Religion & Development: An Enhanced Approach or a Transaction?

Delivering services through a faith-based NGO in Zimbabwe…” Credit: Walter Keller, third-eye-photography.jimdo.com

By Azza Karam
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 12 2019 – Since 2008, a number of articles/opinions have been written, on the nexus between religion and development.

In chronological order, the articles first made the case for why ‘religion matters’ to the attainment of developmental objectives, noting how religious leaders are critical to changing social norms which can be in contradiction to human rights, and noting the extent to which faith-based organisations (FBOs) have anyway served as the original social service providers known to human kind.

Around 2014, the articles continued in the same vein, i.e. making the case that partnering with religious actors was an increasingly recognized necessity within the UN itself, but also for other governments and non-governmental development partners.

Except this time, the argument incorporated some of the political facets of religion. At the height of the ISIS/so-called Islamic State terrorism, the articles argued for recognition of the value of religious engagement, whether it was intervening in combatting Ebola or seeking to counter violent extremism.

In 2015 and 2016, the call was to acknowledge that increasing partnerships with religious NGOs, for health, education, nutrition and other aspects of development, was “the new normal” for development practitioners.

Azza Karam

Moreover, the argument was that such partnerships were in and of themselves, a means of countering the narratives of violence and extremism in communities.

In 2017, however, another note crept into the analysis on the intersections between religion, development and foreign policy: a note of warning.

The caution noted the increasing preference, undertaken by certain governments, in promoting more direct partnerships with religious NGOs in other countries, rather than supporting multilaterals to scale up successful partnership initiatives for the SDGs/Agenda 2030.

The article noted that the interest on the part of some governments to circumvent multilateral partnerships and aim for direct support to specific religious NGOs abroad, carried a “…danger … that such efforts will be misconstrued as the new colonial enterprise in international development, playing into rising religious tensions globally.

History is replete with examples where mobilizing religious actors in other countries, no matter how well-intentioned, can create some rather unholy alliances”.

In fact, this was the beginning of a now ongoing concern wherein ‘religion’ and ‘religious engagement’, somehow delinked from people’s faith and/or beliefs, are increasingly perceived as an element in the toolbox of development and foreign policy praxis – i.e. a transactional commodity.

This can take many forms. Including an increasing convening of FBOs as ‘non traditional partners’ to be hosted and feted around policy tables, building new NGOs and INGOs around ‘religion’ and ‘religious engagement’, formulating business propositions around these themes, and now, increasingly, seeking to tap into the financial resource bases of some of these faith-based entities (largely Islamic ones).

A few of the most skeptical voices are now noting (mostly in private conversations) that ‘add religion and stir’ could be argued to be ‘the new flavor’ in the market of international development.

But being in the ‘toolbox of practices and approaches’, per se, is not unhelpful. On the contrary, development – writ large to include peace, security and human rights – is a series of learned processes.

By now it is even a cliché to say that there is no one-size fits all development intervention. By extension therefore, different ‘tools’ are needed to assess what or which intervention works, and what may not, in diverse contexts.

And there is a significant body of evidence built, which proves that FBOs are key actors in development, and that investing in partnerships with FBOs is cost-effective and socially transformative (see the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities – https://jliflc.com/

But when ‘religious engagement’ can be part of a transactional approach, are there guarantees that the link to people’s faith, and belief systems, will not be forgotten, overlooked, or worse still, appear to be abused?

The fact is, FBOs symbolize, and in some cases, epitomize and uphold, what many people actually believe in. That is also why many FBOs can draw upon the regular contributions of believers (e.g. donations and collections in churches and zakat contributions).

Many FBOs are pleased with the secular policy makers’ increased attentions, and eager for more as they see this as a vindication of their particular wisdom and unique value-added.

But some are beginning to voice an increasing skepticism, “[W]e feel as though we are treated, at best, as a rubber stamp… instrumentalised to serve already agreed upon agendas…” is not an uncommon refrain.

The increase in the number of meetings (mostly of the same groups of FBOs) is not necessarily accompanied by equivalent financial and/or political support to actual multi-faith collaboration or advocacy.

Nor are these multiple convenings, leading to innovative governmental or intergovernmental support for broader, integrated civil society engagement for human rights, in an era of shrinking civic space globally.

Some of the smaller FBOs are slowly beginning to question the time they are devoting to answer the increasing meetings hosted by some governments and organisations.

Their presence at these increasing number of meetings, the FBOs argue, is likely contributing to enhance the appearance of the conveners’ image as ‘sensitive to religious sensibilities’; as being ‘concerned for freedom of religion or belief, or for religious minorities (often not in their own back yard but in other countries), and/or appearing to be savvy enough to address the ‘missing link’ in development and peacemaking interventions.

Yet other international FBOs, by now well-versed in engaging with certain policymakers, are taking the opportunity to stipulate thinly veiled conditionalities for their engagement. Peacemaking, environmental stewardship, protection of children and minorities, are all ‘good’.

But gender, gender equality, gender identity, comprehensive sexuality education, reproductive health, reproductive rights, sexual rights, and/or family planning, are all no-go areas for some of the well-established FBOs.

The price for engagement on one set of issues with these partners, therefore, may well be the forgoing – or silencing – of the human rights – and dignity – of others.

Other faith-based partners are viewing the governmental and intergovernmental interest in their methodologies, and now, increasingly, in their resourcing modalities (e.g. in Islamic financing) with more suspicion.

Barely accusatory questions such as “are you interested in partnering with us or in picking our brains?” and “why are you interested in our money all of a sudden?” are now heard in more than one meeting whether in Stockholm, New York, Cairo or Buenos Aires.

Certainly such questions can be dismissed as misunderstandings or lack of awareness, or shrugged off by those whose convictions are so strong that the right thing is being done. But would it be wise, perhaps, to pause and reflect on the root causes which may be inspiring such questions in the first place?

Are we honoring multi-religious civic collaboration for sustainable development, or are we possibly risking making religious engagement a transactional enterprise – and thereby forgoing some of the most difficult human rights?

Hard Battle Ahead for Independent Arab Media

By Mouna Ben Garga
TUNIS, Apr 12 2019 – Sometimes a peak into the future reminds us just how stuck we are in the past and present.

It was the talk of the Middle East’s largest annual media industry gathering: a robot journalist – the region’s first – that wowed some 3,000 industry leaders and practitioners at the Arab Media Forum (AMF) in Dubai recently.

In an address titled “Future News Anchors”, the robot, known as A20-50, waxed lyrical about robots that would report ‘tirelessly’ all day, every day and be programmed to do any task.

At a conference organised around the theme, “Arab Media: From Now to The Future”, it was ironic that journalism produced by programmed automatons was held up as a glimpse of what the future held for media in the Arab world.

Ironic because, considering the state of journalism in the Middle East, it doesn’t sound as much like the future as the region’s present and past.

Looking at news output in this polarized landscape, it often seems that journalists (and their organisations) are like robots, programmed to produce and promote certain political agendas ‘tirelessly’, all day, every day.

From Egypt to Kuwait, most news outlets support specific positions, usually those espoused by the companies or organisations that own or control them – often either toeing the official line or supporting rival agendas or political opposition.

Following the 2013 coup in Egypt and the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya over the past decade, the pro-government media used the fear of instability and war to silence citizens and twist the facts.

For instance, the Egyptian mainstream media convinced its audience that the 2013 massacre of more than 900 people in Cairo was the only way to fight against terrorism.

In the context of the Middle Eastern media coverage of the killing of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi, both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya television channels took up positions in front of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and resumed the fierce row between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, from there.

The truth was lost in this fierce political conflict and the Arab viewer had to cross-check the presented facts with other international reporting. This implicit bias and lack of balance polarized Arab public opinion and pushed news consumers to social media in search of trusted factual information, crushing the credibility in traditional media.

And when they aren’t busy working to manipulate bias in news coverage, Arab authorities are old hands at plain old media repression. Not surprisingly, nations in the Middle East and North Africa again find themselves at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index of 2018.

Across the region, journalists and media organisations are under attack for their reporting – from intimidation to arrests, detention, prosecution and the shuttering of outlets. Four Arab countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Syria – top the list of the world’s worst jailers of journalists ,according to the 2018 press freedom report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Egypt jailed the most number of journalists on “false news” charges – 19, amid heightened global rhetoric about so-called fake news; The murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the country’s Instanbul consulate illustrated the extreme lengths the Gulf kingdom’s leaders would go to stop published criticism.

And in Syria, 13 journalists were killed in 2017, and more than 40 journalists and citizen-journalists are currently detained, kidnapped or have disappeared.

In this complex context of divisions, repression and lack of public trust, the future of trustworthy Arab media is in the hands of alternative media, journalists’ unity and active citizens.

Since the Arab spring, independent journalism platforms such as Daraj, Nawaat in Tunisia, and Beirut-based Raseef22 have emerged, offering alternative narratives that counter state propaganda and mainstream media self-censorship.

But the challenges for these organisations are their limited reach – many mainstream news consumers consider them elitist and targeting “intellectual” users – and their financial sustainability.

The key here is inclusivity. One of the most successful news outlets is AJ+ Arabic, a project that grew out of Al Jazeera’s Incubation and Innovation Group, focusing exclusively on social platforms targeting millennials.

The other major challenge – financial survival – calls for new, sustainable journalism business models developed around new forms of storytelling and original content production supported by creative funding approaches including crowdfunding and data sales or services, for example.

Empowering citizen journalism is another possible solution to producing independent media in the Arab world. Indeed, citizen journalists, young bloggers, and active tweeps are not governed by the same relationship between the state and media professionals and are authentic voices and channels to the Arab street – they speak its language and represent its concerns and challenges.

Alternative media leaders need to build the citizen capacity beyond data collection and reporting to include online security, storytelling and counter-narratives. Increasing the transfer of these savoir-faire to citizens would amplify more voices to tackle the polarization effect through facts.

But of course, there is a place in the future of quality Arab media for professional journalism. Professional bodies have a role to play in fight for press freedom in the region.

Local unions have to wage numerous battles for their own independence through advocating for better legislation that affords greater protection to reporters and that prohibits prosecutions for reporting.

They have to promote the development of more journalistic organisations and more actively resist government attempts to contain and control the media by positioning themselves as defenders of free, independent media, creating strong alliances with alternative media, citizens journalists and social media influencers.

They need to be inclusive to promote a positive narrative about the role of the media in citizens’ lives and bridge the social gap between journalists and the general public to increase support for stronger independent media.

As a major regional proxy war rages on in the region, dominating headlines and geopolitical agendas, the battle for a future independent Arab media that is trusted and trustworthy, is one that seeks to do away with robotic journalists and organisations programmed only to serve the interests of the powerful.

Civil Society, Press Freedom & Human Rights Under Attack in Africa

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 12 2019 – The civic space in several African countries, including Tanzania, Burundi, Zambia, Sudan, Mozambique, Somalia and Eritrea, is gradually shrinking – and mostly under authoritarian leaders and repressive regimes.

The attacks are directed largely against human rights and civil society organizations (CSOs)— and specifically against the news media.

The UN Human Rights Office in Burundi was closed down last February at the insistence of the government, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressing “deep regrets” over the closure, after a 23-year presence in the country.

“Since the UN Human Rights Office in Burundi was established in 1995, for many years we worked with the Government on peacebuilding, security sector reform, justice sector reform and helped build institutional and civil society capacity on a whole host of human rights issues,” Bachelet noted.

She said the Office helped ensure the incorporation of a human rights dimension to the implementation of the Arusha Agreement, which was the bedrock of the country’s stability for many years.

The Office played a leading role in the establishment of the independent National Commission on Human Rights, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in legislative reforms and in the emergence of strong civil society organizations, Bachelet added.

Taking a wider look at the status of human rights and CSOs in the African continent, Judy Gitau, Regional Coordinator for the Africa Office of Equality Now, told IPS “civil society is under attack by repressive regimes in various African countries”.

One example is Tanzania, she said, where the State is clamping down on basic freedoms like association and peaceful assembly, with CSOs facing threats of closure if they highlight human rights violations.

“Not even freedom of expression is spared as all manner of laws are being introduced and invoked to limit civil society and media from expressing themselves online or on other written or published platforms.”

In Tanzania, she pointed out, the attack on civil society is now going beyond freedom of movement and association to daily operations, with some of actors being required to inform state officials of their day to day activities.

NGOs are also anxious about the security of their data and information within their premises, and the privacy of their internal and external communication.

“Burundi caused the United Nations to shut its local human rights office after 23 years, indicating that as a government it had made sufficient progress in human rights, so that the existence of the U.N. office was no longer justified.

However, opposing reports indicate that since 2015, when the incumbent President indicated he would run for a third term, contrary to Burundi’s Constitution, human rights violations have been rampant in Burundi, and this includes attacks against civil society activists highlighting violations of the constitution.

“The presence of an independent intergovernmental body in a State experiencing some form of civil unrest may result in the monitoring and recording of violations that can potentially be used in future international criminal proceedings.

So, it is telling, she said, that the UN local office would be shut down in Burundi at a time when there is a surge in reported violations occurring.

“It is most unfortunate that these developments are ongoing whilst meanwhile at the regional level there are also challenges, with the African Union shrinking its State accountability platform by limiting the engagement of civil society at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the African Court. ”

Addressing reporters April 2, Robert Palladino, Deputy Spokesperson at the US State Department said the US is also deeply concerned by the Government of Burundi’s decision to extend indefinitely the suspension of broadcasts by the Voice of America (VOA) and to revoke the operating license of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

This decision raises serious concerns for the freedom of expression enshrined in article 31 of Burundi’s constitution as well as for Burundi’s international human rights obligations.

“We call on the government to rescind its decision, and we urge the Government of Burundi to allow all journalists to operate in an environment free from intimidation. A free and independent media is indispensable to a vibrant, functioning democracy and to free and fair elections in 2020,” he declared.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the ban on Tanzania’s leading newspaper, The Citizen, pointing out it is part of a series of attacks on freedom of expression by the government of President John Pombe Magufuli.

Last year several CSO, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged Magufuli to end attacks on journalists and acknowledge the critical role that the civil society and independent media play in promoting peaceful coexistence.

‘‘This is all part of a wider pattern of repression targeting freedom of expression over the past few years including creating an excessively high fee to blog, criminalizing posting certain content online, fining TV stations, and prohibiting the publication of independent statistics without government permission”, HRW warned.

In March CPJ welcomed a ruling by the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) that multiple sections of Tanzania’s Media Services Act restrict press freedom and freedom of expression, and called on the Tanzanian government to repeal the act.

Last week, the CPJ and 37 other CSOs also issued a joint statement urging Mozambican authorities to immediately and unconditionally release community radio journalist Amade Abubacar, who has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest on January 5.

On the situation in conflict-ridden Sudan, Clement Nyaltesossi Voule, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression criticized the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters in Sudan.

According to one report, over 20 people have been killed and over 100 injured since 6 April—besides widespread arrests and attacks on journalists by the security forces.

A UN Commission of Inquiry has called on Eritrea to investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings by its security forces, including torture and enslaving hundreds of thousands, going back to 2016.

And in a policy briefing released in March, titled “Shrining Space in Zambia: Time for Action”, ActionAid said Zambia has a range of statutes that gives the country very broad powers to silence free expression and limit freedom of assembly.

“Some of these laws, like the 1930 Penal Code, were first used by the British to crack down on anti-colonial movements. Others such as the NGOs Act, Independent Broadcasting Act, and the proposed Cyber Crime Act, were recently introduced to regulate and restrict newer forms of speech and association”.

In a statement released here, Bachelet reminded the authorities in Sudan of their overarching duty to ensure the protection of the human rights of all people and to refrain from the use of violence.

“This is a very critical, volatile moment for Sudan and there is deep uncertainty and unease about the future,” Bachelet said.

“We are closely monitoring developments and call on the authorities to refrain from using force against peaceful protestors, and to ensure that security forces and judicial authorities act in full accordance with the rule of law and Sudan’s international human rights obligations.”

She said “the crisis in Sudan has its roots in human rights grievances – economic, social, civil and political rights. The solution must also be grounded in human rights. I call on the Government to address the people’s demands. There needs to be a concerted effort, with the meaningful participation of civil society, to work to resolve these grievances.”

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org

Q&A: Building Resilience through Waste Diversion and Reduction

Jua Kali founder Laurah John. Jua Kali is a social enterprise tackling waste management and helping to reduce reliance on St. Lucia’s only landfill. Courtesy: Laurah John

By Alison Kentish
CASTRIES, Apr 12 2019 – Jua Kali is a social enterprise tackling waste management and helping to reduce reliance on St. Lucia’s only landfill, which will reach the end of its lifespan in 2023. The company, with its slogan ‘Trashing the Idea of Waste,’ hosts waste collection drives through pop up depots that encourage residents to bring in glass, plastic and tin cans in exchange for supermarket shopping points.
This is happening as St. Lucia, like other small island states, faces climate resilience issues with freshwater quality and deterioration in marine and coastal ecosystems.
Jua Kali is the brainchild of Laurah John. She talks to IPS about why she established Jua Kali and the challenges that she has faced on the project.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Inter Press Service (IPS): Tell me about your background.

Laurah John (LJ): I am a purpose driven, creative rebel and sustainability change agent or at the very least I try to embody those traits through my work with Jua Kali Ltd. – a profit-for-purpose, social enterprise that seeks to provide innovative and sustainable resource recovery solutions to address waste management issues in Small Island Developing States through strategic partnerships.

Before Jua Kali, I was a Social Development Practitioner/Short-term Consultant for the World Bank and Caribbean Local Economic Development project. I was also employed with the Ministry of Social Transformation.

IPS: What led you to establish Jua Kali Ltd.?

LJ: In 2012, I completed a Master’s in Urban Studies from the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. My master’s thesis, “Wasted Lives: Determining the Feasibility of Establishing a Test Case Resource Recovery Programme in the Urban Poor Community of Faux-a-Chaud, Saint Lucia” sought to explore Resource Recovery as a tool for alleviating urban poverty, enhancing environmental sustainability and bettering communities. This research formed the basis of a business idea that led me and an eight person team to win the 8th [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] UNESCO Youth Forum Startup Weekend in 2013 and led to the creation of Jua Kali Ltd.  in August 2014.

IPS: Tell me about your slogan, ‘Trashing the Idea of Waste’.

LJ: We acknowledge waste as a design flaw in how we built our societies and do not see it as acceptable. We are challenging the public to re-think the concept of waste and question consumption patterns and how that contributes to the problem. We are empowering consumers to recognise that they have the right to leverage (their dollar) and demand that producers create better quality products that address the end-of-life reality of their goods.
Producers take limited resources to create goods that are bought then thrown out. If we no longer believe that waste is acceptable, it means that this product, once utilised, needs to feed into some other process for continuity – closing the loop!

IPS: How do you host collection drives and are you satisfied with public reception?

LJ: The collection drives are based on the Pop Up shop concept – hence the name Pop Up depots – where we set up shop with our tents, tables, chairs and army of volunteers, to create an area where the public may drop-off used household materials like plastic bottles and containers, glass jars and bottles, as well as cans and tins. In return, they receive points on their Massy Stores Loyalty Card. We set up twice a month.

We are very satisfied with the public’s reception! From our very first day back with the depots (Mar. 2, 2019), many people came up to us to say how happy they were that the depots had resumed, what a great initiative it is, and that they hoped it was coming back for good – encouraging words that reinforced that we are on the right path.

IPS: What are some of the challenges you face in this project?

LJ: Raising awareness is our biggest challenge. Airtime is expensive and although we have some sponsorship in this regard, much more is required to have a consistent presence to remind the public of the depots. Additionally, where people receive their information changes depending on what part of the island they reside. This requires a communications strategy that is both robust and multidimensional, pulling on a variety of platforms to target different audiences.

IPS: Where do you see Jua Kali in 5 years?

LJ: As a regional leader in socio-environmental stewardship.

IPS: Why is waste diversion and reduction so crucial to the climate change and environmental discussion?

LJ: To appreciate the importance of waste diversion and reduction activities and their contribution to the climate change and environmental discussion, we must first understand the severity of their impact. Typical disposal and treatment of waste in a landfill can produce emissions of several greenhouse gases (GHGs), most significantly methane, which contributes to global climate change. Other forms of waste disposal also produce GHGs though mainly in the form of carbon dioxide.

Additionally, improper waste disposal can create or exacerbate disasters, for example, by clogging waterways leading to flash flooding and creating hazardous public health conditions by contaminating water sources, creating breeding grounds for disease borne vectors such as mosquitoes. Furthermore, on a small island like Saint Lucia with a limited landmass, sending our trash to a landfill takes up valuable productive land. There has to be a better way!

IPS: Do you think the Caribbean is giving sustainable waste diversion and reduction due attention?

LJ: More and more, Caribbean countries are giving attention to the waste issue, primarily because of how visible it has become with the increased use of plastics, the international campaign against plastic pollution and the detrimental impact this can have on tourism based economies. There is also a growing awareness and research to highlight the negative impact of waste on water quality and fisheries. As such, this is driving action towards supporting initiatives like ours. Could it use more attention? Definitely, but we are making headway.

I would like to encourage the public to believe that small, individual actions to reduce or divert waste together will make a difference! #bethechange