Skip to content Skip to cookie consent
Tearfund home

South Sudan: Local faith leaders are crucial to saving lives as COVID-19 cases near 2,000

29 Jun 2020

  • Local faith leaders have a vital role to play and must not be overlooked in humanitarian work
  • Local Christian and Muslim leaders and aid agencies working together strengthens response in South Sudan
  • New training model combines small grants with remote coaching

Mentoring and coaching via Whatsapp, together with small grants, have improved trust and opened up opportunities for local faith leaders and communities to collaborate with international aid agencies in South Sudan.

Pilot schemes of a ‘Bridge Builder’ model, developed by Christian and Muslim aid agencies working together, have enabled two-way, shared learning opportunities that could be replicated elsewhere.

The ‘Bridging the Gap’ consortium comprises: Tearfund, Islamic Relief, RedR UK, The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) and the University of Leeds.

The ‘Bridge Builder’ model was partly inspired by a vision that humanitarian aid should be ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary’ (UN, 2016). It combines small grants and high quality mentoring to bring together local Christian and Muslim faith leaders and international humanitarian agencies to increase understanding, trust, and coordination by strengthening each other’s skills and capabilities.

The overarching goal of the model is a more effective and timely response to best support those affected by humanitarian crises. South Sudan was chosen for a pilot of this model because there are tremendous humanitarian needs, along with a significant international - and predominantly secular - aid agency presence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the many challenges already being faced by South Sudan. The threat to livelihoods posed by the current lockdowns, plagues of locusts invading parts of East Africa and recent severe flooding means many farmers have lost homes, crops and cattle - leaving more than half of South Sudan’s population facing the likelihood of acute food insecurity.

International agencies currently have limited access and mobility, highlighting the vital role played by local faith leaders in providing community support systems.

The international humanitarian sector’s ability to interact positively with them is crucial, especially at this time. Although many faith organisations and leaders are actively responding to humanitarian needs, the experiences shared by those who took part in this study suggest they are often sidelined by international agencies and overlooked in decision making about how best to support their own communities.

Zabib Musa Loro, the Executive Director of the Islamic Development Relief Agency (IDRA) - a local faith organisation trained and supported by the ‘Bridging the Gap’ consortium - explains how, for years, people mistakenly thought that IDRA only helped Muslims: ‘We were discriminated against, and every year we struggle to renew our registration with the local council. Through the programme, I learnt to engage more with the community and the council and from the various projects we implemented, IDRA now has the community's full support. The Islamic Council in South Sudan, in recognition of our contributions has recently nominated us to speak on the role of women in conflict resolution and Gender Based Violence (GBV).’

Joan Jane Moses, who works for the Diocese of Kajo Keji, explained: ‘Before taking part in the Bridge Builders project, we were simply seen as a church. At the moment we are facing the coronavirus pandemic, but we’re seeing how this model has equipped us with the skills to take part in humanitarian coordination meetings and access life-saving funds to support returnees living in the refugee camps.’

Tearfund’s Country Director in South Sudan, Anthony Rama, said: ‘Churches and people of all faiths live in the communities they serve before, during and after times of crisis. They can offer long term sustainability and are uniquely placed to understand the needs and possible solutions for the communities that they serve and belong to.’

The following key recommendations are explained in more detail in a report entitled Bridge Builders: Strengthening the role of local faith actors in humanitarian response in South Sudan - A two-way model for sharing capacity and strengthening a localised response

  • When aid agencies and local faith leaders and communities share their skills and knowledge, humanitarian response can be more effective.
  • Faith leaders and communities in South Sudan are ready, willing and able to engage with the wider humanitarian system.
  • International humanitarian workers and agencies have much to learn from local faith leaders and communities, who have vast experience and understanding of their local context. International humanitarian responders should examine and remove the barriers that have stopped them from partnering with local faith leaders and communities previously.
  • Equipping local faith leaders and communities with humanitarian skills training will mean they are better placed to participate in decision making and more successful when applying for funding.
  • In-depth learning opportunities over a longer period are more effective, especially if funding is also provided to enable local faith leaders and communities to put what they are learning into practice.
  • The replicable two-way ‘Bridge Builder’ model trialled in this research would enable widespread collaboration between local faith leaders and other humanitarian responders.


For further information or interview requests call Esther Trewinnard on 07783 409045 or Tearfund Media Team on 020 3906 3131. For out of hours media enquiries please call 07929 339813. Notes to editors:

  1. There are 1,989 confirmed cases and 36 COVID-19 deaths reported in South Sudan. With a struggling health system the country is not well equipped to handle this new crisis. See:
  2. The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 marked a moment of general recognition that an imbalance of power exists in humanitarian work. INGOs too often lead and hold the purse strings, leaving too little space for local actors to influence decision making. The summit concluded that humanitarian aid should be ‘as local as possible, as international as necessary’ (UN, 2016).
  3. Link to Bridge Builders: Strengthening the role of local faith actors in humanitarian response in South Sudan or via
  4. South Sudanese researchers Wani Laki Anthony and Kuyang Logo were embedded as participant observers to analyse the implementation of the ‘Bridge Builder’ model and its effectiveness. International relief and development agencies, Tearfund, Islamic Relief, and RedR, worked with local South Sudanese partners including the Diocese of Kajo Keji and the Islamic Development and Relief Agency. The research elements of the project were overseen by Prof. Emma Tomalin, University of Leeds, and Dr. Olivia Wilkinson, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. The Research Team implemented the research over 15 months (Oct 2018 - Dec 2019) documenting all project details through an ethnographic approach. The team interviewed 48 people, including local faith actors and local, national and international organizations.
  5. This research was funded by the Federal Government of Belgium, Directorate-general Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid.
  6. RedR Uk Associate Trainer, Colin Walker, said: ‘Remote coaching support was initially a challenge as many agency directors were located deep in rural villages, but they travelled to where there was 3G network and I coached over WhatsApp calls and a question-and-answer system by sending voice messages and photos. Six months after finishing the project, I am still in touch with many participants.’
  7. Images featured in the report are available on request. Please contact [email protected] to request images and accompanying captions and credits.

Tearfund is a Christian relief and development agency and a member of the Disasters’ Emergency Committee. Tearfund has been working around the world for more than 50 years responding to disasters and helping lift communities out of poverty. Find out more at Islamic Relief is an independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded in the UK in 1984 by a group of medical doctors and activists. Find out more at RedR UK has 40 years of experience building the skills and knowledge of humanitarian workers and affected communities to respond to crises such as disease outbreaks, conflicts and natural disasters. Between 2010 and 2019, we improved the capacity of 57,726 humanitarian workers in 35 countries to respond effectively to humanitarian crises. Find out more at The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) is an international network of academics, practitioners and policymakers building evidence of faith groups’ activities and contributions to local health, well being and ending poverty. The JLI works through cross-sector, multi-religious, collaborative learning hubs and knowledge partnerships to gather evidence and convene partners to improve policy and practice. Find out more at Islamic Development and Relief Agency (IDRA) is a fast growing indigenous faith based humanitarian, relief and development not-for-profit NGO registered in South Sudan. Find out more at

Share this page

Share this page to spread the word and help support those in need.

Get our email updates

Learn about our work and stay in touch with Tearfund. Hear about our news, activities and appeals by email.

Sign up now - Get our email updates

Cookie preferences

Your privacy and peace of mind are important to us. We are committed to keeping your data safe. We only collect data from people for specific purposes and once that purpose has finished, we won’t hold on to the data.

For further information, including a full list of individual cookies, please see our privacy policy.

  • These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems.

  • These cookies allow us to measure and improve the performance of our site. All information these cookies collect is anonymous.

  • These allow for a more personalised experience. For example, they can remember the region you are in, as well as your accessibility settings.

  • These cookies help us to make our adverts personalised to you and allow us to measure the effectiveness of our campaigns.