by Sonali Salgado, Inter Press Service (IPS)

The United Nations has realised that if it wants to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, it will have to partner with like-minded faith-based organisations (FBOs).

“It is important to invite religious leaders and faith-based organisations and other secular organisations and work together. It’s the only way,” Gladys Melo-Pinzon of the FBO Catholics for Choice told IPS. “The U.N. and the other international agencies understand that it’s true,” Melo-Pinzon said. In recent years, the United Nations has tried to work more closely with faith-based organisations (FBOs). “We’ve been working with the U.N. and hope to continue working with them,” Yousseff Abdullah told IPS on behalf of the FBO Islamic Relief. For the past few years, Islamic Relief has worked with UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP). A joint Islamic Relief-UNFPA effort has led to the establishment of women’s centres in Sudan.

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From August 3-4, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) gathered representatives of 41 FBOs -including Islamic Relief and Catholics for Choice - and numerous international agencies ranging from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to the WFP for a meeting in New York. Since Dec. 2007, UNFPA has asked FBOs working in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean: “What should we do better? What should we do more? What projects should we work on, and in what particular ways?” At the New York meeting, Azza Karam of UNFPA told IPS, FBOs were presented the “shopping list of recommendations.” According to Karam, they were told to select the areas that FBOs and international agencies would “work on together for the next three years.” “UNFPA is hosting this meeting because it is part of the culmination of the vision of its Executive Director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid,” Abubakar Dungus of UNFPA told IPS. Since she became director of the UNFPA in 2000, Obaid has been leading the drive to collaborate with FBOs. “She has said that development work would be more strategic and sustainable when such actors – already among the world’s largest basic health-care providers – were engaged in common efforts on the MDGs,” according to Dungus. Obaid stresses that FBOs are key players in health care services. “In most developing countries, anywhere between 30 to 60 percent of basic health is being served through faith-based organisations,” Karam told IPS. “In Latin Ameica, 70 percent of hospitals are still run through or by the Catholic Church.” Moreover, the World Bank has noted that, in some countries, health services offered by FBOs are better than those of the government.

At the two-day conference here, FBOs and international agencies identified reaching gender equality and improving reproductive health as the goals on which they would collaborate. “Partnerships between faith-based organisations and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, are critical to enhancing efforts to reduce maternal deaths and end violence against women,” UNFPA said in a press release. Maternal health and female empowerment are two of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2000. The MDGs also include eradicating hunger and poverty; achieving universal primary education; reducing child mortality; combating HIV/AIDS malaria, and other diseases; ensuring environmental stability; and developing a global partnership for development.

The maternal health goal is “at the heart of the MDGs but lags behind the most,” Dungus said. “This is the 21st century and yet women are dying because they’re giving birth or trying to give birth,” Melo-Pinzon stressed. According to the UNFPA, FBOs can assist in reproductive health not only because of their significant role in the health care industry, but also because of their position in individual communities themselves. There is “a critical personal and community-based connection between the people and the faith-based organization centres providing services,” Obaid said. Melo-Pinzon concurred. “The main actors who can approach grassroots and communities in general are people who are related to faith,” she told IPS. “When you’re in conflict,” she continued, “faith gives comfort.” Obaid noted, “the profound moral authority that religious leaders have” and “the fact that religious organisations are the oldest social service providers humankind has known.”

But, quite ironically, as some FBOs strive to improve reproductive health and gender equality, they are betraying the edicts of their church. In their efforts to develop reproductive health, Catholics for Choice, for instance, promotes access to contraception despite the Vatican’s strong opposition to contraceptives. “We are challenging the wrong policies of the Catholic Church, which is misunderstanding the principles of compassion,” Melo-Pinzon said. “We’re saying ‘you’re wrong! You’re wrong!'”