Background: Andreas Hipple is a leader in the field of interreligious dialogue, with a bent towards dialogue focused on action to address social and economic issues and to build social cohesion. GHR Foundation, where he worked until recently, is taking on new roles in these fields, building on its long-standing work supporting interfaith dialogue and action for social justice. Andreas has substantial experience in Africa, both from his Peace Corps service and in various subsequent positions. In this discussion with Katherine Marshall on September 29, 2017, he describes the motivations that have led him to focus on interreligious work and his current areas of focus. The discussion highlighted his work, notably with CIFA, in Nigeria, and lessons emerging from that experience. It also explored the related challenges of peacebuilding and development and some of the difficulties in bridging divides, both between religious and secular organizations and among different areas of focus. He points especially to the potential for local and sub-national efforts, the challenges of linking them to national and transnational efforts, and the importance of focusing on how interreligious work fits within broader strategic programs and objectives.
How did you come to be involved with NIFAA (the Nigerian Interfaith Action Association)?
My involvement can be traced to my Peace Corps experience in Benin. There, I lived in a Muslim majority town, but also had Catholic neighbors. Thus I had to engage with religious issues and differences. I did not come from a background where such religious issues were prominent, but I soon became aware that they should, indeed must, not be ignored. It is vital to meet people where they are, and to engage with them actively and respectfully. When I finished my Peace Corps assignment, I went to SAIS [Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs], where I got a masters’ degree in conflict management. There and in my Peace Corps experience I ended up learning a lot about building bridges, something that has always animated me personally. I was increasingly driven to try to do more in that field.
When I began to explore job options, in 2009 I found a job description at CIFA [Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty] as deputy director. In checking out the institution and position I was concerned to make sure that the mission was not about proselytization, which I saw as an impediment, and was reassured that it was not. I had good conversations with CIFA’s then director, Jean Duff, and was offered the job. The work we did there was exciting, involving development, with respectful religious engagement, and building bridges. It offered a way to help make a difference and to engage in the peace building field in significant and new ways.
At CIFA I was thrown right into what was at the time (2009) a big opportunity that was developing, which was the creation of a new entity that became NIFAA. CIFA played a catalytic role in its establishment, and I went to Nigeria frequently, essentially for about two weeks every two months. What was involved was essentially capacity building, working with Bishop Sunday Onuoha, establishing a board, and helping to build the team, thus in essence working to translate an idea to reality. The first step was trying to implement an ambitious program on malaria and public health more broadly. CIFA was able to work with core funding from Ed Scott, its founder, but I quickly took on a central role in the effort to develop a funding application to GHR Foundation, that led to a grant for US$1 million. I was then responsible for managing that grant, which was all about building up capacity. We worked to connect NIFAA to key players on malaria prevention in Nigeria, including the Federal Ministry of Health, the World Bank, the National Malaria Control Programme, and other Nigerian counterparts, both in Washington and in Abuja. We were able to support them in doing quality work.
What lessons did you draw from this experience?
I learned a lot personally, and summarize it in part as loving the work and what that brought to the task through working together. In our role, we had many genuine conversations with religious leaders and many other men, women, and youth. These were authentic conversations surrounding the role of faith in their lives, inspired by a common cause (malaria) that was a matter of life and death, especially for young children. We were able to define clear ways in which religious leaders and institutions could operate in that space. The skills of being a good and empathetic listener were essential. We had to be open minded as we worked at it. I found myself often working out of my comfort zone, because I did not enter as a religious person. As I got more and more involved in the work I found it deeply rewarding.
There are important lessons to be learned from all the religious traditions. I would never say that I have a deep understanding of theology, but I have picked up snippets of inspiration that have left me with a deep appreciation for the people I worked with over, now, more than eight years. And this has increased my confidence that interreligious work has an essential role.
What led you to the GHR Foundation and how has that changed your focus?
My work on a GHR-funded program gave me exposure to the foundation’s leadership and priorities, and formed the basis of the relationships that led me to move from CIFA to GHR, which is based in the state where I went to college and where my wife has family ties. There I have shifted focus from essentially working at the grassroots to a broader strategic approach. This involves also looking to ways to break down institutional barriers. It has opened up ways to explore and help develop faith roles in peacebuilding, which was my original field of interest, though initially I was not particularly conscious of the roles of religion or even very comfortable with it. In that sense, I have made a significant transition in my career. GHR Foundation began with strong family Catholic connections and they have grown with that focus, with the objective of working to be a bridge in various areas. At the Foundation, we are able to bring resources to people who are doing creative work and, more broadly, to look to new pathways. I am privileged to have, in some sense, stumbled onto something so fitting and exciting.
Looking at the Nigeria experience, what do you see as major insights, both into practical ways of working and ways to overcome challenges?
When I began working on the NIFAA challenge, NIFAA was in the process of getting formally registered. The original (and current) executive director, Bishop Sunday Onuoha, was already in place, and we worked with Tom Woods [ex-State Department official], who was an advisor to CIFA. Two senior and respected Nigerian religious leaders, Cardinal Onaiyakan (then archbishop) and the sultan of Sokoto, had been in Washington, D.C. at a major launch event that involved CIFA’s founder, Ed Scott. Thus we had a green light to create a functional organization.
Among the major (and continuing) challenges were to secure reliable, continuing program funding. That has proved to be especially difficult, though in the early stages that had been secured. Continuing core funding is, though, essential, because otherwise it is next to impossible to retain a core staff and to build and look to a continuing role.
Another significant challenge has been to ensure fair and equitable involvement of Muslims and Christians, both at the leadership and at the staff levels. We and NIFAA took this very seriously. We developed clear internal guidelines that, for example, made it very clear that there would be no place for proselytizing.
The religious angle was very well cared for from the beginning. Other challenges included a succession of challenges around management, staffing, and governance, and thus figuring out what needed to be done to meet them to do good programming. The group did not have much public health depth, nor was there much real experience in fields like accounting and management. NIFAA benefitted from a charismatic day-to-day leader, but nonetheless working with an interreligious organization meant a continuous effort in wrangling with religious leaders. There was only so much the leader could do to keep religious politics and other challenges out of day-to-day management.
The NIFAA team was youthful, mostly very smart and eager to engage, but they did not have much NGO experience. A challenge was to get them to think like an NGO, without losing the core essence of being a religious entity. We needed to work hard to find staff who could help bridge those gulfs.
CIFA was able to help in filling various roles, plugging gaps, and offering organizational development knowledge. Still, NIFAA was subject in various ways to the politics of the NIFAA Board, and this involved a clear balancing act, to ensure that various strands of tension and difference, particularly on the Christian side, did not detract from the organization’s core mission. Some board members had vested interests, as did certain people on the staff, which was not unreasonable but sometimes difficult to manage. In short, capacity building was a balancing act all around! This was necessary and understandable, and it was important that key players be astute about the tensions and opportunities, essential to engaging and maintaining the essential levels of high-level support and deep Nigerian ownership of the organization.
Both the organizational issues and underlying divisions and the challenges of securing core funding did slow NIFAA down. And questions about continued buy-in still arise; that’s a continuing challenge. But NIFAA has kept going. I worked with NIFAA staff regularly from 2009 to 2011, and appreciated the tremendous camaraderie. We developed genuine friendships and we were all part of the team. This highlights that by working together you can build relationships, even across wide divides.
We need to apply that lesson, but at scale. That is of course part of life, part of the secret sauce. But it is also a central and especially demanding challenge and opportunity in interreligious relationships. We need to work to regularize that, working through efforts like NIFAA. We also need to think more deeply about training and about the challenge of having enough resources to build those deep relationships. There are incentives to train lots of people, but not necessarily through training that goes deep enough. That is a complex challenge. So, obviously, is the need for better evaluation, starting with the NIFAA experience. The World Bank has done some studies from 2010-11, that indicate positive results. They suggest that indeed NIFAA is on to something. But we do need to go into greater depth, for example assessing differences from state to state, identifying the factors that really made a difference.
One sense I have, that should be probed in greater depth, is how to make NIFAA more regularly part of non-faith organizations. That kind of partnership and association is where we will see the greatest long-term impact, where there is the real potential.
You have also been involved in peacebuilding work in Nigeria (and elsewhere, notably in the Central African Republic). How do you see the landscape of such work in Nigeria? Coordination is cited often as a challenge. How do you see that challenge?
The intrinsic challenges of peacebuilding in Nigeria are obviously large, diverse, and complex. My reading is that there are few truly effective national efforts around interreligious leadership, but a lot of work at the state and local levels. It is here that it is possible to point to some successes and especially interesting work.
That said, there are some examples of high-level success that focus on interreligious cooperation and leadership. The most noteworthy are those around Cardinal Onaiyakan, the Catholic Archbishop Kukah, and the Sultan of Sokoto. But the challenges facing NIREC [Nigerian Interreligious Council, affiliated with Religions for Peace] and the tensions within the national Christian umbrella organizations represent significant obstacles. This largely explains why there is not a clear path to addressing religious tensions and peacebuilding approaches on a national scale. NIFAA is not designed nor is it positioned and financed to fill that gap.
What are major interreligious efforts that you see, especially those that have transnational links?
The Anglican Churches and the World Council of Churches (WCC) have been much involved, as has the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (and now its newer incarnation—the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which pulls several strands of his philanthropic vehicles together, including good governance and religion). Religions for Peace as a global interreligious body, working in principle through NIREC, has long seen peacebuilding in Nigeria as a priority, though the current focus of their strategy is not entirely clear.
The work of Sheikh Nurudeen Lemu and the Islamic Da’awa Institute is impressive and is very much locally driven. He is based in Minna, west of Abuja, and has done work training imams and on university campuses, including developing training modules. They do some important work in partnership with Archbishop Kukah’s center. The work seems productive and offers much potential to grow, though a question is how it fits within a larger effort. Likewise, Cardinal Onaiyakan’s work (and that of his colleague Sister Agatha Chikelue) is promising; the GHR Foundation is supporting in particular their work on leadership training.
For KAICIID (King Abdullah bin Aziz Center for Interreligious and Interreligious Dialogue), Nigeria is a country of particular focus. Also well-known and supported by both USIP and Initiatives of Change is the Interfaith Mediation Centre led by Pastor James Wuye and Imam Ashafa. It is focused on interreligious peace and prevention of conflict. USAID has financed IMC’s Tolerance project, in partnership with Darren Kew at UMass-Boston; they’ve pulled together some good people. Mercy Corps has explored the religious dimensions of both tensions and work for peace. Their action research and specific surveys reflect some interesting work, and some is with some with religious leaders. UNDP is also doing interesting work on extremism. Their preliminary conclusions seem to validate the importance of interreligious work and especially the roles of local faith actors in breaking negative cycles.
It does seem that there are many initiatives and many meetings, some of them duplicating one another. A stock-taking of overall strategies and links could be helpful. The core question, obviously, is how this work relates to what is actually needed. There is an obvious need to link national to local approaches in much better ways.
My own view is that efforts that focus on specific themes and issues, like the former State Department initiative to engage religious leaders on anti-corruption, are important and offer promise of creating more organic networks that can connect the more religious actors to secular civil society organizations. All the important issues facing Nigeria are more than religious, and a religious focus cannot stand on its own. A part of landscape that is missing is connecting the religious to the local and secular. That is a piece that needs to grow. Technical knowledge of issues is often sorely missing in religious communities (in Nigeria as elsewhere). And in secular society the moral authority is notably missing. One path ahead is to focus on how to better evaluate and strengthen partnerships, to ensure that we are learning from past and ongoing efforts much more comprehensively. Another is to address the gaps in religious literacy, that seems to matter a lot. This is far less a matter of theology than of basic knowledge and meetings at a human level.
A very strong common theme in many discussions about Nigeria seems to be the view that politicians abuse and misuse religion and create or accentuate tensions.
Yes, indeed. Not just in Nigeria.
What, in your view, is the ideal and also practical way to provide core funding for organizations like NIFAA?
That is a really good question and a big question that we are wrestling with in various ways. At least a part of such funding could and probably should come from religious communities themselves, but there are many practical obstacles in the way. Insofar as the work is an integral part of the development engagement of the religious communities, local or national governments could be involved. In practice, international partners/donors will be an important part of the funding plan for the foreseeable future. A central challenge therefore is to make it easier to see that there are efficiencies, that working through interreligious organizations is probably cheaper and more organic than a lot of other ways, and that it can play a key part of stimulating behavior change; that is, after all, a central part of the challenges societies face in trying to thrive. We have always said that faith actors, and religious leaders are in the in business of behavior change, as long as we can channel that capacity without instrumentalizing the institutions and using them (or appearing to use them) as tools. The key, once again, is respectful partnership, but with that it is possible to deliver a whole range of messages and leadership. This offers paths that can transform lives as well as public health campaigns.
For Nigeria specifically, the question is especially complex given the society’s wealth combined with public finance challenges. The answer for core long-term funding should be a combination of public and private resources, domestic and international. Given the preoccupation all around with corruption, there are many areas of treacherous terrain.
Have you explored the potential of Zakat as a source of funding? This was a major theme at a July 2017 meeting in Ndjamena.
Not in any depth.
Looking more broadly at GHR’s role and strategies, you are emerging from a strategic review. Can you point to any central conclusions or ideas on future directions?
GHR Foundation (and its sister organizations) have a long-standing and continuing focus on children and on interreligious action. We also are well-positioned to help bridge secular and religious divides, as we have engaged with success in efforts to build partnerships with governments, NGOs, and religious institutions.
Given this continuing focus on interreligious action, the foundation is exploring the question of whether working through interreligious approaches is more a methodology or a field in itself, and our inclination is towards the former. That means that interreligious work and insights can be applied across the range of issues that are our focus, for example public health, the welfare of children, and changing approaches to orphan care. Internally we have use the analogy of Intel and its processors, which are found in thousands of products. We mean this in the sense that interreligious action can be compared to a “chip” that can be used in pretty much any development field to gain better outcomes. It can also be seen an ingredient that makes things better when applied in a sensible fashion. We hope to help others integrate interreligious approaches into a wide range of activities or programs.
GHR Foundation also works purposefully to address the absence of significant philanthropic work in interreligious action (as well as intra-religious), trying to play a role that connects different philanthropic efforts to interreligious action in a strategic manner. We also look to invest in deeper interreligious action by exploring what we call nexus organizations—organizations that influence others, can share lessons widely, or that can advance the spread of effective and inclusive interreligious approaches. The idea is to unlock what many organizations, including notably international NGOs, have as an underused potential to “cook” interreligious approaches into their activities. An example is some of the interreligious work that CRS [Catholic Relief Services] is undertaking in areas where Catholics are far from the majority community. CRS works with some 800 partners around the world. If there is buy-in to a common commitment to learn from each other, to refine and advance, there is a large potential for action. CRS has invested a lot—some of it with GHR support—in training its staff and partners to integrate interreligious approaches. The work of the Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP) is another example there. The idea is to put religion more purposefully and strategically on the broad agenda and thus raise the level of engagement, and we are seeing AfP’s Effective Inter-religious Action in Peacebuilding project spark new and deeper conversations between secular and faith-based peacebuilders. And finally, the focus on children puts the interreligious work in special focus given the almost universal commitment of religious communities to the welfare of children.
How do you see the issue of coordination among various groups that share a basic goal of ensuring that religious elements are a meaningful part of development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding work? There seem to be a plethora of initiatives, with some resulting confusion and even tension.
I fully agree that this needs attention. My first push is towards more transparency. There are risks involved, beyond duplication or heading in different directions.