Notes from the Field

Bangladesh’s Religious Leaders Lead Development Efforts

March 17, 2010

A sea of grey, white, and brown-robed men looked up – inquisitive but wary – from their examination papers and wooden desks as I stepped into the classroom. With all eyes already on me, I raised my hand to my heart and called out the appropriate greeting: “As sala’amu alaikum.” With barely a beat, the entire room erupted into broad smiles and a chorus of “walaikum as sala’am.”

The group I’d disrupted was the latest cohort of the training program provided by the Imam Training Academy (ITA) of the Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh. Each year, ITA trains approximately 5,000 Muslim religious leaders from across Bangladesh in a 45-day course that covers issues critical to national development such as poverty reduction, achieving universal literacy, improving government service delivery, and spurring economic growth, with reference to the texts of the Quran and the hadith, the collected traditions, teachings, and stories of the Prophet Muhammad.

More than 80 percent of Bangladeshi citizens say that religious leaders of all faiths should have a role in advancing national development goals and democratic principles in Bangladesh, according to a survey conducted by The Asia Foundation with USAID support. The survey also found that over 64 percent of ordinary citizens believe religious leaders have a major role to play in guiding community thought on social issues, and that over 70 percent would request the involvement or opinion of a religious or community leader at a shalish, or local mediation forum.

In Bangladesh, religious and community leaders have a deep understanding of the needs and interests of local communities, which places them in a unique position to communicate local priorities to government officials and development professionals. Such positions of respect allow them to provide practical feedback on whether the goals of poverty reduction, women’s empowerment, and other development initiatives are being met at the local level.

In recognition of both the national and local political dynamics central to achieving positive development outcomes, The Asia Foundation supports Bangladeshi citizens and the Government of Bangladesh to engage Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist leaders, as well as locally-elected business, media, youth, and women leaders, in reform and development efforts. Since 2007, with support from USAID, The Asia Foundation has partnered with both religious and secular Bangladeshi organizations to develop practical programs that supplement the theoretical training provided by organizations like the ITA, and introduce influential community leaders, both religious and secular, to important development issues. The Leaders of Influence (LOI) program includes training on agricultural and farming practices, environmental resource management, as well as techniques for engaging in public advocacy on issues ranging from corruption to child marriage. The program also encourages leaders to engage in interfaith dialogues and to partner with local organizations that provide essential community services like health and education. To date, over 13,500 influential leaders have participated in the LOI program.

The Leaders of Influence program in Bangladesh includes training on agricultural and farming practices, pictured here, environmental resource management, as well as techniques for engaging in public advocacy on issues ranging from corruption to child marriage.

The Leaders of Influence program in Bangladesh includes training on agricultural and farming practices, pictured here, environmental resource management, as well as techniques for engaging in public advocacy on issues ranging from corruption to child marriage.

“Participating in this program has removed the invisible barrier that used to surround me,” said one of the imams I met with. “I knew I wanted to help improve the lives of my congregation and my community, but I didn’t know how to do it. Now I talk about issues like the importance of free, transparent, and peaceful elections in my Friday sermons, and when people come to me for advice, I can answer them better, or direct them to organizations in our community that may be able to help them.” Another told me that after he joined a Community-Policing Forum in his community, he found that community members started approaching him for advice on resolving disputes, and police in his neighborhood began asking him to help resolve community disputes. Others told me of how the program had provided them with the skills to establish community mahogany and betel nut plantations and fisheries, and how profits from these enterprises have been used to fund mosque-based development activities that build awareness of critical development themes like anti-corruption, health concerns, including HIV/AIDS, anti trafficking, social forestry, and early childhood education. These issues are explained by imams during Friday sermons and also discussed with the community in other religious meetings at the Mosque.

In recognition that respected religious and traditional leaders of influence are especially well placed to contribute to national development, The Asia Foundation and USAID will jointly convene a regional conference in Bangladesh on the role of religious leaders in advancing development in Asia from March 21 to 24, 2010. The conference will involve the participation of at least 70 religious leaders, elected officials, and other delegates from 14 Asian countries, together with visiting USAID and U.S. embassy officials. The conference will serve as a framework for broader regional dialogue, experience-sharing, and future cooperation, and generate country-specific strategies for follow-up activities that promote the role of religious and traditional leaders in development.

Rosita MacDonald is a Program Officer for The Asia Foundation’s Governance, Law, and Civil Society program, based in San Francisco. She can be reached at rmacdonald@asiafound.org.

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