.
Despite their unique characteristics and the corresponding potential to be drivers for sustainable development, religious communities are among the groups often ignored or sidelined. This is due to the fact that religious communities are regularly seen as obstacles to the advancement of social development. And there is some truth in that. Depending on the context, religious groups might instigate extremism, discrimination and even violence. Some religious communities also openly disregard human rights, for example the human rights of minorities or women.
Without ignoring the ambivalent nature of religion, the cooperation with those religious groups that are concerned about sustainable development and social justice is a valuable way forward. Meaningful progress on the 2030 Agenda will only be possible if governments around the globe cooperate with the full variety of actors and impact channels available for achieving outcomes related to the Sustainable Development Goals.

[2] As cited in Tveit, Olav Fykse: The Role of Religion in Sustainable Development and Peace, Speech held at the Conference Partners for Change: Religions and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 17-18 February 2016, Berlin, in:, p. 3.

Photo by Xiang Gao on Unsplash

Religious Literacy Academy

What is religious literacy?


In order to understand the potentially valuable role of religious organizations for development cooperation and humanitarian aid, the acquisition of professional knowledge and sensitivity with regard to religion is crucial. Succeeding in this endeavor means to develop “religious literacy”
Diane Moore, the founding director of the ‘Religious Literacy Project’ at the Harvard Divinity School, has developed the following definition of religious literacy: 
“Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses. Specifically, a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world's religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place. Moore explains that “critical to this definition is the importance of understanding religions and religious influences in context and as inextricably woven into all dimensions of human experience” [emphasis in original].
For policy-makers and development practitioners building religious literacy means to build individual and institutional knowledge by engaging in differentiated observation as well as multi-faceted analysis of a certain religion in a specific context. The analytical tools applied are only useful and appropriate when they can account for the complexity of religion and multiple context factors. The knowledge created by observation and analysis, however, cannot be understood as static, because religious traditions are not homogenous and continually change across time and space. The knowledge systems within political organizations and development agencies have to be designed in such a way as to allow for flexibility and continuous adaptation.
Additionally, developing religious literacy requires us to have the ability to listen und to observe without responding to prejudices or referring to own views regarding religion. Sensitivity and humility are paramount if one strives to develop religious literacy. These more ‘emotional’ elements of religious literacy are just as important as cognitive knowledge. Therefore, when building religious literacy among staff, merely studying religious scriptures or learning about spiritual rituals in a certain context is not sufficient. A simplistic interpretation of religion in a development or humanitarian context can cause more harm than good and hinders cooperative endeavors for sustainable development.

Photo by Xiang Gao on Unsplash

Featured Actor

Violet Organization Syria


With the outbreak of the crisis in 2011, a group of aspiring young Syrians began to spontaneously and voluntarily help people affected by the conflict. They focused on distributing food, in-kind materials and cash. With the worsening of the situation, the volunteers organized themselves in order to improve the coordination of their help and established the first office in Idlib (Syria). In 2014, Violet was registered officially as a non-governmental organization in Turkey. In May 2018, they opened a country office in Amman and are now officially registered in Jordan. By now, the NGO has about 600 employees.
Violet set the objective to provide the most vulnerable men, women, girls and boys in accessible areas with basic needs, education and emergency medical care, and to help them overcome negative coping mechanisms. The organization’s vision is to “create a team of benevolent individuals motivated by love and faith to provide aid to the oppressed and the needy around the world.” This vision has formed the mission of the organization: “Standing with the exploited, oppressed, the poorest, and the most miserable in order to provide protection and to build a decent life for them. We aim to build a better society; striving for development while relying on a team of virtuous and selfless members, those who hold honesty and fairness as the highest ideals; to aid others around the world motivated by the love of God and humanity.”
The name of the organization is derived from the flower Violet and its history in the region. Hundreds of years ago, Violets were considered very special flowers along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Syria – a flower with a unique color, only available for a small, wealthy part of the population who dyed their clothes with it. Violet Organization strives to show that the color is available to everyone: it is not unique, it can be created by mixing red and blue - everyone should be able to enjoy its beauty. The organization wants to show the same strength as Violet flowers which are able to adapt to different environmental circumstances all over the world. Violets usually grow in groups – just like the organization who holds up team spirit as a priority in all activities. Most importantly, Violet flowers often have heart-shaped leaves. They represent love, goodness and positive actions. With its activities, Violet strives to spread this message in the communities, supporting the Syrian society and developing the confidence of individuals to take responsibility in their communities.
Violet’s current projects focus on Food Security and Livelihood, Non-food Items and Shelter, Education, Health, WASH and Camp Coordination and Management. Violet also supports Syrian refugees in Turkey. Since 2016, Violet conducts the “Rapid Response and Volunteering Program”. Its aim is to train youth on humanitarian response principles and disaster management to enable them to support their communities in emergencies. Up to know, 250 volunteers have been trained in different areas, including Idlib and Northern Aleppo, to respond rapidly to community needs. The initiative has proven to be very sustainable and enables communities to build their own resilience.
Violet cooperates with various NGOs, such as Qatar Red Crescent, Save the Children, Vision Hope International, International Rescue Committee, and World Vision, as well as United Nations agencies such as UN OCHA, FAO, WFP, IOM and UNICEF.
To get an impression of Violet’s work, visit their Instagram. If you want to get in touch with Violet, please email us:


Faith and Development in the next 60 days

6. September 2018

Webinar: Establishing Platforms in Conflict Areas to Support the Mobilization of Local Faith Communities, by Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities and KAICIID

Bringing together regional experts Cosette Maiky (Arab Region), and Joseph Tanko Atang (Nigeria), this webinar will discuss the process of platform development, successes and challenges. 

20.-21. September 2018

Conference: Keeping Faith in 2030: Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals, Addis Ababa

This interdisciplinary conference explores how the global interest in the intersection between religions and development relates to current debates and practices in Ethiopia. It will bring together academics and practitioners to discuss this theme in various papers and workshop activities. 

26. September 2018
G20 Interfaith Forum 2018, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Under the theme “Building Consensus for Fair and Sustainable Development: Religious Contributions for a Dignified Future”, the 2018 G20 Interfaith Forum will take place 26-28 September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

27. September 2018
Conference: Exploring the role of financial inclusion for climate change resilience and adaptation, London, United Kingdom

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Islamic Relief Worldwide will hold a roundtable discussion to examine the investment opportunities in financial markets and services for climate change resilience and adaptation. A specific focus will be on the role of Islamic financial services and the opportunities they present in arid and semi-arid economies. 

27. September 2018
Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, New York City

The Interfaith Prayer Breakfast will be held in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Ending Tuberculosis. The Breakfast is organized by the World Council of Churches, in partnership with UNAIDS, the UN Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development, and PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).

16.-19. October 2018

Global Church Partners Forum on Children on the Move

The Global Church Partners Forum provides a platform to bring together a diverse group of faith-based organisations. Partners will reflect on their respective contributions to end violence against children as it relates to children on the move (children or young people and their families who are forcibly displaced internally or refugees).


Insights and Perspectives

Research Report: Local Humanitarian Leadership and Religious Literacy. By: Tara R. Gingerich, Diane L. Moore, Robert Brodrick, and Carleigh Beriont; Harvard Divinity School and Oxfam: March 2017.

Local humanitarian leadership is built upon the premise that humanitarian action should be led by local humanitarian actors whenever possible, yet this research finds that secular humanitarian INGOs do not engage systematically with local faith actors in their local leadership work. Based primarily on interviews with humanitarian INGO staff, this research also found that neither secular nor faith-inspired international humanitarian organizations have a sufficient level of religious literacy to enable them to understand the religious dimensions of the contexts in which they work and to effectively navigate their engagement with local faith actors.

A faith-sensitive approach in humanitarian response. Guidance on mental health and psychosocial programming. By Lutheran World Federation and Islamic Relief, June 2018.

This guide aims at providing practical support to those involved in planning humanitarian programming who seek to be more sensitive to the faith perspectives and resources of the communities within which they are working. It focuses particularly on the programming area of mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), but in a manner that seeks to provide pointers for more faith-sensitive humanitarian programming overall.

Report: Local Faith Community Responses to Displacement in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey: Emerging Evidence and New Approaches. By: The Refugee Hosts Team, 2018.

As part of a Refugee Hosts research project, the authors have been investigating how faith both explicitly and implicitly informs the ways in which people displaced from Syria are hosted by local communities. Based on research in Lebanon and Jordan, they argue that the role faith plays in times of displacement is far more complicated than the secular assumptions might suggest. By recognizing the ways in which faith informs every day, implicit and highly localized acts of hospitality, or motivates diverse forms of support to refugees, the international humanitarian community can move beyond a conceptualization of faith as ‘sectarian’. Refugee Hosts is an interdisciplinary research project by  University College London, Durham University, Queen Margaret University Edinburgh and University of East Anglia.

Buddhist Global Relief Blog: Girls’ Education as a Key to Combating Climate Change, June 2018.

In this blog entry, the founder of Buddhist Global Relief, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, refers to the solutions to climate change developed by Project Drawdown, a project that brings together a group of top researchers from around the world to identify, research, and model “the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change.” In the Project’s ranking of solutions to climate change, educating girls takes the sixth place. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi presents the reasoning behind this and links it to development projects by Buddhist Global Relief.

Faith in Development Monitor (FiDM)

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Der Faktor „Glaube“ erfährt zu wenig Beachtung in der globalen Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Und das, obwohl menschliche Entwicklung untrennbar mit Weltanschauung verwoben ist. Die Gesellschaften und Kulturen, in denen Entwicklungsprojekte umgesetzt werden, sind tief von Glaubenseinflüssen geprägt. Gleichzeitig zählen religiöse Organisationen zu den ältesten und wirkungsmächtigsten Akteuren der globalen wie lokalen Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Der Faith In Development Monitor leistet einen Beitrag dazu, (1) die Relevanz von Religion für die internationale Entwicklungszusammenarbeit zu verdeutlichen, (2) Religionskompetenz unter Praktikern und politischen Entscheidungsträgern zu erhöhen und (3) aktuelle Entwicklungen im Themenfeld „Religion und Entwicklung“ nachvollziehbar zu erklären.

Unter dem Motto „500 Sekunden für mehr Glaube an Entwicklung“ erscheint alle zwei Monate der kostenfreie englischsprachige Faith In Development Monitor.


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