In Faith in Action, Funding & Partnerships, Humanitarian Partnership

Esther Lehmann-Sow is a consultant who joined us at the Faith in Action Forum in Canterbury last November. Esther has extensive experience with programme implementation in West Africa. She brings experiences working in communities to improve outcomes through understanding and working with local values to change behaviours. 


I still wonder why for years, I had not seen the obvious.

Our teams and partners had tried to address high maternal and infant mortality levels in an area through projects which improved health infrastructure, trained nurses, provided sensitization to mothers, etc. There were improvements, but they were incremental and didn’t match the level of investment. Unhelpful behaviours persisted in spite of improved knowledge and opportunities.

And one-day things changed. People suddenly really listened to the information shared in the health center. They used medical support in the early stages of sickness, not as a last resort. And they now followed the advice they received from health workers. It was as if a switch had been flipped and an inner resistance broken.

We soon found out what happened.

A project worker had sat with the men of the local faith community and had discussed the project and answered the many questions they had: What were the real motives and objectives of the donors in providing this project? Is the vaccination campaign not aiming at reducing their fertility? Would newborns not get weak if they only received breast milk? Would certain treatments not violate their religious laws? As their questions were answered, the suspicion was overcome, and they agreed that the project would be beneficial for their people.

The leader of the faith community called a meeting and explained the situation to them: what problem the project was addressing, how following the advice of the medical staff will help them and that it was their religious duty to care for the health of mothers and infants. With the endorsement of the spiritual authority, men and women now made full use of the services provided to them through the project. The result: malnutrition and mortality rates dropped impressively over the next 2-3 years.

We had implemented activities, provided information and opportunities. But the internal switch flipped when the people felt alignment with their social and spiritual values. Before, they rather took the risk of suffering sickness than getting estranged from their (faith) community by going against social traditions. The risk of not following a nurse’s guidance was lesser than the ramifications for not adhering to the religious behavior norms. And who can know if you can trust the health workers who are paid to say what she says, compared to the local leaders who are known and part of the community.

The initial project design was like a car without an engine – you had to push it in order to move. Social and behavior science has shown the importance of values and beliefs to enable behavior change. If we engage people at the level of their emotions, their beliefs and values, and leverage the power of social influence, it creates a strong enough motivation to sustainably change patterns of behavior.

Today, before designing a project I would explore questions such as ‘How do spiritual beliefs, values or norms affect the health of boys and girls/men and women?’, analyze common and divergent themes and then use them in the development of the project.

Nowadays, the humanitarian community acknowledges that understanding faith aspects and involving faith communities is key to creating lasting positive change for the most disadvantaged. If you would like to read more, you might find this document interesting which UNICEF, Joined Learning Initiative and Religions for Peace have published after joint research: Faith and Positive Change for Children, Families and Communities.

The fact that the majority of the world’s population identifies with faith values provides a massive opportunity for faith-based humanitarians to boost social and behavior change.

Esther will lead a webinar for EU-CORD members on 23rd March to further explore this topic. Members and their partners can register here.

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