The public conversation around religion may give the impression that there is a wide gap between faith-based organizations and secular organizations working in global health. The recent Perspectives event, though, organized in Seattle by the Washington Global Health Alliance, completely dismantled that stereotype.
The event, as part of the Global Health Nexus, brought together leaders from different organizations involved in global health, both religious and secular, to have an honest conversation about the barriers to working together and how to overcome those. And it was amazing to see not the differences but the similarities between the organizations in the motivations for being involved in global health and the consensus that partnerships are essential to that work.
Faith-based organizations play an integral role in global health and development around the world. It is estimated that faith-based organizations provide up to 40 percent of the total healthcare in many countries in Africa. They do this by providing care in rural clinics, health education through community health workers, and even medical supplies organized by sister churches thousands of miles away. In villages, towns, and cities across the continent, people get guidance from their priest, their imam, their pastor.
Faith plays such a large role in daily life and the choices people make that these leaders must be involved when introducing new health interventions or promoting safer behaviors. One panelist, Sophia Teshome, with the SCOPE program in Ethiopia, pointed out that an outsider could call a meeting and no one would show up, but if the religious leader in the village calls a meeting, a diverse group of people will arrive within an hour. As such, faith-based organizations have a tremendous role to play in mobilizing communities and in enhancing the sustainability of health and development interventions.
Both secular and faith-based organizations can learn from the other as each one brings its own strengths and specializations to the global health arena. Richard Stearns, President of World Vision U.S., said that “Working with the poor is rocket science!” Professionalism is needed in order to effectively reach and help the poor, regardless of whether one represents a faith-based or a secular organization. Volunteers may play an important role as well, but they must be properly trained and supervised, and given tasks appropriate to their knowledge, skills, and role. In a great analogy, Abed Ayoub, the CEO of Islamic Relief USA, pointed out that you wouldn’t want an orthopedic doctor operating on your heart; you would want a heart surgeon.
In the same sense in global health, we must respect the specialties and expertise that development organizations bring. Different organizations bring different specialties to this work; each has something to contribute. In a repeated theme throughout the dialogue, panelists agreed that we can’t afford to have anyone on the sidelines; there are opportunities for all organizations to contribute to global health. All of us, however, must partner with local organizations, seek to understand and work within the cultural context, understand needs from the community’s point of view, and create solutions with them.
Working together is not without its challenges, as participants on the panel pointed out. Barriers of mistrust between religious and secular groups are common, as are stereotypes that inhibit nurturing partnerships. Oftentimes secular groups dismiss faith-based organizations as the “Bible thumpers from Alabama,” and sometimes faith-based organizations dismiss secular organizations as “three-headed monsters” that are bureaucratic and numbers-crunching.
But, as Caryl Stern, the President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF pointed out, those stereotypes, mistrust issues and the different religious values melt away in the light of personal interactions and the face-to-face connections. On the ground in communities around the world, Methodists are coming together with Muslims and Episcopalians; Baptists are partnering with Buddhists, Catholics, and secular groups. People are giving testimony to their beliefs through their actions in global health and development and their desire to help. And it does not include proselytizing, forcing religious beliefs on community members, or linking the provision of services to a religious commitment or act.
Perhaps the most striking message I heard from this event is a common bond. No matter what religious background, each person on the panel and in the audience was there because of the common belief in the sanctity of life of each and every human being. It is simply humanitarian work, guided by faith.
Ms. Stern, throughout her work, identified three frequent things that she has seen with kids around the world. First, where there are children, there will be some kind of ball. Second, Ms. Stern pointed out that your lap is not your own—a child will find it as soon as you sit down. And finally, and most importantly to today’s discussion, is that we all want the same thing for our children. And that is safety, health, and the opportunity for all children to live out their dreams by how they define it.
If each of us involved in global health can remember that we want that same thing and have the same goal for the communities where we work, then the things that may make our organizations different are really not the relevant piece. Let’s focus instead on the values, motivations, and common humanity that we all share.
Mr. Stearns pointed out that in global development, religion is often the elephant in the room, something that is right in front of us but we want to ignore. However, he argues, and the rest of the panelists agreed, that instead that elephant can be harnessed to use the influence and moral authority for humanitarian good. And partnering is crucial to do that. “There is no reason that people of goodwill cannot partner with people of good faith.”
My hope is that with this panel and event, we have begun harnessing the proverbial elephant with this open dialogue in order to begin to develop more effective partnerships. Simply put, we all have the same end in sight: to help those who really need our help. And it was inspiring to see leaders from different walks of life and religious beliefs find common ground for the work we share – and common ground has room for all of us.