What's faith got to do with it?

The following blog pulls from a study published by Dr. TJ D’Agostino, Dr. Nikhit D’sa, and Dr. Neil Boothby in The International Journal of Educational Development. “What’s faith got to do with it? A scoping study on local faith communities supporting child development and learning” explores the role of local faith communities in relation to child development and learning in low- and middle-income countries and can be read in full here.

Did you know that 85% of the world’s population identifies as religious (Pew Research, 2020)? As such, globally, local faith communities (LFCs) play a major role in communities and can have a significant impact on the learning and development of children. How? Take a moment to consider how LFCs, through their engagement with families, administration of schools, and overall moral influence, can impact the day-to-day life of children and their families. Not to mention the social infrastructure footprint LFCS frequently have in communities through hospitals, schools, and other social services. As a result, LFCs pose a great opportunity for achieving key development gains, in particular, in support of child learning and early development. 

Frequently, and especially in low-income and fragile contexts, LFCs are some of the most functional systems in comparison to weak or non-existent governmental systems. However, the specific roles that LFCs play in child learning and development are poorly documented. The purpose of this study was to better understand the current and potential role of faith communities in children’s development and learning in low-and-middle income and fragile contexts. The study asked:

  1. How do LFCs in low-income countries and fragile contexts support the family and school settings within the microsystem?
  2. How and in what ways might all three settings (school, family, LFC) be aligned, engaged, and/or activated to support child development?

Researchers conducted a scoping study, using a comprehensive literature review, to identify pertinent studies that looked at the role of LFCs in supporting child development around the world. Ultimately, 48 pieces of literature from scholarly journals, dissertations, and grey literature were selected and used to address the research questions. Analysis of the documents revealed the following general trends:

  1. International actors recognize the potential benefits of engaging faith-leaders and LFCs to promote child development and learning. There is a pervasive view that LFCs have a unique potential for supporting these aims to an even greater degree through partnerships (Hammer and Robinson, 2012).
  2. However, very little literature explores the basic research questions related to how LFCs function as existing, local systems that support child development and learning independently of international actors and development projects.

Given the dearth of literature that explores how LFCs function independently of international actors and development projects in regards to child development and learning, the team developed a three-category system for how actors engage LFCs. Actors:

  1. Use LFCs as messengers to promote development goals related to children.
  2. Collaborate with LFCs as multifaceted partners and key local assets.
  3. Activate and strengthen existing LFCs.

Ultimately, the majority of sources reviewed fell into the first two categories, reflecting a need for more bottom-up, community-driven approaches. While there does appear to be signs of a shift towards partnership and more community-based approaches to engage LFCs, the authors argue for more approaches that seek to recognize and support faith-communities as existing systems that support child development and learning, and believe such an approach will be more sustainable, respectful, and effective.

The scoping study also revealed several benefits of engaging with LFCs:

  1. The beliefs and values of most religious groups generally align with the aims of healthy child development and care for the vulnerable. This allows LFCs and related actors to ground their work in shared value systems that are important sources of meaning for community networks.
  2. The reach, localized focus, infrastructure, and engagement of LFCs are potential assets in supporting child development. Frequently, LFCs are already community-based service providers in hard to reach areas that provide care for children as well as material financial, spiritual, and psychosocial support, not to mention the existence of physical infrastructure.
  3. LFCs possess a unique level of trust and influence in people’s lives, especially in family matters and child rearing practices. Often, they play a crucial gatekeeper role for information and trust in many communities.
  4. LFCs have unique skills and capacities such as being able to speak with moral authority in a community, to engage communities in reflection and dialogue, and to provide pastoral care. These traits allow faith leaders to serve as effective champions for children.

However, the authors also note potential risks to engaging with LFCs:

  1. Some religious actors will seek to proselytize or compel conversion with their messaging.
  2. Rigid ideological positions can limit openness on a range of issues.
  3. There is a tendency for some LFCs to embrace the use of corporal punishment.
  4. A lack of gender integration and equity exists in some LFCs.
  5. Fostering effective partnerships with outside organizations can be a challenge due to trust issues, power imbalances, and a lack of mutual understanding.
  6. In some instances, there are examples of direct harm done by LFCs such as maltreatment of orphans, child labor, and sexual and other abuse. 

The findings from this study beg the question of what does activating and strengthening LFCs to support child learning and development look like in practice. Additionally, how can actors ensure that the benefits of working with LFCs are leveraged and the risks mitigated? Next week, we will look at the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child’s Strong Beginnings program in Haiti that seeks to strengthen the Catholic parish system in communities to make education more accessible and equitable.

Until then, remember to check out “What’s faith got to do with it?