Religion is not often pursued as a source of engagement in the international discourse on development. While faith-based organizations have received a greater audience and exerted greater influence in the past few years under the Bush administration, it is still uncommon for international development agencies to incorporate religious loyalties, insights and communities into their regional or national agendas. This pattern of development practice grew, perhaps, from an attempt to pursue a secular agenda that offended none and therefore was acceptable to all. However, in neglecting the religiosity of the poorest of the poor, the development agenda fails to acknowledge and learn from some of the most innovative, influential and sustainable development actors: the religious leadership of the world's poor.
In the Islamic countries of sub-Saharan Africa, certain religious leaders are making great strides in advancing an ambitious development agenda among their constituent population of believers, who are among the poorest of the poor. In Niger, a country that consistently ranks at the very bottom of many development indicators, the religious leadership of the Niass Tiianiyya, one of the predominant Sufi brotherhoods in Niger, is engaged in a variety of anti-poverty, empowerment and literacy programs that touch the lives of the poorest Nigeriens. Its progress in women's human, economic and reproductive rights is especially remarkable considering the education and poverty levels of the adult population in Niger.
The efforts and progress of these actors are of great value to international development agencies and actors as we pass the midway mark to accomplishing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Regional divergence is increasing, with sub-Saharan Africa falling considerably behind despite the continuing efforts and financial resources funneled into the region. The Niass Tiianiyya may not only provide some guidance in tackling the persistent problems of extreme poverty, high infant mortality, hunger, illiteracy, inequality and disease in Niger, but its leaders may also prove to be compelling and effective partners in the fight to achieve the MDGs in the 21st century. While these leaders do have access to considerable personal wealth, it is their extraordinary spiritual capital that has enabled them to address these issues with such success in Niger.
AN AFTERNOON IN KIOTA
The afternoon al-asar prayer was called just as we entered the small town of Kiota. (1) I adjusted my head covering and breathed in the dusty air of western Niger. As the prayer ended, Sheikh Moussa Aboubacar also known as Sheikh Moussa, the spiritual leader of the Niass Tijaniyya, walked up to his vast concession, a concrete monolith in Kiota. He was accompanied by two military guards, his assistants, an entourage of disciples from Niger and elsewhere in West Africa, and other men and women who pay tribute to Sheikh Moussa's "spiritual power"--or baraka--and seek his spiritual guidance and support. (2) We followed the group of believers up two flights of stairs and into a sparsely decorated room where, one by one, Sheikh Moussa listened to their requests, while receiving small gifts of tribute. Some asked for material assistance, others for spiritual support. Most disciples knelt at Sheikh Moussa's feet while making their requests in hushed, deferential tones and few looked at him directly. After each disciple whispered his entreaty, Sheikh Moussa offered a prayer that their hopes be realized. They sat with their hands raised, palms facing inward to partake in the prayer he offered to God, which touched by his blessing had a greater chance of being granted than their own.
Sheikh Moussa performs this ritual of tribute and blessing daily for thousands of Niass Tijaniyya Muslims from Niger, Senegal, Nigeria and other West African countries. The Tijaniyya is one of several Sufi brotherhoods found in West Africa associated with the "non-sectarian Muslim tradition" of Sufism that emphasizes a more mystical religious practice, expressed mainly through the veneration of saints. …