World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Press centre / News / WCC has key input at Global conference on religion and sustainable development

WCC has key input at Global conference on religion and sustainable development

WCC has key input at Global conference on religion and sustainable development

WCC staff member Sue Parry at the Conference on Religion and Sustainable Development in Washington, D.C. © WCC/Peter Prove

16 July 2015

Representatives from the World Council of Churches (WCC) offered significant input at a Global Conference on Religion and Sustainable Development held in Washington, D.C., on 7-9 July.

Conference attendees discussed the role of religion and faith-based communities in helping communities become more sustainable even as they face grave challenges related to poverty, disease — particularly Ebola and HIV/AIDS — and disasters.

At the conference, Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC Central Committee, also served as moderator for a panel discussion entitled “Perspectives: Religious and Faith-Based Communities.”

Abuom and others discussed how government and religious leaders can work together to help end extreme poverty. Together, they considered case studies on how to build global faith-based organizations and health ministries.

Religious leaders on the front line in Ebola response

In a session entitled “Ebola & HIV/AIDS,” Dr Sue Parry, WCC health and healing programme executive, spoke about faith-based responses to Ebola and HIV.

She explained that religious leaders were among the first to respond to the Ebola epidemic using platforms such as inter-religious councils, interfaith health task forces, malaria and polio immunization networks, HIV networks, pulpits and mosques, and major festivals and religious events — including Christmas, Easter and Ramadan — to raise awareness, address stigma and to communicate the need for social behavioural change, especially in burial practices.

“Their early engagement with chiefs and local community leaders created access to villages that otherwise may have been hostile to such messages coming from others less trusted,” said Parry.

Both the religious leaders and the Christian health providers recognized early on the necessity for community understanding and ownership of the Ebola response, she added. “Working alone or in consortiums, they carried out extensive training of community leaders and general community health volunteers who, in a door-to-door campaign, helped in the early identification of ill people, immediate isolation and rehydration while awaiting referral, and accompaniment and follow-up of thousands of household members.”

The Christian health service providers were on the front line, and many paid with their lives for the services provided, said Parry. “They were key in the provision of the non-Ebola essential medical services.”

Ebola is a classic example that a technical approach alone will not rapidly and effectively contain a disease that essentially requires a change in behaviour. “Community engagement is essential and the faith leaders were the first to recognize and act on this,” said Parry.

Unfortunately, there was a long gap in the Ebola response from United Nations (UN) agencies, she said, yet there were many faith-based organizations (FBOs) already on the ground. The UN did not leverage the capacity or the local knowledge of the non-governmental organizations and FBOs that have long histories in the affected countries, she continued.

“One of the biggest challenges, in relation to the UN, most international agencies and governments, is the preconception and prejudice that associates FBO humanitarian services with proselytization,” said Parry. “However, FBOs provide essential complementary services to government. Their service is both a mandate and an expression of their faith.”

Connecting policies with people in need

The Global Conference on Religion and Sustainable Development represents a shift in the prioritization of the World Bank Group to recognize the lasting transformative sustainable development and poverty eradication efforts conducted by people of faith all over the world, said John Nduna, general secretary of the ACT Alliance.

“It is through the deep rootedness in communities and the stay-power and relationships that faith-based organizations have with communities that can connect emerging World Bank policies to the needs of people whom we serve. It is not only a matter of partnership for reacting to emergencies, it is also about building a renewed sense of human dignity, community resilience, solidarity and ensuring that all of our actions, whether by the UN, World Bank, civil society, private sector or faith organization, are built on principles of human rights and care for the world God has created,” he said.

The conference had a range of speakers, from faith-based, academic, UN and bilateral backgrounds, according to Rachel Carnegie, co-executive director of the Anglican Alliance. "We not only gained insights on the significant and distinctive contribution of faith-based actors in relief and development, but also examined the most effective mechanisms for building partnerships. This longstanding development debate about the value of faith partnerships appears to have made a gear change and become, as one UN participant said, the 'new normal.’”

The Global Conference on Religion and Sustainable Development was convened and co-hosted by the World Bank Group, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. Agency for International Development, UK Department for International Development, GHR Foundation, World Vision and the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, a coalition of faith-based organizations and academic institutions.

Co-sponsors included the Catholic Medical Mission Board, Catholic Relief Services, Islamic Relief USA, Tearfund, American Jewish World Service, IMA World Health and McKinsey & Company.

Conference goals

The goals of the conference were to connect frontline policymakers to the evidence base and people with expertise in order to support more effective partnerships with religious and faith-based groups in the common cause of ending extreme poverty and promoting sustainable development.

The conference process focused on reviewing the evidence base and developing specific recommendations for action to strengthen effective partnerships between religious and faith-based groups and the public sector. It sought to obtain leadership commitments to follow-on activities and to establish specific next steps.

In his opening remarks, World Bank President Dr Jim Kim cited the Catholic social teaching concerning “a preferential option for the poor." He said that every religion shares this fundamental commitment to the poorest and most vulnerable and that this provides a common platform with the international development community aim to end extreme poverty.

“We are the first generation in history that can say we can end extreme poverty in our lifetime,” Dr. Kim said. “We can’t get there without all of you,” he added, addressing the faith communities. “We need prophetic voices to inspire us and evidence to lead the way.”

Proceedings of the Conference on Religion and Sustainable Development

Lancet Series on Faith-based Health Care

WCC health and healing programme