JLI: Shift the center of gravity from global to regional

COVID-19 has truly illustrated the diversity and contextualized nature of faith responses, Kirsten Muth, CEO of the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, says. She is seeing the need for more robust mechanisms for faith engagement at international levels that incorporate responses to this diversity. This is why the recently appointed leader of JLI wants to expand the body of evidence of faith responses at community and national levels. To do so, she wants to build a network of more regional hubs that give priority to the evidence needs and voices from the Global South.

Mrs Muth, as the new CEO of JLI, you have started in the midst of the pandemic. How have you experienced these past months in your new position?

It has been intense, because you’re trying to learn and get to know the whole body of work and approach of the organization – and as you know JLI is huge in the sense that we cover so many topics across a wide array of members and organizations. The plus side was seeing that what was happening with COVID-19 paralleled a lot of my thinking about the organization in general: Here was a global issue, in the sense that some of the larger challenges facing us are global – refugees, migration, climate change, violence against women and children – highlighting the universality of inequity around the world and really showcasing how the voices and leadership of local faith actors are or are not fully integrated into conversations. At the same time, we were experiencing the Black Lives Matter movement, and the continued struggle for racial justice.

'We now want to shift the centre of gravity for JLI’s work in a way that elevates regional voices and perspectives.'

This led us to look at our global orientation as JLI. We’ve operated through a system of global hubs and we are very much interested in decentralizing our hub network, investing more into regional hubs, prioritizing the voices and agendas of our partners in the Global South. In that sense, it was a positive parallel track but it has also been complicated because I am by no means a COVID-19 expert. I have been learning JLI and learning COVID-19 and learning about all our members – but it has been great. We are fortunate to have such a diverse group of members; we average 15 – 20 new members a month, many of them from the Global South.

As a crucial contribution, JLI provided a Research Repository on religious actors’ response to COVID-19. How do you see JLI's role in understanding religious responses to COVID and what are your aims for the future of the repository?

The Repository contains a rich and vast amount of information, everything from articles, working-reports, interviews, etc. At this point we are trying to redesign the repository so that it becomes a more accessible resource to people. We are fairly confident that it is perhaps the most comprehensive gathering of documents and perspectives on faith engagement and COVID-19. We are working with the Berkley Center to reorganize the repository to ease use and more systematic access to the resources that are there. In addition, we’re looking to partner with other organizations on helping to build up the repository, for example KAICIID is helping us with the Arabic language part of it.

 'I think what we see sometimes with faith engagement is a sort of rush to present global guidance when authentic faith engagement has to really happen in much more contextualized and dialogical ways.'   

At this stage in the pandemic, what do you think we have learned about faith engagement in the COVID response?

I think what we see sometimes with faith engagement is a sort of rush to present global guidance when authentic faith engagement has to really happen in much more contextualized and dialogical ways. We still see a tendency to instrumentalize faith networks as message deliverers and service deliverers when it’s actually much more nuanced than that. To that end, we’ve just recently developed what we call a Faith and COVID-19 Vaccines Analysis Matrix. It is a series of questions that a non-faith organization, multilateral or public organization might ask themselves when they’re starting to work with faith organizations. It is not about presenting guidance and messages, rather instead seeking to understand what some of the hesitations or perspectives of religious and faith actors might be. We ask questions like: What religions are primary in a country? What are minority religions? What are the other social, cultural environmental political drivers when it comes to vaccine hesitancy? We’re looking at it intersectionally in terms of refugees, particularly vulnerable populations, gender, race. These are key questions that need to be asked to truly and respectfully include the voice of faith actors in developing and planning responses.

'We are trying to equalize partnerships that don’t just invite faith leaders to a table but invite them to help decide what the agenda and the priorities are and how to adapt.'

As JLI colleague Dr Olivia Wilkinson put it: Regarding research, COVID-19 is probably the most reported, monitored and tracked pandemic ever. Even with the amount of research ongoing around COVID-19, what more do we need to know about faith engagement? What is the role of evidence-based engagement in a pandemic response?

JLI is starting a COVID-19 learning process together with a group of our members We’re really looking at how they’ve adapted throughout the process and how they’ve addressed this vaccine hesitancy. We’ll be doing the process over a year.

One important faith engagement mechanism was just starting to roll out when COVID-19 hit – the Faith and Positive Change for Children, Families and Communities: Global Initiative on Social and Behaviour Change, which is a partnership between UNICEF, Religions for Peace and the Joint Learning Initiative. Within that mechanism, we have seen some real partnership and engagement between faith actors and UNICEF on responding to COVID-19. We are trying to equalize partnerships that don’t just invite faith leaders to a table but invite them to help decide what the agenda and the priorities are and how to adapt.

We’ve just completed a series of webinars that are based on some of the COVID-19 guidance documents that came out. These webinars include women’s and youth faith network leaders, LFAs and regional UNICEF staff. We’ve seen a real uptake in the participation of those webinars. It’s an approach to faith engagement that I think really reflects the principles that faith actors would like to see, which is understanding the different perspectives and the reasons and historical contexts for these perspectives.

What are your plans for this year and what topics will be addressed besides COVID-19?

Most of my career I have worked in regional and national contexts and my heart is with grassroots practitioners and activists. We now want to shift the centre of gravity for JLI’s work in a way that elevates these voices and perspectives. Our Fair and Equitable Initiative (launching in April) is our commitment to address racial justice and decolonization as we can, given our specific mandate. We need to reflect on who is shaping the evidence agenda, who uses the evidence, and to whose benefit. We recognize that much of the evidence developed has been primarily speaking into a donors and international space. What evidence at country and regional levels best serves faith actors to influence national policy and best practice and how might research priorities be different?

We also want to look more into the role of faith and spirituality. We have just launched a MEAL Compendium which took a look at the unique perspective of faith actors in monitoring evaluation, e.g., how evaluations of faith-led Peacebuilding efforts include and reflect spirituality.

JLI is also looking at broadening and diversifying its membership. We have a very robust membership of FBOs and academics. We want to expand that to include other forms of faith actors, social movements, activists and institutions. How is our evidence including and supporting the role of faith actors across the spectrum, and how is our work breaking down secular bias and contributing to faith literacy? These are all current points of reflection for JLI.

By Claudia Jordan, PaRD Secretariat