USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Catholic Sisters in Nigeria: A Case Study

Catholic Sisters in Nigeria: A Case Study


Unique Role of Sisters

This case study seeks to illuminate the unique role that Catholic sisters play in Nigerian society and the communities they serve. It also highlights why it is so critical for the Sisters Initiative to support them. When CRCC researchers asked sisters in Nigeria what differentiated them from others who provide health, education or other social services, they responded that:

“Sisters empower people to be good leaders.”

“Sisters are special because of their commitment, coupled with the standards they keep.”

“When you educate a sister to get a degree, education improves her as a woman and empowers other sisters, who are able to apply themselves in their apostolates with confidence ”

“Sisters have a lot of power! We can be the voice of the people and bring awareness to their needs.”

“Sisters want to advocate for an end to violence against women and children.”

Nigerian sisters see themselves as spiritual workers embracing the poorest and most vulnerable members of Nigerian society. Sisters shelter and nurture women who have been victims of human trafficking, work with people who have been displaced by violence between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram in the country’s northeast, engage in conflict resolution to ease Nigeria’s inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions, partner with NGOs to prevent communicable disease, and advocate for community services in areas that Nigeria’s often ineffectual government has neglected. Nigerian sisters often go where others refuse to serve and provide strong spiritual witness through their work. They have a uniquely embedded perspective on the complex needs of Nigerian communities and vulnerable populations because they live side-by-side with people and intimately understand the challenges that they face on a daily basis. Nigerian sisters have suffered alongside their communities. In turn, members of their communities—along with Catholic and non-Catholic stakeholders interviewed in Nigeria—trust sisters and see them as honest interlocutors with local, state and national governments as well as private institutions. Nigerian sisters truly represent Conrad N. Hilton’s vision of sisters as those who “devote their love and life’s work for the good of mankind.”


The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative launched its first five-year strategy in 2013. As the measurement, evaluation and learning (MEL) partner of the Sisters Initiative, the Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) at the University of Southern California has been documenting and analyzing the Sisters Initiative’s grant-making strategy since 2014.

At the request of the Sisters Initiative, CRCC is conducting research to support the development of the second iteration of its strategy for 2018-2022. In order to understand the needs of Catholic sisters and their missions in Sub-Saharan Africa, CRCC was tasked with developing country case studies for Zambia, Uganda and Nigeria.

CRCC’s methodology is based on the country assessment model used by development organizations. Such assessments can provide a landscape analysis in a particular field (e.g., education), a risk analysis, a list of key partners, and/ or the identification of particular regions with the most need. They are typically based on a literature review and at least 2-3 weeks in country with time to interview a wide variety of stakeholders. They can provide field-level, real-time information to make decisions on whether to invest time and resources into tackling an issue in a country, as well as to develop an initial country strategy so that an intervention has the highest chance of success.

Rather than focus on a particular field, this case study is unique in that it seeks to understand the ability of one set of actors—Catholic sisters—to meet the needs within the country. It responds directly to the Sisters Initiative’s request for information on five sectors that it is considering funding through its second strategic phase: food security, education, maternal and child health, human trafficking, and entrepreneurship and microfinance. In each of these areas, which align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the report documents the scope of needs, the role of sisters, key players, challenges and opportunities.

The case study of Nigeria builds on the previously published Zambia and Uganda case studies; indeed, many of the challenges and recommendations for sisters as well as the country priorities are similar in all three countries. This report refers back to the Zambia and Uganda case studies for both similarities and differences. In particular, food security emerged as a clear sector priority from the Zambia case study. Uganda, however, complicated the narrative of five sectors. Key informants repeatedly told CRCC that poverty eradication, a key element of all five sectors prioritized by the Sisters Initiative, was Uganda’s priority. And while food security and poverty eradication are also urgent concerns in Nigeria, almost all of our Nigerian informants said that poor governance is the root of most development challenges in a country that is rich in natural resources and human capital.

This report should be considered the beginning of a conversation on how the Sisters Initiative’s next strategy can be implemented at a country level, and not a full-fledged country assessment. CRCC’s relatively brief time in Nigeria (one week) and limited access to stakeholders constrain the conclusions that can be drawn from this report. If the Sisters Initiative decides to invest more deeply in Nigeria, it could employ a consultant who is an expert in a particular sector to broaden and deepen the analysis available here and to provide more specific recommendations on how to have the greatest impact on a given sector or set of sectors. Nonetheless, this report concludes with an initial assessment of Nigeria’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, along with recommendations for the Sisters Initiative to consider as it crafts the second iteration of its strategy.

Click here to read the full report.