Don’t check your brains at the door: 6 tips for effective community development

Those of you who grew up in church in the 90s might remember this book: Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door.  The basic idea is that Christianity and reason aren’t mutually exclusive.  I think the same idea applies to philanthropy.  With so much poverty in the world, how can we afford not to use our brains when deciding what community and economic development strategies to pursue?  Especially in resource-limited nonprofits, wasting resources on strategies that don’t help – or worse, hurt! – those they’re trying to help is painfully inefficient.  (I hate inefficiency.)

Here are 6 ideas from Toxic Charity that will help development organizations and individuals to be smarter with our resources.  In other words, follow these tips if you want to contribute to strategies that work (as well as possible given the complexities of poverty)!*

1)   Determine the real need. 

Is the need we’re addressing a chronic need or a crisis?  If it’s a crisis, by all means give whatever relief is needed (e.g. food, medical care, shelter).  Once a crisis is averted, however, individuals and communities need help returning to their pre-crisis conditions (i.e. rehabilitation; e.g. job training, alcohol and drug treatment, counseling) versus more relief.  If it’s a chronic need we’re addressing, determine which is appropriate: rehabilitation or development (i.e. improving a community for the long-haul; e.g. education, medical care, government infrastructure, job creation, etc.).

For example, in many communities in the US, “[poor] nutrition is certainly a problem,… but not starvation… And when we respond to a chronic need [poor nutrition] as though it were a crisis [starvation], we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”  (TC, Chapter 4)

If there’s hunger but no fear of starvation, a food co-op where members pay into a food-buying collective might be a good option.  These co-ops affirm the dignity of the members and allow the group to buy ten times more food as a collective entity (here’s a great video that explains the model: http://www.urbanrecipe.org/our-model).  If jobs are needed to afford food, food distribution coupled with a job readiness or placement program might address that need more directly.  However, if someone is facing a one-time crisis (e.g. a sudden loss of job, injury, illness), free relief could still be the best option at that time.

2)   Be respectful.

Respect is essential in determining the real need.  Listen to those you’re trying to help – not as an external savior, but as a co-collaborator.  Acknowledge their struggles, affirm their worth, and discover what ideas they have and what they have to offer.  Then join in alongside them!

“Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth… But those who have been devalued by society are unusually sensitive to the signals they receive from the dominant culture.  Those in service work have the responsibility to listen to what those in need are saying and… also to what is not being said.”  (TC, Chapter 9)

Personal interaction is obviously a good way to develop compassion and understanding, but books can be great as well!  Poor Economics gives an insightful and well-researched perspective on the complex economic environments of the poor, both domestically and internationally – here’s a quick summary.  This article also gives similar insights on a more personal level.

3)   Consider the environment.

“Teaching a man to fish is an individual matter; but gaining control of the lake is a community issue.” (TC, Chapter 7)

What use is it to know how to fish if you only have access to a polluted lake?  Or no lake?  Or if someone else controls access to the lake?

Development can’t be done in isolation.  Just as you can’t create a business strategy in a vacuum, you can’t create a development strategy without taking external factors into consideration.

  • What could affect our work here?
  • Will corrupt officials impede aid delivery or free markets?
  • What crops are the weather/climate/soil suitable for?
  • What’s the market – who would be interested in buying?
  • Are there cultural barriers to entry?
  • Are community members resistant to “outsiders”?
  • Is there racial/cultural/religious strife?
  • What are their current sources of income?
  • Do community members work together or stay isolated?

For more on corruption and poverty, check out Economic Gangsters – interesting read!  For more on the interplay of human interaction/game theory and poverty, check out Games in Economic Development (by one of my professors!).

4)   Assess available resources.

“[Need] does not constitute a call… Focus your efforts in one or two areas that have a compelling interest to you, [and] that maximize your giftedness.  Defining (narrowing) your involvement allows you to concentrate your best energies strategically while establishing… boundaries…  Your marriage and family life will thank you.  And your community will ultimately appreciate the presence of a healthy family and an effective neighbor.” (TC, Chapter 9)

You might have a passion for food, but you wouldn’t start a restaurant if you can’t cook.  Instead, you could review restaurants, interview chefs, or start a food blog of your favorite dishes.  If you still want to start a restaurant, you’ll probably want to find a chef and then get advice from other restaurateurs!  Similarly, you might have a passion for education, but why start a tutoring program if you have no experience in education?  Instead, maybe consider pursuing another approach that will use your gifts while still helping the community.  If you’re still passionate about education, actively recruit experienced staff, volunteers, or board members and allow them to help guide strategy development!

For churches: “A church full of businesspeople might be uniquely equipped to create successful businesses in a developing country.  A church full of educators could turn around an underperforming school in their community, even the entire system.”  (TC, Chapter 5)  A church of engineers could offer tech support for nonprofits and low-income neighborhoods or teach a computer course at a local school.  A church of doctors could do medical missions or host a neighborhood clinic (Doctors for Change, Doctors without Borders, Samaritan’s Purse).  (I know some people want to do something different in their non-work time – more on this in my next post.)

Also see what resources the community has.

  • Who are the leaders?
  • What individual skills or material resources could help others in the neighborhood?
  • What makes residents proud of their community?

“When we focus on what is wrong, we miss what is right.  And our strategies for helping are driven by combating problems rather than strengthening potential.” (TC, Chapter 10)

5)   Make smart investments.

“Successful entrepreneurs… are concerned with return on investment.  They want to see measurable impact and lasting results.” (TC, Chapter 7)

Yes, return on investment can be harder to calculate in philanthropic work, but an organization still needs to determine which programs will have the greatest possibility of achieving intended goals.  Here are some questions to ask when deciding what programs to invest in:

  • Will these programs effect long-term change?
  • Will they foster dependency?
  • Are they good in the short-term but bad in the long-term?
  • Are students just memorizing testing strategies or really learning?
  • Are short-term trips costing or benefiting the organization? **

Just as business investors check in periodically to see how their investments are doing, nonprofit programs need to be evaluated regularly to see if they’re still achieving their intended results.  It’s not enough to invest in a good cause – we must invest wisely.  We can’t get lazy because it’s a good cause – if anything, we must be more rigorous in our evaluations.  Someone’s life could depend on it!

(For individuals deciding which organizations to partner with, taking short-term “insight” trips could be beneficial to see how the organizations work.  If you can’t take a trip, offer to serve on the board or volunteer for a domestic service project.  Just do your research so you can make a smart investment!)

6)   Stay disciplined.

As we’ve seen, effective community development requires research, evaluation, and continual flexibility and adjustment.  The best strategy is often not the easiest strategy!

“Enabling the poor to create their own solutions is obviously a much slower process than fixing problems for them – painfully slow for high-capacity friends with resources who would effect a quick ‘cure’.” (TC, Chapter 8)

Successful community development collaboration is complicated.  Not only do nonprofits need to plan, communicate, implement, and evaluate excellently to succeed (much like for-profit businesses do!), but staff members, community residents, donors, and volunteers all bring different cultures, values, expectations, and agendas to a (hopefully) shared vision.  Coordinating all of this requires discipline, dedication, teamwork, and wisdom.

Given all of this complexity, please please don’t check your brains at the door!  Share more ideas in the Comments section below!

~~~

* If an organization you’re interested in doesn’t seem to be following these tips, don’t write them off right away.  Have a discussion (or two or three…) with the leaders about their mission and strategies.  Maybe there’s something going on behind the scenes you’re not aware of.  Or maybe you can help point them in the right direction.  Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts would be great reads!

** The president of a struggling seminary in Cuba allowed volunteers from American churches to come each year to do manual labor that they weren’t equipped for.  Despite the necessary labor-intensive pre-trip coordination (and post-trip fixing of shoddy workmanship!), she continued to allow churches to “help” because of her fear that they would cut off their ministry support otherwise.  “Oh, what she could have done with the nearly $30,000 this group was spending on this trip!  Still, the church’s forthcoming, smaller donation for the true needs of the seminary was essential to their continuing work…

Anyone with a business background (or even street smarts) would agree that the amount spent on service trips is extravagant when compared to the monetary value of the actual work done.  But when people with business backgrounds enter service work, they repeatedly fail to bring with them their common sense and business acumen, defaulting to traditional charity models.  They would not put up with this kind of return on investment in their professional lives.” (TC, Chapter 2)

Charity can hurt (and man, I’m a mooch!)

 “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”

– Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity

I’ve experienced some of this in my own life…

1)   Don’t get me wrong – I have an amazing life: wonderful friends and family, a beautiful house, access to food, plenty of clothes..  BUT I also have no incentive to work: I have ALL of this without needing to lift a finger.

2)   I’m also embarrassed that I don’t work.  When asked what I do, I often avoid eye contact and mumble, “uh.. nothing”.  I’m grateful that people care and want to help, but it’s embarrassing that I can’t land any of the jobs I’m applying for.

3)   I (sometimes) feel guiltily indebted to Andy: basically the entire time we’ve been married, he’s worked a full-time job while I’ve done just random things here and there.  I know I need to step up and contribute… don’t want him to regret his decisions to support (or marry) me! 😉

So how does this relate to charity, you ask?

Charity…

1)   Destroys initiative.

Chapter 2: Juan Ulloa, Opportunity International’s Nicaragua Director, laments that American church partners “’destroy the initiative of [his] people’” and turn them into beggars: why work when donors continually provide free clothing, books, and manual labor?

2)   Emasculates. 

Chapter 3: After moving into an urban neighborhood, Lupton saw firsthand what happens when well-meaning donors bring over Christmas presents: “a father is emasculated in his own house in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family… [and] children get the message that the ‘good stuff’ comes from rich people out there and it is free.”

3)   Hurts the giver.

Chapter 4: Lupton says it well: “No one wants to support irresponsibility.  Or create dependency.  Or feel used.  Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate.  At some point accountability is required.”

 

I know my situation is a little different (and poverty is so much more complicated than these 3 simple points), but charity – even when done with the best of intentions and out of love – can destroy incentive, emasculate, and hurt the helper/helpee relationship.  Hopefully these examples will help spark ideas for more effective development strategies (e.g. rethinking aid incentive structures, training and empowering, ensuring recipient accountability).

Please leave any other ideas in the Comments section below!

 

~~~

A lot of these ideas are from Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton and are very similar to those in When Helping Hurts (a book I’ve posted on before: here and here).  More to come in future posts!

Afghan Women and the Post-2014 Economy by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

I feel like fighting poverty can be overwhelming and seem never-ending.. so it’s nice to read some optimistic articles every once in a while! (from the Council on Foreign Relations)

 

Afghan Women and the Post-2014 Economy

Posted on January 17, 2014 4:06 pm
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Image 

Colonel Jamila Bayaaz, the first female district police chief in Afghanistan, walks in Kabul, January 15, 2014 (Courtesy Reuters/Mohammad Ismail).

As discussions about post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan continue, so do concerns about the country’s ability to stand on its own. The Afghan people and their government will determine the direction of the country. And as that future is discussed, so is the question of what will happen to 50 percent of country’s population: women.

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they forbade women from attending school, working in offices, and leaving their homes without a male chaperone. Much has changed in the past decade as many women have worked to make the most of openings created by the international community’s presence.

Twelve years ago, there were fewer than 900,000 boys and almost no girls in school. Now there are more than 8.3 million students in school across Afghanistan, and 40 percent of them are girls. As noted in the recent report on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Afghanistan, published by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, there are currently sixty-nine women in Afghanistan’s Parliament, and the country aims to have female representation in parliament reach 30 percent by 2020. There are also twelve women in executive government departments, as well as five deputy ministers, one governor, one mayor, and numerous other women serving across the government. Women have even increased their presence in the police force, with an estimated 1,551 women donning police uniforms as of July 2013, according to Oxfam. The country recently saw the first woman appointed as district police chief.

Maternal health has also improved. The 2010 Afghanistan Mortality Survey estimated that there are 327 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births, a drop from the 1,600 per 100,000 estimated in 2008. This progress is thanks to an increase in average age of marriage, higher contraceptive use, lower fertility, and greater access to maternal care, as noted in the 2011 CFR working paper on Maternal Health in Afghanistan.

Despite daunting challenges, women have achieved economic gains as well. A recent report funded by the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan found that more women than ever work in formal businesses in Afghanistan as employees, owners, and entrepreneurs. The report, which surveyed more than 1,400 Afghan businesswomen across thirty-four provinces, also found that “views on women at work appear to be steadily evolving, with more segments of the population becoming amenable to and supportive of women’s economic participation.” Nearly all women surveyed said they had their family’s backing. Family support, paired with changing attitudes—such as considering education and employment valuable attributes in a wife—are helping create more opportunities for women in the workplace.

Seventy-eight percent of the women surveyed work in small businesses, and 81 percent cited access to financial services as a barrier hampering their economic potential, paralleling trends worldwide when it comes to women’s economic participation. Most respondents also said that they could use more business education, financial management skills, technical support, mentor-mentee opportunities, and support from the Afghan government in accessing these services.

Afghan women face the barriers to economic empowerment women struggle with worldwide, in addition to government corruption, deep-rooted cultural norms, and weak institutions and infrastructure that further limit their opportunities. The most fundamental threat to women remains safety and security, especially as the Law on Elimination of Violence again Women in Afghanistan has been implemented inconsistently. Taken as a whole, these challenges make Afghanistan one of the most challenging environments for businesswomen to survive, much less thrive, in.

But Afghan women have proven their resilience time and time again. If education rates for girls and women and community perceptions of the value of women continue to improve, women’s presence in the economy will grow. These changes will allow Afghan women to contribute even more to their families and communities, and pave the way for greater prosperity for all.

      
Comment on this article
Visit the blog

Without Ownership, Sustainability Is a Mirage by Mike Egboh

(I just read Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton, and this article shares a lot of the same points – similar to When Helping Hurts also.  Hopefully I’ll have a post up soon with more about Toxic Charity!)

Without ownership, sustainability is a mirage

By Mike Egboh on 16 January 2014

https://www.devex.com/en/news/without-ownership-sustainability-is-a-mirage/82666

Sustainability. We hear and use that word frequently in international development, and most of the time the word is abused. But what does it really mean?

As a Nigerian leading the Partnership for Transforming Health Systems 2, a six-year project funded by the the U.K. Department for International Development to strengthen Nigeria’s health system, I can tell you based on decades of development program implementation in Sub-Saharan Africa — and Nigeria in particular — what it means to me. I have lived it.

Grant recipients in developing countries must first understand the rationale behind the grant, the benefits to them and their role in its implementation before they will embrace it. Unless the people of a nation truly buy into the project and are passionate about its goals, it will not last. Until they own it, they cannot sustain it. Ownership precedes sustainability.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned that can help to ensure a project is sustainable:

1. Make people part of the solution

At the inception of the PATHS 2 program in 2008, Nigeria had about 2 percent of the world’s population, but contributed 10 percent of the world’s maternal deaths. To reverse this trend, the project has been supporting the government of Nigeria at the national, state and local government level, working in five states of Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Enugu and Lagos to improve the health of women and children, especially in rural areas.

Jigawa, Kaduna and Kano are three states in Northwest Nigeria with high rates of maternal mortality — as high as 1,100 deaths per 100,000 live births. One of the major contributors to maternal deaths is poor access to facilities. Traveling to a health facility can involve long distances, bad roads and high costs, contributing to women dying in childbirth before ever reaching help.

To improve access to facilities, save women’s lives and make the community part of the solution, we’ve established an initiative in collaboration with the State Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development called the Emergency Transport Scheme. We partnered with Nigeria’s powerful and well-organized transport union to turn taxi drivers into volunteer ambulance drivers who use their own cars to get pregnant women to the hospital or clinic during obstetric emergencies. Under this program, the union drivers get training on safe driving and understanding the danger signs in pregnancy. Drivers who volunteer for this program get special privileges in their day jobs, such as being promoted to the front of taxi ranks. Since the program began in 2012, the ETS has helped more than 2,274 women receive timely medical help.

In addition, PATHS 2 has facilitated an Emergency Maternal Fund in more than 50 communities in Kaduna. This draws upon donations from community members. Very poor members of the community can borrow from it and repay later without interest to help cover the costs of caring for maternal and child health emergencies.

Without programs like these that enable communities to see their roles clearly, get involved and become active participants, sustainability is a mere illusion.

2. Listen to the community

In Nigeria, we’ve found that getting people involved at the grassroots level — and really listening and responding to their concerns, their fears and their hopes — can have a positive impact on the lives of people who need help the most.

One of PATHS 2’s key efforts has been refurbishing health facilities in an effort to get expectant mothers to use them. Many pregnant women were giving birth at home using traditional birth attendants, which increased risk of death or injury both to themselves and their baby. So it was important to understand why women were using this riskier option, instead of making our own assumptions.

What we found is that many of these facilities had fallen into disrepair, people did not feel welcomed by health care providers, and staff morale was low. Thanks to the creation of Facility Health Committees, made up of local citizens, the health centers are more accountable — and have stronger links — to the communities they serve. Today, the health centers are clean and modern. Patients say they feel welcomed. Staff, who are better trained, are able to provide around-the-clock care in emergencies. At the same time, we recognized the need to accommodate local customs, so traditional birth attendants are being trained to identify when a pregnant woman is in danger and refer them to a facility.

These activities help ensure that people have a voice in the outcome, making it more likely they will carry on with the work long after we are gone.

3. Look to the youth

Like many countries, Nigeria faced a serious problem when it came to getting trained doctors to serve in rural areas. As of 2012, there were about 18 skilled professionals (doctors, nurses, midwives) per 10,000 people, compared to the World Health Organization’s recommended ratio of almost 23 skilled health workers for every 10,000 people.

Very often, rural health facilities cannot attract doctors because of their remote locations, and because the local government authorities cannot pay for their services.

So we turned to Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, which runs a compulsory year-long program of national service for young people after graduation from a university or polytechnic school. We signed an agreement to send health professionals to our project sites. Some of those medical graduates who are doctors, nurses and pharmacists are now selectively posted to provide basic emergency obstetric care in rural health facilities that are supported by the PATHS 2 project. This means that the lives of mothers and children are being saved and more patients are seeking care at rural health facilities.

Involving the youth in solving a nation’s toughest challenges is a critical component of making a project sustainable.

We know that good health is essential if our families and our nation are to thrive, develop and prosper. But I also know from working on development projects throughout my career that the best intentions can fall short if we don’t involve the community and listen to their concerns and input. They must be part of the solution. Until you own it, you cannot sustain it.

Nigeria-Health-Volunteer

Abdulkadir leads a group of health volunteers in Nigeria, where the U.K. Department for International Development uses an innovative community-based approach to help women safely deliver their babies. Involving people at the grassroots level helps ensure that a project becomes sustainable. 

Photo by: Lindsay Mgbor / DfID / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

Mike Egboh

Mike Egboh is national program manager for the Abt Associates-led Partnership for Transforming Health Systems 2 in Nigeria. A Harvard MBA graduate, Egboh has over 30 years of experience supporting the health system in his native Nigeria.

Ending Motherhood in Childhood by Lynn ElHarake

(here’s a follow-up article explaining why the contents of my previously posted article are important…)

 

Ending Motherhood in Childhood

Posted on November 20, 2013 9:30 am

Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Lynn ElHarake, research associate for CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program. Here she discusses how motherhood in childhood undermines economic growth, health, gender equality, and development. 

 

Last month, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) published a report on the tragic consequences of unplanned adolescent pregnancies around the world. The report, Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy, begins with a sober introduction by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin. He writes, “When a girl becomes pregnant, her present and future change radically, and rarely for the better. Her education may end, her job prospects evaporate, and her vulnerabilities to poverty, exclusion and dependency multiply.”

Ninety-five percent of all births to adolescent girls occur in the developing world. Every day, 20,000 girls under the age of eighteen in the developing world give birth; girls living in developing countries have about a one in five chance of becoming a mother before adulthood. Two million of adolescent births worldwide will be among girls below the age of fifteen. These young girls are more than twice as likely to die in childbirth and have a much higher risk of obstetric fistula than if they had waited until they reached twenty to give birth.

Early childbirth not only greatly endangers the life of the mother, but also her child. According to the World Health Organization, the chance of stillbirths and death in the first week of life are 50 percent greater for a baby born to a mother below the age of twenty than those born to mothers between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. The adolescent girl’s newborn is at increased risk for low-birth weight and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Although the health consequences of early and unplanned births for adolescent girls are undeniable, the social and economic ramifications of motherhood in childhood are perhaps obvious. The Motherhood in Childhood report found that the lifetime opportunity costs related to adolescent pregnancy in Africa were the highest in the world, amounting to billions of dollars: as a result, Uganda lost 30 percent of its GDP, Malawi lost 27 percent, and Ethiopia lost 15 percent.

The consequences of motherhood in childhood extend beyond the developing world. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, children of teen moms in the United States perform worse in school and have more health issues than other children. They are also more likely to experience unemployment and incarceration as adolescents, and go on to become teen parents themselves.

And just like in the developing world, when girls in developed countries become mothers, much of their economic potential is lost. For example, adolescent pregnancy and childbirth in the United States cost taxpayers around $10 billion every year – and billions more if you count the lost potential of teen moms who are unable to finish school, enter the workforce, and contribute to the economy. In its 2013 Education at a Glance report, the OECD attributed economic growth in member countries to higher educational attainment over the past fifty years, especially among girls. But in the United States, only 50 percent of pregnant adolescent girls, most of whom go on to become single moms, finish high school by age twenty-two.

So what can countries do to prevent adolescent pregnancy and ensure that young girls have the opportunity to achieve their full potential? As the UNFPA report mentions, governments and international actors have already made progress reducing adolescent pregnancies through programs that promote girls’ education, create economic opportunities for women, and reduce HIV/AIDS rates. But the report also calls for a “shift away from interventions targeted at girls,” and instead toward more “broad-based approaches” that aim to build girls’ human capital and empower them to make their own decisions, especially regarding family planning.  These topics were discussed at last week’s International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A revised strategy for ending motherhood in childhood must “target the circumstances, conditions, norms, values, and structural forces” that drive adolescent pregnancies, while also providing services to girls who are often isolated and marginalized during and after pregnancy.

To prevent adolescent pregnancy, issues such as gender disparity, child marriage, and poverty must be addressed. Community programs can tackle some of these issues by promoting girls’ education, family planning, and employment opportunities. Governments should also expand social and economic opportunities for women, and international organizations should keep combatting adolescent pregnancy at the top of the development agenda. Daunting as the issue may be, the humanitarian and economic costs of adolescent pregnancy are too great to ignore, and everyone stands to benefit from making motherhood in childhood an issue of the past.

Child Marriage and Religion by Rachel Vogelstein

(thought this was interesting)

 

http://blogs.cfr.org/development-channel/2014/01/02/child-marriage-and-religion/

 

Last month, academics, advocates, and religious leaders gathered at an event organized by the Council on Foreign Relations during the American Academy of Religion conference to discuss the relationship between religion and child marriage.

Although global rates of child marriage are on a downward trajectory, progress in curbing this practice has been far too slow. The United Nations estimates that one in three women aged twenty to twenty-four —almost 70 million women total — married under the age of eighteen. Approximately 23 million were married under the age of fifteen, and some were married as young as eight or nine years old. The implications are dire: child marriage is linked to poor health, curtailed education, violence, and lawlessness, all of which threatens international development, prosperity, and stability.

Religion is often blamed for the prevalence of child marriage. Notably, however, the practice is not unique to any one faith; in fact, it occurs across religions and regions. For example, in India, where 40 percent of the world’s known child brides reside, child marriage is prevalent among both Muslims and Hindus. In Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, child marriage is practiced by Christians and Muslims alike. An analysis by the International Center for Research on Women found that what is constant across countries with high child marriage rates is not adherence to one particular faith, but rather factors such as poverty and limited education opportunities for girls.

The prevalence of child marriage varies greatly even among countries that incorporate religious doctrine into their legal systems. Some Muslim-majority countries, for example, that integrate Sharia law, such as Libya and Algeria, have relatively low rates of child marriage. In other countries that practice Sharia law, such as Yemen, the practice is rampant.

Child marriage might not be tied to one faith, but religious leaders still have a crucial role to play in curbing the practice — particularly because marriages are often ratified as part of a religious ceremony. Working with religious leaders to tackle the scourge of child marriage has proven especially effective, both because these leaders are uniquely influential in their communities and because religious texts and traditions often encourage advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable, including children.

Examples of successful programs to combat child marriage by engaging religious leaders abound. In Ethiopia, for example, Pathfinder International partnered with local faith leaders and government officials to increase awareness about the risks and consequences of early marriage. As part of this program, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious leaders committed to ending child marriage and other harmful traditional practices. In 2005 and 2006, Pathfinder estimated that this initiative prevented more than 14,000 early marriages in the Amhara and Tigray regions of Ethiopia.

Tostan, a faith-based NGO in Senegal, is another organization that has worked effectively with religious officials to prevent child marriage. Tostan partners with community and faith leaders in community empowerment programs to address traditions that are harmful to children, including female genital mutilation and child marriage. Through engagement with these leaders, over 6,400 communities in Senegal have pledged to end child marriage and other harmful practices.

As these programs demonstrate, religious leaders can be valuable allies in combating child marriage. Development organizations should engage with these leaders to eliminate child marriage across countries, regions, and faiths.