In three years over 2 million people have been reached with potentially life-saving messages delivered by volunteers

Daily life in Buedu Town in the far eastern part of Sierra Leone is typical of this rural part of the country. It is a quiet, agricultural area with people working on the land or taking advantage of the proximity of the border with Guinea to trade goods. And on Fridays and Sundays the local Mosque and Church are full. Sierra Leone, like many parts of Africa and other parts of the developing world has religion at the centre of its daily life. Faith leaders are known to everyone and widely respected, listened to and involved in most people’s lives.

In the last few weeks, a group of volunteers have been conducting house-to-house visits in Buedu Town delivering five potentially lifesaving messages about malaria, including how to properly use the mosquito net that every house in Sierra Leone should have. They did not know it at the time but this group of volunteers helped reach a significant milestone: this national program had reached its two millionth person, meaning that in just three years, a third of the population had been reached.

The program, Faiths Act Sierra Leone, uses the social capital of faith communities to spread messages to even the most remote places – where there is always a church or mosque but not necessarily a medical clinic. Sierra Leone may lack public health provision, but it has got many people of faith. What this program has proved is that they can be powerful agents of positive behavioural change.

The program trains leaders from different faiths to work together and take action. Staff on the ground train faith leaders in five malaria prevention messages; these key messages are then passed onto their congregants who carry out household visits delivering simple, practical advice throughout the country. They ensure that messages about the use of the mosquito nets, and other malaria prevention measures, are fully understood by members of the public.

Since 2011 the program has supported 680 Muslim and Christian leaders in Sierra Leone training over 16,000 members of their congregations and volunteers within their communities. We have worked with the Sierra Leonean government as well as the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone to ensure we are complementing the National Malaria Control Program.  Independent research by Ipsos MORI shows the impact this has had. There has been a higher use of mosquito nets – the number of people not using them has halved. People are using the nets more effectively. Fewer children are showing symptoms of malaria. Parents better understand that they have to seek medical help if symptoms show. 

Our appeal to the international community is to look carefully at this model. Research by the United Nations estimates that in the next few decades the world’s 49 least developed countries are projected to double in size, from around 900 million inhabitants in 2013 to 1.8 billion in 2050. As well as the opportunities that this brings, there will be huge pressure on existing infrastructure. This type of rapid growth will also increase the need for community cohesion. We therefore need practical, cost-effective and sustainable solutions. And we cannot afford to ignore existing resources or infrastructure that can help with development.

Because of the high levels of trust of religious leaders and their congregations, this approach is value for money. Faith communities reach remote areas and because these communities volunteer on the basis of their religious motivation, it’s not expensive. Recent UNICEF figures for Sierra Leone show that it costs around $6 to distribute a mosquito net. In 2013, the cost per person reached by Faiths Act Sierra Leone was only 50 cents. This is a small price to pay for a lot of additional value if it means the nets are more likely to be used in the right way.

Sierra Leone has had historically good relationships between those of different faiths. In other countries where these ties are strained, collaboration between those of faith and none could be an effective way of weakening the corrosive narrative of extremists, working together to ensure that the social capital of faiths communities can be harnessed to make a huge difference. In places where relations between different faiths are much worse, such as Nigeria or the Central African Republic, this sort of work could give religious leaders a common goal to focus on together.

This collaborative model, with different groups working together to achieve sustainable and cost-effective change on the ground, could be adapted and replicated elsewhere. As we mark World Malaria Day, Sierra Leone’s experiences using the power of faith communities to prevent malaria could provide an important lesson to other countries.