I’ve travelled across much of sub-Saharan Africa for the purpose of meeting families and communities, described as living in “absolute poverty”. Each time I expect to be confronted with images of despair and hopelessness I could not be more wrong. Children giggle uncontrollably at “the westerner” trying to say hello in their local dialect, and women living with HIV radiate hope and faith for a better tomorrow.

Herein lies an unlikely, but obvious coupling – faith and international development. Beyond the visible infrastructure of schools and hospitals the efforts at the local grassroots level often remain overlooked and forgotten. Yet it is here that church networks extend into the darkest city slum and the most remote rural areas, beyond the reach of even the most robust NGO 4×4.
It’s here – at the epicentre of food security, famine or flood disasters, at the heart of the Aids pandemic – that the church is having the greatest impact. It is here that the church offers the greatest potential in helping to scale up wider efforts for poverty reduction.

For more than 20 years, Kigezi diocese has been delivering water and sanitation to households in remote mountainous parts of south-west Uganda, several hundred metres above ground and surface water supplies. Since 2006, 23 voluntary women’s groups have been trained in masonry and have now installed 4,000-litre rainwater catchment tanks for the benefit of the poorest households. Kigezi diocese is now influential in national policymaking on water.
Elsewhere in Africa, the Churches Health Association of Zambia, a network of church-owned hospitals and health centres, provides nearly a third of Zambia’s healthcare, and half of its rural healthcare provision. Ethiopia’s Kale Heywet Church – which fields 6,000 congregations and more than 5 million individual members – is the largest local provider of antiretroviral drugs for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. A network of 1,000 local church leaders in Rwanda are now rolling out a three-year programme to train 2.5 million Rwandans on how to combat malaria and rebuild peace through reconciliation.

And, in the thick of Zimbabwe’s political crisis, church leaders have played a key role in disseminating information about what is happening throughout the remote rural communities, and have been some of the loudest voices speaking out against injustice. In addition, the practical day to day relief comes when pastors with their sleeves rolled up are providing water from huge tanks in church compounds, or running food distribution centres.

Is the church perfect? Of course not. The church has sometimes been on the wrong side; harmful attitudes have contributed towards the stigmatisation of people living with HIV, and the failure to speak out against political oppression. Here the church also needs to be challenged and transformed. However, overall, local churches are playing a vital role in the global movement to eradicate poverty.

Matthew Frost is the chief executive of Christian relief and development agency Tearfund.

Opinions expressed by p.s. contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Contemporary Christianity. Contributors are invited to freely express their opinions, whatever the issue, in order to encourage robust and respectful discussion.