Loosely spread across the base of Shillong Peak, the small town of Laitkor in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills typically plays host to the passing of coal mining and cement tricks. The surrounding greenery is dotted with small scale farms, passing goat herds and residential bulding projects. Within this one road town however, a testament to change and hope for the less fortunate children of the hills stands quietly next door to the local tea house. The Gilead Bethel School, a project of the Children and Youth Evangelical Association, offers free education to some 200 Khasi students from poorer backgrounds, years K to 11, aimed primarily to those who could not afford or access education in the surrounding towns and villages.
I first heard of the school when sipping some red tea down the street. I’d happened into the school’s chaplain and business manager, Rev. Ratan Sherpa, an Evangelical of Nepali descent. The Rev. Ratan was happy to give me a tour of the school. Walking through the wrought iron gates, I was greeted by laughter, smiles and the welcoming and warm attitudes that seem to define the Khasi Hills. Children dressed neatly in blue and white peered out from their classrooms while the Reverent walked me through the courtyard and into the school hall.
Despite historically being left in a development field of their own, even being described as taboo by Kurt Alan Ver Beek (2000), religion and development seem to be inseparable in many contexts. Religious NGOs and civil society organizations continue to hold a strong and meaningful place in communities, both in terms of maintaining or altering socio-cultural structures, and directing resources and development. Islamic NGOs wield great influence throughout Bangladesh, especially amongst the most insecure and conservative groups, and in terms of finance, Islamic Financial Institutions dominate access in Bangladesh and are growing. In neighbouring Meghalaya, Northeast India, Christian NGOs dominate civil society, with most non-government schools and hospitals being operated independently or under the umbrella of Christian organisations.
The place of religious organizations in contemporary development is contested between those who believe RNGOs are powerful actors and capable of producing great change where necessary or desired, and those who believe RNGOs are ‘too hot’ to handle, difficult to partner with due to differing goals and risk altering structures to serve it’s members and followers exclusively, or prioritizing benefits, toward followers. Both perspectives are valid, RNGOs often have a far greater influence within communities than secular NGOs, or distant organizations such as the World Bank and UN, but some RNGOs have proved hard to work with, and approaches sometimes do differ from secular NGOs. Examples include contraceptive programs related to HIV/AIDS and conflict resolution between religious groups.
Despite fears and doubts of critics, RNGOs continue to hold a central place in communities and in the lives of individuals. Few actors have the ability to connect so strongly with stakeholders and beneficiaries, to the point of becoming a piece of individual and community identity. RNGOs aren’t going anywhere, and despite the risks and complications involved in working with many, perhaps INGOs should work hard to greater employ these grassroots powerbrokers. In the case of the Gilead Bethel School, Laitkor, resources, skills and faith have combined to produce a long term asset for the community and will continue to provide hope and expand capacities of it’s members for generations to come.