Olivia Wilkinson: Faith in Development, There is Still a Lot of Research to Be Done

Author: Rebekah Go

Olivia Wilkinson is an independent research consultant and sociologist, working at the intersection of the sociology of religion and humanitarian/development studies. She was also a contributor to Faith in the Story: Trialogues for Enhancing Religious Literacy, a multi-year series of workshops at the Ansari Institute that brought together media professionals, faith leaders, and scholars of religion to improve the conversation about religion in the public sphere.

Olivia Wilkinson headshot
Olivia Wilkinson headshot

For six years, Dr. Wilkinson served as the Director of Research for the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI), an international collaboration on evidence for faith actors’ roles in the humanitarian and development sectors. Specifically, she directed JLI’s research work, collaborating with partners from UN agencies and governments, such as UNICEF and UNHCR, to faith-based organizations and NGOs, including Islamic Relief and World Vision, and in collaboration with universities such as the University of Leeds and University College London. She published her book, Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response with Routledge in early 2020, which unpacks how secularity is one of many privileges and biases in the humanitarian system that makes aid irrelevant and inappropriate. She also co-edited a volume with Routledge called International Development and Local Faith Actors: Ideological and Cultural Encounters that same year. Wilkinson has a PhD and master’s degree in humanitarian action from Trinity College Dublin and Université Catholique de Louvain respectively. Her PhD research focused on the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and she has since conducted collaborative research work around the world, recently on local faith actors in South Sudan. Her undergraduate degree in Theology and Religious Studies is from the University of Cambridge.

Wilkinson sat down with Rebekah Go, the Ansari Institute’s Program and Communication Manager, over zoom to talk about her research and scholarship. The following has been edited and abridged for clarity and length.

Beginning with a bit of a softball question: can you tell us about the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities and your role with them over the years?

The Joint Learning Initiative has been around for about 12 or 13 years. It was originally conceived by a group of people primarily working for faith-based organizations - and some academics as well - who pinpointed that there was this gap in terms of research and evidence around the role of religion in humanitarian and development work. That was the beginning of the organizational structure. We actually borrowed the idea from another group that had a joint learning initiative on children and HIV/Aids.

JLI Leadership Council, Istanbul, June 2023. Wilkinson is front row, second from left. The full list of leadership council members is available here: https://jliflc.com/leadership-council/
JLI Leadership Council, Istanbul, June 2023. Wilkinson is front row, second from left. The full list of leadership council members is available here: https://jliflc.com/leadership-council/

JLI has a learning hub structure that fosters communities of practice. They are a space for discussion, learning exchange, sharing of ideas, and research. They bring together different constituencies: academics, independent researchers, policy makers, people working in headquarters for governments and for big development organizations, and practitioners. That group of researchers, policy makers, and practitioners pick different topics - such as religion, development and gender; religion, development and anti-trafficking; religion, development, and refugees. Over the years JLI has had many different learning hubs. They are quite organic so they can retire or, for example, the learning hub around gender and gender based violence has been around almost the entirety of the time because there has been continued interest.

The learning hubs created scoping studies as their usual first piece of work. A scoping study is meant to be the overview: the synthesis of everything that exists in the evidence based on that topic. That was the standard way of working. But in recent years we've shifted based on some realizations. The first realization was that producing and synthesizing the evidence of the research alone wasn't enough. We needed to become much more savvy about research communications and influencing policy. Then the other realization was the need to shift the demographics. A lot of the people who had been involved from the beginning very much represented people sitting in places of power - decision makers in DC, in New York, in Geneva, etc. and that served a certain purpose. However, in our name we say joint learning initiative on faith and local communities and we hadn't done a good enough job integrating the voices of local religious communities working on these topics around the world in countries that weren't in North America and Western Europe.

So our learning hubs have become regional learning hubs and rather than trying to take a topic and think about it globally, we're zoomed in a lot more. We have a learning hub on religion, development, and governance in East Africa. It's just looking at that region, primarily with collaborators in Kenya. Then there is another one in Southern Africa on gender - mainly Malawi and Zambia at the moment. So that's been an interesting shift for us.

So I noticed the Fair and Equitable Initiative on the website. Is that part of this decision to reflect more people on the ground versus from positions of power, to make it more grassroots?

Exactly so. The fair and equitable initiative is the overarching change to our ways of working. I spoke about the ways it's changed the learning hub structure but we also try to think about it generally across our work. So, for example, if we're starting a new research project it's an absolute requirement that we do it with researchers from that country, whichever country is being researched. We were doing that before but it's really cemented this as core to how we want the organization to work and what we want it to represent. And it's an opportunity to state that out loud because, of course, we also want to model good practice in this regard and have these conversations with some of our organizations that are members of JLI and ask them, “what are you doing in this area? How can we learn from you? Or how can we encourage you to think differently too?”

So, it's part of a bigger shift in many development organizations. There's been growing conversation about decolonizing development. In humanitarian action the word has been around localization: how to localize and shift the power financially? But also in terms of decision making? It's part of a wave of interest that is represented broadly in humanitarian and development work.

Cover: State of the Evidence Report

Our Executive Director, Mahan Mirza, suggested the next question: Can the “faith factor” in international development be quantified? In other words, if there is a secular organization doing international development work and a faith-based organization doing the same type of international development work, is there a quantifiable difference in outcomes? But then, as I was reading the State of the Evidence Report in Religions and Development Report, it says right there on page 12: “If you are seeking the definitive piece of evidence that ultimately proves or disproves whether religions are necessary or important for development, you will not find it in this report. No such evidence exists.” Can you explain this further?

In the development space - not just faith and development but development as a whole - there has been an evidence standard that requires quantitative evidence to prove impact. So when people ask for evidence of impact, the expectation is that you've got some kind of quantitative evidence that usually comes from having a control group and having a randomized sample. The gold standard has become known as randomized control trials (RCTs). The faith and development world definitely feels pressure for that kind of evidence and there has been, in the past, an expectation that we would be able to provide that kind of data.

Basically - as you stated in the question - people want to know if there is a number out there that we can say, for example, “it is 20% more effective to work with a faith-based organization than a non faith-based organization.” However, my push back on all of this is to say that a number like that is never going to exist and we shouldn't try to make it exist because it will be a big distortion of everything that we see from the evidence qualitatively and quantitatively about religion and development. It points us towards the extreme complexity of this field and the need to listen deeply to experiences around religion in development. And that means mostly that this research benefits from a qualitative methodology, which is what we see. We see a lot of qualitative research and yet we also have a gap for quantitative research.

So, I push back to say we don't want to reduce everything to one figure that definitively says faith based engagement is more effective in part because I don't think it is more effective in every place in every context. I think there's times where it's not effective and we shouldn't be advocating for that. If we were trying to find that figure, that would be coming from an advocacy place trying to push an agenda of religion and development.

Instead, all of this is pushing us towards thinking about mixed method research. There's going to be advantages to both methodologies. We need to bring that more into the future of research and evidence in this field. There are a few randomized control trials in this field and there are many critiques, and those critiques hold true. They're very expensive and there are often some ethical concerns. These are real life social situations. It's hard to truly isolate a control group and an intervention group - as is required in randomized control trials.

We know from all religious studies research, that religion is integrated in every other aspect of society - the social, the cultural, the political, the economic, and so truly being able to say it's the religious piece that made the difference is very hard to do. Moreover this hasn't been a field where there's been a lot of funding for research. So we're at a place where we're searching for the middle ground. We're not trying to prove definitively that there's one number that will say yes or no about faith Impact. But we are saying that we would benefit from more quantitative research; we would benefit from more mixed methods research.

Something that I'm particularly excited about is a project that's trying to create and validate a set of survey questions that could be regularly used about gender and religion in development. Once we have a set of validated survey questions, those could be added to any other survey that's happening, so that we start to ask good questions about religion surveys that are happening in development work. Which means we'd start to generate more quantitative data. The problem that we have at the moment is a lot of the questions that are asked about religion are not good survey questions to start with.

Olivia Wilkinson with fellow panelists at the Church Center for the United Nations.
With fellow panellists after speaking on the Faith and Positive Change for Children Initiative at the Church Center for the United Nations, March 2024. From L-R: Jimmy Otieno (Religions for Peace), Melissa Crutchfield (JLI), Max Sani (UNICEF), Andrés Esteban Ochoa Toasa (UNICEF), and Olivia Wilkinson (JLI)

One quick follow-up. I'm not a sociologist. So how does one get to valid questions and can you provide one or two examples of what a valid question might be.

So a very standard way of doing research would be to ask about someone's religious affiliation. And they check a box like Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu. However, that's a very limited way of learning about someone's religious beliefs and practices. Then they might ask another set of questions about gender based violence, for example. Then they bring those together and say, 50% of Christians (or Muslims or Hindus) agree or disagree with gender-based violence. So a lot of survey questions are just giving us a very, very superficial level of someone who has vaguely ticked a box that they're Christian, or vaguely ticked a box that they're Muslim then also believes this and that or whatever else they put in the survey. So I treat those kinds of surveys and results with a little bit of suspicion.

There are lots of validated scales out there. They're basically scales that have been developed and thoroughly tested. You often see them in medical settings. So, for example, the one I'm thinking of is the Edinburgh postnatal depression scale since I’ve relatively recently had my daughter. Every time I went in for a checkup, I had to answer the same questions. It's the same questions that are used by clinics around the country and around the world. They give an indication of potential postnatal depression. That's just a commonly known example. In our field it's a lot more niche than that.

Basically, we're saying that there are questions that are tested, you don't just make them up on the spot. When you're going through the piloting and validation of a set of questions you're talking to people about how they responded to the questions. And you make tweaks till you get to the point where they are the best formulation of the question that you can find. When you're trying to validate questions for a survey that would be used again and again, you do all the work to really, really test the questions because you're trying to create questions that could then be used by many other people without changing them. The reason why that is good, especially with the big quantitative studies is because you need to ask a lot of people the exact same question.

Are the questions that you're validating or that would need to be validated related to the people who benefit from the development or to the developers? The reason I asked this is when I think of faith-based versus non faith-based development, to me it is less about the faith of those who are being helped and more about the providers of the service: how they might change their methods or requirements, or delivery, or purpose based on their faith as opposed to a secular organization? Does that make sense? So are the questions you are developing aimed more at the clients or the NGOs?

The questions that I was just talking about would be targeted at the clients, the beneficiaries - there's not really a good word for it - those receiving the assistance. But this is a very good point that you make. One area that we are missing more evidence is how organizations implementing projects with faith actors or who have policies on faith engagement have put into practice these policies. How they run these programs. That is the gap. There are surveys, many surveys that have been run - knowledge, attitudes and practices surveys - that ask people how religion might influence any number of topics related to development. It is a question of asking organizations to be more open about their results.

There are some organizations that are really good about that and put a lot of effort into creating evidence about how they do this work. But there are many programs and projects where we're not sure what happened after the whole policy on faith engagement was developed. We have no insight. A lot of the conversations that happen about religion and development in these headquarter spaces in New York, Geneva, DC have just remained conversations that haven't become practiced in an organization. So I think a very fair critique of all the religion and development stuff is that it's a lot of hot air. It's not really made an impact or made a difference or changed how the big secular development organizations think about religious engagement or partnering with faith actors.

All of the participants for Faith in the Story's Amplifying the Conversation.
Faith in the Story's opening reception on the balcony of the University of Notre Dame's football stadium.

In the world of international development I have heard the term instrumentalization used quite a bit. Can you explain what it means to instrumentalize religion - perhaps providing a few examples? How can international organizations avoid instrumentalizing religion?

It's almost becoming passé to talk about but it is still important to discuss. In around 2005 to 2015 the big conversation was partly around instrumentalization and what was clear at that time is that people looked into religious engagement and development and a lot of the faith actors were feeling really burnt out. They'd been approached again and again and again by the same NGOs, the same UN agencies to do very, very similar things.

A classic example might be a new vaccination campaign happening or any type of public health campaign happening and an NGO needs to get the message out. So they go to a faith-based organization that has links with religious leaders or they go directly to the religious leaders through a council of churches, for example, and they say, “here's some messages we need you to use and this is the thing we need you to focus on. Use your ability, your trust, and your authority to reach people and to spread the message about this campaign.” So then the religious leaders would go and disseminate these messages usually in a sermon or Friday prayers or Sunday morning. They would say, “there's a new vaccination campaign coming and this is why it's important to get vaccinated.”

However, there are a lot of assumptions there. Firstly, there's an assumption that the religious leader will give the right messaging. We've got some evidence that those messages get lost every time it gets passed on to the next person. So that's dangerous because something like vaccination misinformation can arise quickly. Then it's also relying on the fact that they have an enormous reach making the assumption that it cascades and it often doesn't cascade. And then, as I said before, that focus on the word use. You've used the assets of the religious leader and the religious community. As a religious leader who has already built trust, authority and a wide reach in their own community, who has done that without us, now we want to use what they have done for our benefit. And we won't ask them what they think about these messages. We'll just tell them that these are the messages, and rely on them to go and disseminate them. So that's the classic setup that would be instrumentalizing assets in the religious community.

So obviously that sets up an unequal power dynamic and it's not equitable because there is no shared decision making. But in many cases religious leaders have felt the need to go along. It's the deep seated colonialism that exists. To rectify that situation is part of the call for strategic religious engagement, for more equitable partnerships and relationships that address the imbalance and create processes for joint decision making. In addition, longer term relationships between faith and development partners is going to help that because it means that you're not just waiting for the new campaign to come up. It means that you've been talking to your faith partners for years and it will be much more of a dialogue and a conversation

Olivia Wilkinson at Faith in the Story
Olivia Wilkinson enjoying an informal lunch with friends and colleagues at Faith in the Story

Can you tell us a little more about where we are now and what you see occurring in the next 5-10 years?

The idea of strategic religious engagement is gaining traction and becoming a concept that's being talked about. So not the instrumentalizing type partnerships, but the ones that value the different but complementary capacities of development and faith partners together. I'm working on a project with Katherine Marshall from Georgetown’s World Faiths Development Dialogue that is trying to test what strategic religious engagement means in the real world in the Philippines, Ghana, Senegal and Sri Lanka. Strategic religious engagement exists as a concept that has been talked about as a change for policy and practice amongst the big development donors and the big UN agencies. Now it needs to start to walk the talk and be put into the field.

Last week there was a big conference hosted by Christian Aid and Islamic Relief. JLI was a co-host. We planned a lot of the material from the conference based on the State of the Evidence in Religions in Development you mentioned earlier and there was a blog post I've just read today by Duncan Green, formerly of Oxfam, who made a really good point: faith actors are kind of ahead of the curve with a lot of humanitarian and development work but, what does that all mean? How do we make a change based on these conversations?

What this whole field of religion and development hasn't been able to translate is an actual plan of how to work with different organizations to help them to make that change. Many of these conversations are still happening in spaces that are just faith based organizations and they're not integrated with the broader development world. We really don't want to put faith in a corner like that because it's not helpful. We know that everything to do with religious belief and practice, as I already said, is so integrated with everything else. I think sometimes it's because people are hesitant about religion and don't know how to approach that and they have their own biases and preconceptions. But then I also think it's been the faith world's own problem as they've created a very small world where everyone just talks to each other. So, there is still a divide.

It sometimes feels like the faith world is trying to push an agenda too much; that there's this case that faith is everything, faith is the solution. I have to say from the evidence, that is not what the evidence is showing and I would not advocate for that position. What we want to say is that religion is part of the mix, but it's only one part. So say, if a development organization wants to look at marginalized women in a community they need to look at several things. A lot of it is going to be about the economic structures of that community, how poverty takes its place, and the particular gender implications. And then we would add, are there religious elements like, how is religious belief in the community structured? And is that somehow feeding into a patriarchal structure; how women are treated? Or maybe there's even a minority religious community, and the women in that minority are treated particularly badly in comparison to others. These are the levels where religion is part of the mix. It's not the whole story but it shouldn't be ignored. That is the nuanced way that we want to talk about things. We don't want to be saying religion is everything. We don't want to be saying it's nothing.

Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you think is important to mention?

I would say that if your religious engagement has only spoken to the religious leader of a religious community, and then you've gone “tick, I've done my religious engagement.” You are not done and there are many different ways that influencing happens in a religious community. Anyone that's been part of a religious community will know this. So it's pushing people, for example, towards youth groups or women's groups. I always pinpoint as an interesting example of this a study that World Vision did about some of their work with pastors on child protection. And basically what they realized was that they shouldn't have been working with the pastors as the religious leaders, they needed to be working with the pastor’s wives, because the wives have a voice on child protection. It's usually more complicated than that but that's a neat example of why we need to think about - especially in religions that have a patriarchal structure - who else we're talking to within the religion. Oftentimes, you need to go through the religious leader as a gatekeeper but do not stop at that point. So that's a big issue that could be changed in this area.

We always used to talk about secular organizations v. faith based organizations and it is true that divide does exist. But I think more than anything, it's talking about ideological divides and this realization, particularly after 2020, that religion is part of that mix of biases in all directions. People are biased towards religion, people are biased away from religion. And that is affecting how faith and development partnerships are being set up or not set up, or functioning or not functioning. So you really have to have this as a competency: religious literacy, or cross cultural religious literacy, i.e an ability to be open to other people's beliefs and experiences. You can maintain your own values. Of course it's not asking you to change your own values. But understand how you got to your own values and how they might influence your perception of faith and development partnerships, because most people do have a personal perspective on it, and they bring it to their workplace. Whenever I do research and interviews about this topic in any way it's a guarantee that someone will bring up a personal point of saying, I had this experience and it makes me feel this. Because religion is very personal, and it's also part of our public lives.