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Faith-Based Organizations Make Link Between Faith and Health

September 20, 2012

A new report on faith-based organizations (FBOs) confirms that these groups are vital to meet the current and future health care needs of Africa.

The report, commissioned by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, synthesized research on the role and impact of the tens of thousands of FBOs working on health in Africa - organizations that represent a diversity of faiths and denominations. There’s a major pearl of wisdom in this report, but first, some key points.

There has always been a link between faith and health, going back thousands of years with people looking to spiritual forces for causes and cures to illnesses. Today’s faith-based organizations use more science-based technology and are major contributors to Africa’s health care systems while still addressing both physical as well as spiritual health.

The evidence is clear: FBOs have a major role to play in global health because of their vast networks globally and at the community level, their high level of trust from their constituents and community members, and their commitment to caring for the health and lives of everyone, including the most vulnerable.   

This report also highlights the strengths FBOs have, particularly in the area of community-based health and behavioral change communication programs.

Religious organizations all across Africa have become leaders in HIV education, prevention, and caring for HIV-positive community members. Pastors, imams and priests have become global health experts, and of course, they should know best how to speak to their community of faith with language and messages that are acceptable to and impactful with that community.

Another issue this report highlights is the difficulty of knowledge sharing within the faith-based community and with secular non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, and governments. Information and knowledge on lessons learned is generated but then tends to get lost. As a result, the people working on the ground providing services are oftentimes unaware of the work of others or research findings that could contribute to their own work.

The global health community is gradually engaging more with faith-based organizations, but there is an inclination of mistrust from both sides, secular and faith-based, when it comes to partnering. But, just as the panel concluded from the Perspectives event: we must all work together to make the world a better place.

The report provides a few recommendations for these organizations. Better research is needed on how faith-based organizations contribute to global health, the best way to document that contribution, and how to improve communication and collaboration between the FBOs and secular organizations as well.

The report also suggests taking a fresh perspective of faith-based organizations in this rapidly-changing world of ours. Faith-based organizations should embrace this data-driven world to have better insight into their contributions, to identify changes in health markets, and to better deliver those services.

These organizations should be aware and react to changing trends in Africa. For example, the growing middle class may be at odds with the mission of many FBOs to help the poorest of the poor. Or the current global focus on strengthening government-run health systems, which would change the independent nature of many of the FBO’s services. A forward-looking view of the roles these organizations can and should play in health care in Africa will embrace these changes and allow them to continue to be vital to global health.

And the shining pearl of wisdom I discovered in the report? The lessons learned are not just for FBOs. All of us working in global health need to be forward-thinking, respond to changing trends, have better evidence for decision-making and strategies, and improve coordination and knowledge sharing between partners, regardless of our religious affiliation. Focusing on shared goals and common ground can help to build the trust that is critical for creating more effective and lasting partnerships.

For me, this report reiterates a repeated theme: each of us working in global health brings something different to the table. As such, we must work together to complement our efforts as we all want the same thing: to help those who really need our help to have healthier and more productive lives.

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