For decades, one of India’s largest religious festivals left a stinking mess at the mouth of the Ganges River.
Millions of pilgrims gather each January for a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganges Delta where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. The river has been a symbol of purification since ancient times, yet the festival, the Ganga Sagar Mela, left its beaches polluted with human waste from pilgrims lacking sanitary knowledge, a common problem in the developing world, and access to toilets.
In 2016, that all changed. Thousands of toilets were installed, and religious leaders exhorted cleanliness, encouraging pilgrims to use the toilets and then wash their hands with soap. The results, according to organizers, were significant, with many people using a toilet for the first time, allowing the festival to efficiently handle waste.
The push for a “green and clean” Ganga Sagar Mela was a joint effort between the government, the festival administration and the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance of India — a group of Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain and other faith leaders who believe not only in a pure heart, but also a clean body and environment.
GIWA-India, which has also teamed up with UNICEF, is far from the first partnership between religious leaders and a development organization to tackle international humanitarian issues. Religious leaders are effective at spurring change because of their moral influence, strong community networks and on-the-ground insight into vulnerable populations. But they often lack technical know-how, and NGO workers sometimes need to overcome their own biases about working with religious groups. As they do, they are forging partnerships on issues ranging from health, nutrition and education to women’s issues and water and sanitation.
“For many years, people lost sight of the importance of religious institutions and beliefs in international relations,” said Katherine Marshall, senior fellow and head of the Religion and Global Development program at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
“But in recent years — particularly since 9/11, but really going back further to the Iranian revolution of 1979 — within the State Department, USAID, the World Bank and U.N. agencies, there is much more awareness that you simply can’t ignore religion,” Marshall said.
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People around the world consistently tell researchers they trust family members and religious leaders more than government or NGOs, Marshall said.
In India, 69 percent of the rural population has no access to toilets and engages in unsanitary behaviors like open defecation and not washing their hands, according to UNICEF. But 99 percent believe or practice a religion, and that’s where development groups and faith leaders see an opportunity.
“Government telling people to do something at a personal level, whether it’s washing your hands or using a toilet, is not that effective, but religious leaders have an impact on personal behaviors,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) for UNICEF.
Wijesekera said festivals like the Ganga Sagar Mela, where millions of people converge and religious leaders preach, are an opportunity because high emotional moments can change people’s behavior, whether it’s a religious festival or the birth of a child.
At GIWA-India’s first major event in the Himalayan town of Rishikesh, India, leaders of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh and other religions gave passionate speeches that broke taboos by addressing issues including menstrual hygiene and dignity.
“Religious leaders understand the community. They have the incredible gift of communication, they know how to reach people with stories and metaphors, and they can reach people emotionally,” Marshall said.
Religious leaders also have greater access to personal and family spheres than government or nonprofit groups, they operate media channels that reach large groups of followers, and they tend to be among first responders in emergencies, according to a UNICEF document of best practices for working with religious groups.
“Working with faith leaders is enabling us to harness collective and powerful voices,” said Susan Coates, UNICEF’s chief of WASH in India. “Faith leaders, once oriented, can explore social issues that are highly complex … in a manner that other actors are less successful at.”
It's also important to recognize that religious leaders are already involved in development issues, said Marshall.
“They’ve been involved in environmental protection, care of the poor, care of orphans — pretty much, if you look at it, from AIDS to zebras,” Marshall said. “On pretty much any issue, there is (already) a religious engagement historically and in the present.”
A religious lens
Marshall said development officials previously ignored religion in part because of assumptions about the separation of church and state and the fact that people aren’t learning as much about religious diversity in schools and universities.
But in recent years, U.N. resolutions have promoted interreligious cooperation and created an inter-agency U.N. task force on faith-based organizations. The U.S. government has also created offices in the State Department and other agencies devoted to faith-based partnerships.
“There might have been times when people saw development through secular, government-type institutions, but now it’s clear that we need a much broader range of partners,” said Wijesekera, including faith-based organizations and the private sector.
He cited a new partnership between UNICEF and the World Council of Churches aimed at protecting children’s rights. Other UNICEF partnerships have addressed education, health, nutrition and gender-equality issues.
Religious groups especially have a history of being involved with issues of clean water, said Marshall, because of its spiritual symbolism and use in religious rituals.
“In almost every belief, cleanliness is next to godliness, and water is sacred, to be cherished and preserved,” said Hindu leader HH Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, president of Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, India, and cofounder of GIWA-India.
The religious teaching about cleanliness at Ganga Sagar Mela and other mass outreach events gave followers not just practical information, but “newfound spiritual understanding … surrounding the importance of toilets as a crucial part of one’s daily cleanliness rituals,” Swami Chidanand said in an email.
One mistake some development organizations make in partnering with religious groups is “instrumentalizing” faith leaders, or viewing them as simply a tool, said Marshall.
She cited the example of hand washing, the “single most important activity to improve health. (An idea) might be, ‘Oh, good, let’s get religious leaders to tell everybody to wash their hands.’ That often generates a negative reaction from religious leaders feeling used,” she said.
“You want to have much more of an exchange where you learn from religious leaders … and engage them in whole strategy."
NGOs are best equipped to handle technical issues like finding financiers or determining the best place to dig a well, said Marshall, while religious leaders are adept at mobilizing people.
When there is a disconnect over cultural issues, a confrontational, shaming approach is usually futile or counterproductive, according to the UNICEF document, which advises first establishing common ground and shared principles, then building on those to express concerns.
Problematic attitudes or behaviors that are attributed to religion, such as genital mutilation or early marriage, are often based in much older cultural traditions and can be challenged best by religious leaders themselves, who can clarify that such traditions are out of step with religious teachings, according to the document.
Cleanliness and godliness
The sheer scope of many development issues, including water and sanitation, make partnerships with religious groups essential, said Wijesekera.
“In India you have 600 million people who practice open defecation, and that’s not a small number. You can’t do that village by village. It has to be a social movement that says this is unacceptable,” he said.
And yet, the ability to take a social movement village to village is exactly what WASH aims to do with initiatives such as the Toilet College, toll-free hotlines, and others.
The interfaith nature of the effort is also contributing to peace in a nation torn by religious strife.
“People told me later on that their eyes filled with tears as they witnessed this beautiful showing of togetherness at a traditionally Hindu festival,” said Swami Chidanand.
“The thousands who attended not only came away with a greater understanding of the importance of preserving our water and keeping our surroundings clean, but they also left with a heightened sense of peace, as brothers and sisters of so many faiths joined hands in a mighty vow for WASH for all.”
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World Water Day is March 22. Several organizations suggest ways to get involved: