The Fair & Equitable Dialogues Series highlights research, evidence and practices from a diverse array of actors around the world to address the complex themes surrounding unequal power dynamics, decolonization and localization in international humanitarian, peacebuilding, and development work.

The series held its third public webinar, “Listening to the Stories of Local Faith Actors on COVID-19 Response,” on April 29, 2022, where a panel of local faith actors, academics, and activists came together to discuss their own experiences, challenges, and lessons learnt from faith-engagement during the pandemic.

Panelists drew on a diverse range of contexts including Sri Lanka, the Philippines,Egypt, and Zimbabwe, among others, to discuss challenges and successes around issues of mental health, misinformation, gender, and peacebuilding during the pandemic. The webinar concluded with each of the panelists sharing lessons learnt for the future.

Professor Ezra Chitando of the University of Zimbabwe opened the discussion with a powerful metaphor comparing people during the pandemic to a chameleon. “Just as the eyes of a chameleon have the ability to look in multiple directions at once, so people during the pandemic looked to the past and the future at the same time,” Professor Ezra metaphorically explained.

He also noted that faith actors were first line responders, disseminating material help such as food and life packs, and immaterial help such as information and psychosocial support. His powerful example of South African churches that came together to condemn government corruption during the pandemic response is emblematic of the importance of faith actors. He concluded by pointing, first, to the important role of women in faith communities, and second, to the ways faith communities can be equally as problematic as they are essential in the pandemic response.

“Even as we [in the faith communities] have achieved a lot, there were some problematic dimensions that needed to be and still need to be addressed.” – Professor Ezra Chitando

I. Key Themes

Faith actors’ responses to diverse community beliefs and behaviors during the pandemic

The four panelists began their discussion addressing the question of the beliefs of local faith actors towards the pandemic. Much of the conversation highlighted the common challenges of misinformation, technology, the relationship between faith and science, the relationship between faith and the state, social stigma, and community. However, the panelists also shared various success stories of navigating these challenges.



The difficulty of dealing with misinformation was a common struggle faced by all the panelists, particularly around vaccines. Panelists pointed to vaccine hesitancy originating from a deep history of distrust between the people and authorities, such as the state. In addition, faith actors were concerned that vaccines would violate their religious practice. This hesitancy was compounded by the overall confusion and isolation characterizing the initial phases of the pandemic.


For many of the panelists, technology played an important role in the pandemic. In particular, panelists noted challenges arising from the way social media facilitated the spread of misinformation. However, technology also provided solutions to some of the same problems it creates.

The relationship between Faith and the State

Panelists spoke freely about the challenges they faced in conversation with their respective governments. Governments were critiqued for inconsistent messaging and policy, which facilitated misinformation and distrust in authority. Panelists also noted that governments did not include faith actors in the decision-making process despite their importance in humanitarian responses, instead putting up sometimes literal roadblocks between faith community leaders and their constituents. 

The relationship between Faith and Science

As an extension to the relationship between faith and the state, some panelists noted the inherent bias that pitted religion against science, leading decision-makers to deliberately exclude the perspectives of local faith leaders. Policies may have emphasized “universal best practices” rather than listening to local faith leaders who were more sensitive to community needs. This is part of a larger systemic faith illiteracy that has been known to prioritize material needs over spiritual  needs, or act against the interests of some faith communities in the name of public health.

Social Stigma

Multiple panelists acknowledged the ways the pandemic created social stigma, to the point where sick people endured social shaming for being sick and thus did not seek help. Panelists also noted the stigma falling across already-present social divides, such as along religious divisions, where certain populations were blamed for being super-spreaders.


One of the biggest challenges across the board for panelists was to protect their communities and provide for people’s need for community in times of isolation, fear, and death. As a result of the widespread breakdown of social networks, people—especially vulnerable populations such as women, children, the disabled, the poor, and other socially marginalized groups—were more susceptible to domestic violence, stress, and other forms of physical and mental instability. 


Despite facing  many challenges during the pandemic as outlined above, the panelists also described the innovative ways they and other faith actors were successful at addressing the needs of their communities in these exceptionally difficult times. 

Just as technology could be used to spread misinformation, it could also be used to curb such a spread. Panelists noted the ways technology helped create a bottom-up, peer-learning approach to information distribution facilitated by faith leaders that addressed widespread distrust in vaccines and other health practices promoted by the government. Similarly, faith leaders successfully used technology to adapt faith practices to digital spaces, helping counteract some of the negative effects of isolation and restrictions on religious gatherings. 

“Local faith actors in Egypt led online counter narrative campaigns against hate speech and false stereotypes related to COVID-19 while ensuring empathy and unity by encouraging faith communities to help others.” – Monica Tawdros 


“In the midst of restrictions, faith actors of different religions actually devised a very innovative way of interacting with their followers using phone calls, internet, email messaging, WhatsApp, and Zoom meetings. While most people do not have access to internet, faith actors used radio and television to reach their people.” – Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva

Outside of the digital realm, panelists described their work reaching out to marginalized and stigmatized populations, including children and the sick. Preexisting faith community networks thus were well placed to address the difficulties caused by isolation and restricted movements, where other actors were less willing or less able to reach. Panelists noted as well how faith leaders were often more trusted sources of authority than secular governments or international actors, and thus could be leveraged to inhibit the spread of misinformation. 

Panelists also reported how interfaith cooperation was another common solution which local faith leaders adopted to address challenges during the pandemic. Multiple panelists cited examples of how interfaith cooperation helped to counteract discriminatory policies as well as distribute resources to a greater number of people in need beyond the bounds of a single faith community.

Mental Health and Faith during the Pandemic

The panelists next discussed the role of local faith actors in addressing the mental health and psychosocial needs of their communities during the pandemic. They began by noting how restrictions on faith gatherings and the overall breakdown of physical contact within faith communities had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the mental health of many people. 

The confusion and fear characterizing the first months of the pandemic were made more difficult due to the lack of mitigating support from faith communities. However, panelists noted that even when physical faith networks would break down, individuals still processed their fears, confusion, and needs within faith frameworks. Thus, panelists drew an inseparable link between mental health and faith during the pandemic.

Accordingly, many panelists described specific measures taken by local faith actors to address the mental health needs of their constituents. These included using technology to reach out to isolated individuals and adapting rituals, sermons, and chanting to digital spaces. In addition, panelists described working to supplement the needs of children in the absence of schools and the needs of the bereaved in the absence of communal ways to process the deaths of loved ones.

“When the people couldn’t go to church, the church went to the people. We visited communities in neighborhoods where we were already immersed and trusted as faith leaders. We found ways to deliver messages to the community and make sure that their stories, concerns, and confusions were heard.” – Br. Reynaldo Barnido


II. Lessons and Recommendations

As a final exercise, our panelists discussed their take-aways from the COVID-19 pandemic and their recommendations for the future. All of the panelists came away from their experiences during the pandemic with the understanding of the central role local faith actors play in their communities, and thus the necessity of involving them in future humanitarian work and decision-making.

“As faith leaders and actors, you are in a very powerful position of having trust within your community and having a platform, and being able to elevate those evidence-based and science-backed content, advice, and information around vaccination and social measures that will help reduce the spread of the virus and effectively save lives. This is a very powerful position to be in.” – Dr Bnar Talabani

Panelists cited the power of local faith leaders to impede the spread of misinformation and stigmatization, as well as guide their communities in positive physical and mental health practices. By mobilizing their communities, local faith leaders are able to raise funds and carry out relief services to people within and outside of their faith community much faster than state agencies. Faith leaders also play an important role in peacebuilding, as we saw from the interfaith responses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond the centrality of faith actors, the panelists highlighted the adaptability of religion, whose innovations despite various obstacles continued to allow faith communities to persevere in changing times. Oftentimes these innovative practices came in the form of technological developments, which panelists also cite as an important lesson for the future. As we saw, in the digital age technology both facilitates the spread of misinformation leading to an “infodemic,” but also can be leveraged to mobilize and educate communities. Finally, panelists highlighted the role of women and children in mobilizing and educating at the local level.


III. Media

As the panelists answered questions during the webinar, so too did the audience via interactive polls.The vast majority of respondents agreed that local faith actors were central to controlling the spread of the pandemic. In response to a question asking about the ways faith actors behaved during the pandemic, most respondents mentioned positive actions such as providing support services and community mobilization. A couple, however, mentioned   negative behaviors such as spreading misinformation about vaccines and other health practices.

Later, respondents answered another question about the ways faith actors impacted their experience of the pandemic. The responses to this question were far more mixed, ranging from negative to neutral to positive. Some people received spiritual care from faith actors, others experienced very little interaction or impact by faith actors, and still others felt that faith actors were “reactive rather than proactive” during the pandemic.

Read more about the event and speakers here.

Date(s) - 02/06/2022
9:00 am - 10:00 am


Religions, Humanitarianism, and Development Research Reading Group Session. Welcoming all academics and researchers working on relevant topics. We will meet virtually for one hour on a monthly basis to share our research.

Speaker: Prof Katherine Marshall, Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD).

Topic: Impressions & Indications of Religious Engagement in Development

Click here to watch recordings of previous sessions and register for the upcoming webinars.

On April 21, 2022, JLI held a webinar where Dr. Karsten Lehmann, University College of Teacher Education of Christian Churches Vienna/Krems, presented on ‘Construction of the Concept of Religion in the United Nations’ General Assembly: From Human Rights to Dialogue and Harmony‘. Dr. Jeffrey Haynes, London Metropolitan University, responded followed by a Question and Answer session.

View the presentation slides here.

Click here to register and view the list of upcoming webinars.

The Head of Research is responsible for Eido’s research services. Working with 1-2 qualitative and quantitative lead researchers, the role involves overseeing and implementing research solutions to help Christian organisations become more evidence focused. With clients ranging in size from local churches to Christian NGOs, the role delivers a wide range of services, in a wide range of global contexts, from reviewing and designing of individual methodologies to the implementation of full IT-based monitoring and evaluation systems.

The Head of Research is also responsible for the ongoing development and innovation of Eido’s impact evidence services. As Eido continues to be a thought leader in spiritual impact evidence, there is a need to develop new approaches and tools to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding market.

More information and full job description available here.

The Fair & Equitable Dialogues Series continues to explore different challenging themes related to unequal power dynamics, decolonization and localization in international humanitarian, peacebuilding, and development work through showcasing research evidence and practices from diverse actors around the world.

On February 25, 2022, the series held its second public webinar on “Accountable Localisation: Local Faith Actors Speak Out” to investigate practical examples of localized action through the experiences of faith-inspired local and international partners.

Where does localisation succeed and where does it fail? How fair, equitable, relevant, and “local” are localisation efforts? What role does faith play in these contexts? How are the priorities and approaches of grassroots and international actors mutually reinforcing or diverging?

To engage with these questions, the webinar showcased different case studies from different regions around the world, including South Sudan, India, and Myanmar, inviting both international organizations and local faith actors to reflect on how to better engage with localisation efforts, and what practical recommendations, stemming from local experiences and stories, can lead to a more effective, fair, and equitable engagement with the localisation of humanitarian and development work. 

 The discussion started with opening remarks from Professor Emma Tomalin on JLI’s significant contributions, since its inception, in drawing attention to the roles and contributions of local faith actors and smaller informal faith-based organizations—who are under-represented at the global level and in academic studies—to development and humanitarian action while enhancing community well-being and resilience. Reflecting on 2016 Humanitarian Summit and the calls for “humanitarian action to be as local as possible and as international as necessary,” Professor Tomalin outlined a number of challenges and barriers that local faith actors face because of their faith identity, including false assumptions about their inability to be impartial and separate humanitarian from religious activities.

“While some organizations might strategically hide or sideline their religious identity through careful choices of how they name their organization, others might set up separate organizations to manage their humanitarian work and to keep it separate from their religious activities” – Professor Emma Tomalin

I. Key Themes 

Challenges of Local-International Engagement

In the first part of the event, the 4 panelists reflected on local faith actors’ engagement with localisation efforts. They talked about the challenges they face in navigating the humanitarian and development sectors, in addition to the strategies they use to address these challenges.

Obstacles and challenges include:

  • Language gaps and cultural divides between local and international actors. International actors use jargon and technical terms that are different from what local actors use in their local contexts.
  • Strict donor requirements and bureaucratic paperwork that can be time consuming during humanitarian crises. Local actors sometimes have limited resources and time to provide those documents in order to get funding and rescue people in crisis.
  • Funding restrictions and biased donor misconceptions, such as the belief that international and secular actors can do the work better than local and faith actors).
  • Local faith-based organizations also face suspicions from different local conservative religious groups.
  • The visibility of the faith element in local faith-based organizations can be exploited by the religious group that they belong to.
  • International organizations put high expectations (e.g. organizational policies, capacities, scale and work history, and end-to-end compliance) that could become discriminatory and exclusionary of a large part of the civil society because only well-established and large organizations can fulfill. 
  • Stereotypes about local faith actors’ motivations to provide support (e.g. they are viewed as trying to convert or radicalize people).

To navigate these challenges, panelists discussed the opportunities that can arise from working with local faith actors. They highlighted the sustainable role of local faith actors in responding to humanitarian crises beyond the limited implementation period of the response. During times of crisis, local-to-local support is faster and more efficient than waiting for aid and funds from international or external actors.

“Local faith actors have a long-term commitment because they are part of the community. There’s no time limit for their support” – Nonglak Kaeophokha

From an international perspective, it is important to recognize the spiritual and religious beliefs of people and communities as integral to their well-being and their identity. Mousumi Saikia provided examples of local faith actors’ integration in the localisation of gender justice programmes, while acknowledging the clear tensions between gender and patriarchal interpretation of religious scriptures. Via behaviour change processes and building thematic technical capacities, local faith actors have become champions for change in addressing sexual and gender-based violence.

“Faith is – whether it’s visible or invisible – more than just a moral or spiritual expression. Traditional community structures and religious beliefs also provide support structure and a sense of identity, meaning and security to people in times of crisis. We have seen this particularly in the work we are doing with refugees and internally displaced people” – Mousumi Saikia

Panelists also mentioned the significance of international-local partnerships in bringing more visibility and recognition of local faith actors and local faith-based organizations. They discussed the importance of finding a “common goal” from not only religious commitments, but also cultural ones, for public benefit.

“Apart from the religious context, if we can contextualize and synchronize cultural commitment and traditional beliefs that would be a wonderful opportunity for, not only India, but for the entire world” – Swati Chakraborty

Cultural and Language Divides and the Risk of NGO-isation

In the second part of the webinar, panelists focused on the cultural and contextual divides between international and local actors, in addition to local faith actors’ concerns and fears of “NGO-isation” (i.e. becoming mini international organizations) and losing their unique faith assets and identities in the process.

In order to overcome these challenges, there is a need for a two-way process that builds on courage, consistency, trust, and cooperation. On the one hand, donors need to understand the complex world of faith and how faith-based organizations work without being dismissive and fearful of the faith elements. They also need to think through the terms of engagement with local faith actors and faith-based organizations s.

On the other hand, local faith actors need to ensure coherence between what they believe and their organizational behaviors and programs. Such clarity can strengthen their position in partnerships with international organizations who also have their own agendas. They also have a responsibility to have the courage to reclaim a space where they can define themselves and describe their mission and local capacities – what their faith identity means and how it can be operationalized. Very often it is local organizations who have to fulfill or follow a predetermined list of competencies and the skills which reinforces the top-down approach adopted by the majority of international organizations.

II. Recommendations

Walk the Talk – Localisation in Practice

Each panelist then reflected on how localisation approaches can actually work in practice from their own positionality as local and international faith-inspired actors. Recommendations included:

  • Simplifying the bureaucratic processes that local faith actors and faith-based organizations must undergo in their partnerships with international actors (e.g. allowing for greater flexibility and reducing paperwork during humanitarian crises).
  • Avoiding the top-down and utilitarian partnership models which frame local faith actors as only service providers – and instead approaching international-local partnerships as “friendships” that allow a space for deep listening, open and transparent dialogue, genuine engagement, and respect.
  • Inclusion and participation of local faith actors as active actors in decision-making and governance rather than only perceiving them as service providers and passive recipients of capacity building programmes.

III. Media

Throughout the webinar, we shared a number of interactive polls to engage participants in the discussion and share their insights too! The majority of attendees thought that there has been progress in advancing the leadership and voice of local faith actors despite all challenges.

In an attempt to explore different grassroots and locally-rooted terms that could describe “localisation”–which is not a local term—attendees shared different answers to what localisation means to them, including “grassroots”, “trust local knowledge”, “agenda set by community”, and more.

Read more about the event and speakers here

Register to the upcoming Fair & Equitable Dialogue on April 29, 2022: Listening to the Stories of Local Faith Actors on COVID-19 Response

Looking Back to Look Forward: COVID-19 and Faith Reflections on 2020-2021 webinar series

  • Faith Engagement & COVID-19: What Really Works?

The first webinar of this series brought representatives of the faith actors who had participated in the research into dialogue with key external partners, discussing where they have seen growth and where problems remain with faith engagement.

More details and the recording can be found here.

  • Faith and the COVID-19 Pandemic at Two Years – A Retrospective Webinar:

This second webinar takes stock of the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project, which has involved continuous monitoring of media, research analysis and commentary, and regular publications and webinars to distill this information. This event launched a website platform for the project’s resource repository, which includes over 1,000 resources to date on how different faith actors have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and broader emergencies. We also reflected on what an analysis of the resources collected so far can tell us about the major global themes in religious responses to COVID-19 and what research is needed next.

More details and the recording can be found here.

  • Two-year updates from National and Regional Faith Actor CVID-19 Responses:

This third webinar catches up with faith actors we previously spoke to during webinars in 2020 and asks how the pandemic has evolved in their context since then. We heard insights from Sri Lanka, Liberia, Senegal and the Latin America region to contextualize the similarities and differences of religious responses to COVID-19 around the world.

More details and the recording can be found here.

  • Listening to the Stories of Local Faith Actors on COVID-19 Response

This fourth webinar was also part of the Fair & Equitable Dialogues Series that highlights research, evidence and practices from a diverse array of actors around the world to address the complex themes surrounding unequal power dynamics, decolonization and localization in international humanitarian, peacebuilding, and development work.

A panel of local faith actors, academics, and activists came together to discuss their own experiences, challenges, and lessons learnt from faith-engagement during the pandemic. Panelists drew on a diverse range of contexts including Sri Lanka, the Philippines,Egypt, and Zimbabwe, among others, to discuss challenges and successes around issues of mental health, misinformation, gender, and peacebuilding during the pandemic. The webinar concluded with each of the panelists sharing lessons learnt for the future.

More details and the recording can be found here.


Looking back to look forward: COVID-19 and Faith Reflections on 2020-2021 Webinar Series

The Berkley Center, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI), and the World Faiths Development Dialogue hosted the third webinar of the series: ‘Two-Year updates from National and Regional Faith Actor COVID-19 Responses’ on April 1, 2022.

Following the 11 March webinar reflecting on global themes at the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, this session now catches up with faith actors we previously spoke to during webinars in 2020 and asks how the pandemic has evolved in their context since then. We will hear insights from Sri Lanka, Liberia, Senegal and the Latin America region to contextualize the similarities and differences of religious responses to COVID-19 around the world.


Olivia WilkinsonJoint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities

Dr. Olivia Wilkinson is the director of research at the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. Her research focuses on secular and religious influences in humanitarian action, and she is the author of Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response (2020).




Katherine MarshallWorld Faiths Development Dialogue & Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the center’s work on religion and global development, and a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. She is also vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association. Marshall, who worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, has nearly five decades of experience on a wide range of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006.



Sheikh Saliou Mbacke Sheikh Saliou MbackePresident, Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement (CRSD), Senegal

Sheikh Saliou Mbacke is the president of Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement (CRSD), an interfaith group of Senegalese religious leaders working to promote the health and development of their country, and he also works as an international consultant. He is an advisor to the World Faiths Development Dialogue for a family health project in Senegal. Previously, he served as the continental coordinator for Inter-faith Action for Peace in Africa. He is a spiritual leader of the Mouride family, a core institution of Senegalese Sufi Islam, and has lived within the tradition since birth. He is a member of the International Selection Committee for the Niwano Peace Prize and has collaborated with the United Nations on religious defamation and climate change. He was educated in Touba in the Islamic Qur’anic tradition, then at the University of Tunis and University of Salamanca.


Sister Barbara Brillant

Sister Barbara Brillant – F.M.M., Dean, Mother Patern College of Health Sciences and national health coordinator for the National Catholic Health Council, Liberia

Sister Barbara Brillant, F.M.M., is the dean of Mother Patern College of Health Sciences in Monrovia, Liberia and national health coordinator for the National Catholic Health Council. An American citizen, she has lived in Liberia for almost 40 years. Brillant is a missionary with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who originally trained as a nurse and midwife and has a master’s degree in public health from Boston University.


Vinya AriyaratneVinya Ariyaratne – M.D., President, Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya, Sri Lanka

Vinya Ariyaratne, M.D., is president of the Sri Lankan Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya, an NGO founded by his father in 1958 and inspired by Buddhist principles. He was also founding chairman of Deshodaya Development Finance Company (DDCC), Sarvodaya’s microfinance arm. Ariyaratne has been a lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, and Brandeis University. He is currently involved in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, acting as lead facilitator for the One Text Initiative and as a member of the Council of the Arigatou Foundation’s Global Network for Children. He holds a doctorate in medicine from De La Salle University in the Philippines, a doctorate in community medicine from the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine of the University of Colombo, and a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.


Elias Szczytnicki

Mr Elias Szczytnicki – Secretary General & Regional Director – Religions for Peace, Latin America and the Caribbean

Elías Szczytnicki serves as the secretary general of the Latin American and Caribbean Council of Religious Leaders (LACCRL) and the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Regional Office of Religions for Peace. As LACCRL Secretary General, Mr. Szczytnicki organizes high level meetings of religious leaders with important international personalities, including Pope Francis. He also represents the LACCRL in various meetings of the United Nations and their agencies.


 SomboonChungprampreeSomboon Chungprampree Executive Secretary of International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), Thailand

Somboon Chungprampree (Khun Moo) is a Thai social activist working for peace and justice in Asia. He became involved in Thai student movements, especially those focused on environmental justice, while he was at university. Since 1997, he has held different positions with key Thai and Asia regional and international civil society organizations. They include Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation (SNF), a Thai NGO established in 1968, Spirit in Education Movement (SEM), focusing on empowering civil society in Burma, Laos PDR, Cambodia, and Thailand, School for Well-being Studies and Research, and Wongsanit Ashram. He has served as Executive Secretary of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) since 2010. He is the editor of the Seeds of Peace journal issued three times a year. As a civic leader he serves on the boards of several international and national foundations.

Watch the previous webinars of the series:

  1. Faith Engagement & COVID-19: What really works? 
  2. Faith and the COVID-19 Pandemic at Two Years – A Retrospective Webinar

On March 31, 2022, JLI started a new series on creative faith-sensitive MEAL and research methods. In this first session of the year,  a guest speaker from the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Ann Zuntz, spoke about her work in the MENA region and participatory ethnographic methods during the Covid-19 pandemic, including the use of WhatsApp, a graphic novel, and musical workshops.

Join the Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning Working Group (MEAL WG). Every other month, the group will host a learning exchange on MEAL and local faith actors. Learn more about the group and register here.

Date(s) - 31/03/2022
2:00 pm - 3:00 pm


The JLI is starting a new series on creative faith-sensitive MEAL and research methods. In our first session this year, we will have a guest speaker from the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Ann Zuntz, who will speak about her work in the MENA region.

Thursday 31 March 2022, 9 am ET/ 2pm BST

Click here to register and receive the meeting link


By Olivia Wilkinson (Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities), Katherine Marshall (World Faiths Development Dialogue), James Huff (Wheaton College)

Religious traditions have both formed and thrived from expressions of emergent agency (i.e., people responding to crises by organizing at local levels) throughout history. It was clear that the Emergent Agency project (a COVID-19 focused effort from the London School of Economics/Oxfam) should examine how faith actors had responded to COVID-19. Faith actors have embodied some of the broader characteristics of emergent agency, such as quick adaptations of existing structures or new formations of faith groups, to respond to COVID-19 around the world. Remarkably rapid learning curves on digital space is another pivot. From the beginning, the Faith Working Group that took part in the Emergent Agency project was particularly interested in emerging agency from local faith actors, more than large-scale religious entities (like the Vatican) or international faith-based organizations (like World Vision). We were anecdotally aware of many immediate, adaptive responses from faith actors to COVID-19, but we were similarly aware that specific evidence on these efforts was scattered and sparse. We decided, therefore, to bring forward cases that could shed light on forms of emergent agency from local faith actors.

This blog presents findings from two cases: one from the Philippines and the other from El Salvador, and it notes some experience from the Washington DC area. These come from interviews with Ron Bueno of ENLACE (El Salvador) and Reynaldo Barnido from Duyog Marawi (the Philippines). ENLACE equips evangelical and Pentecostal congregations in El Salvador, Nepal, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to partner with community-based organizations to alleviate spiritual and physical poverty. Duyog Marawi is an interfaith dialogical response to the Marawi crisis in Mindanao, the Philippines. We also spoke to a representative of the Quaker Community in suburban Maryland, USA. We present some themes emerging from these stories.

Food Security

Lockdown restrictions impacted livelihoods and food security during the pandemic. Faith actors, as embedded members of their communities, are highly responsive to immediate needs emerging from crises. With the lockdowns, faith actors quickly started to respond by organizing provisions, from food kitchens to support for small-scale farming.

Building from churches’ social, cultural, and human capital, ENLACE worked with churches and community associations to provide 4,390,500 meals to 29,270 families in El Salvador and Guatemala as of September 2020. This represents an example of emergent agency because church and community leaders were able to mobilize 63% of the meals from local resources and organizations. Church and community leaders also worked with ENLACE to identify and develop initiatives that address hunger and loss of income. Efforts included rebuilding family farms and small-scale businesses, starting livelihood projects and chicken farms. As a result, ENLACE has trained and resourced 326 of these leaders to provide seeds and agricultural inputs to restart 2,013 family farms, as well as $262,000 in financial assistance and business coaching to 114 small-scale entrepreneurs and farmers to survive during the pandemic.

Duyog Marawi helped launch several communal gardens, including vegetable gardens, to supplement food supply. Young people who were out of school due to the pandemic – most of them young faith actors themselves, such as young imams and young people from Muslim communities around the region – mobilized to build communal gardens outside madrassas and schools. Duyog Marawi was able to assist with the provision of tools and seeds.

Both of these examples fit within more standard community development templates. However, they also demonstrate the agency of people, such as the church leaders in El Salvador and Guatemala and young faith leaders in the Philippines, to assert their communities’ needs and seek support from National NGOs (NNGOs), such as ENLACE and Duyog Marawi, to find solutions.

Digital technology

As widely noted, connection through digital technology has increased and diversified in the pandemic. As emergent agents shoulder many burdens resulting from the pandemic, they require not only material assistance but also mental health support. Duyog Marawi had online counseling sessions for young people. To achieve this, they conducted a needs assessment, identified the patterns that emerged, and gathered and trained volunteers, particularly those with degrees in social work, psychology, and education. In total, they trained 18 Muslims and Christians volunteers on how to offer culturally-appropriate online support through phones or Facebook Messenger. They noted that this was quite difficult to do when the network signals are weak, especially in isolated areas with the volunteers sometimes needing to climb rooftops in order to carry out their tasks successfully. The volunteer networks of faith actors have been noted elsewhere as one of the key advantages of partnering with such groups – in this case, young Muslims and Christians mobilized to support other young people.

ENLACE has also observed how church and community leaders they work with use a range of digital tools such as Facebook Live, Zoom, and Google Forms to organize emergent agency in their areas. These tools were deployed to conduct trainings and virtual events, to identify and prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable households, and to collect and share data in real-time to support the decision-making of local leaders who directed resource distribution. It is worth noting that these tools worked better in some communities than others because of access to technology. Many affected communities had to complete forms and fill surveys by phone or WhatsApp. Nevertheless, the importance of technology for the organisation of emergent agency among faith actors is apparent.

In suburban Washington DC, the abrupt shift from in person meetings to online worship and community gatherings initially put some damper on the capacity of leaders to assess and address the needs of groups they knew were vulnerable, like elderly, disabled, and single-headed households. However, two phenomena were noted: first, increasingly active participation in service linked activities, and a broadening of the community to include, for example, previous members who had moved away. Financial support proved easier to mobilize than was initially feared.


Again in response to economic difficulties brought about by the pandemic, seamstresses in Marawi needed to diversify their income streams, as they had reduced sales and some of their family members had lost their jobs. They switched to making Inaul masks (a woven cloth from the region). Duyog Marawi supported this initiative with links to funding and marketing. By October 2020, the masks had become bestsellers throughout the country and they were marketed by Duyog Marawi as part of a Christmas catalog. The market became saturated, however, as others made these types of masks. Duyog Marawi was able to mobilize more support through Catholic networks to help with further marketing the Inaul masks. The women were also supported by Philippine Businesses for Social Progress. These new funding avenues and grassroot initiatives supported them during the pandemic.

Social Inclusion

Emergent agency has an inherent advantage in that it occurs within the affected communities and can lead to fast mobilization – it is its own community engagement. Faith actors were quick to identify those vulnerable in their communities and work with their volunteers and networks to help ensure people knew how to support and include each other, even through strict lockdowns. For example, ENLACE worked with church and community leaders to identify and care for the families facing compounding vulnerabilities, including the elderly, chronically ill, and single mothers who are head of households. In the case of the work with ENLACE, close to 50% of the church and community leaders leading the recovery efforts are women and close to 65% of adults and children served by these local leaders are women and girls. These examples on livelihood and social inclusion demonstrate that faith groups in COVID-19 can have an impact on the lives of women and girls, as they are the emergent agents of change in their own faith communities.


The stories explored above look closely at how faith factors into the agency of people and their communities and ways faith-based NNGOs were able, often to a surprising degree, to provide the necessary support to allow that emergent agency to flourish. The stories also align with other evidence on faith actors in development and in COVID-19 response. Overall, faith actors showed their emergent agency in the following ways:

  • Faith actors asserted their agency to lead in identifying and finding solutions for pressure points within their communities. Local faith leaders and community members connected with other local and national faith-based organizations to support their existing community-based efforts and to devise new relief and development strategies in response to quickly evolving local conditions.
  • The existing social connections within faith communities allowed different groups to quickly mobilize for each other, such as networks of young people and women who were also connected through their faith to local and national faith-based organizations, such as Duyog Marawi and ENLACE.
  • Digital technology is interwoven with emergent agency as it democratizes reach and amplifies the impact of faith groups and their partners. Faith actors used these technologies to achieve tasks from counseling to community organizing.