The year 1948 was historical not only for the founding of the World Council of Churches (WCC), but also for the launch of its neighbour down the road in Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO).
The year 2018 also marked a milestone in the launch of global Primary Health Care (PHC) at what was then Alma Ata in the Soviet Union in 1978.
“Today historically the World Council of Churches and the World Health Organization are 70 years, and the Primary Health Care anniversary is being celebrated next week in Astana, Kazakhstan and Primary Health Care will celebrate 40 years,” said Shiva Murugasampillay, director at Global Public Health, based in Geneva.
A seminar titled, “Faith in Universal Health Coverage: Primary Health Care at 40 and the World Council of Churches at 70,” was hosted by the WCC at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva on 17 October.
The seminar explored the past and present role religion is providing in primary health, analysing the work of medical missionaries and faith-based organizations (FBOs) such as the WCC and the Christian Medical Commission (CMC).
Murugasampillay said that the full extent of the role of the CMC in the 1978 Alma Ata Declaration in PHC is not well-known and that primary health care emerged from a collaboration between the WHO, WCC, CMC, and had its roots in the mission movement.
At the seminar, Dr Ben Walker, a Welcome Trust Researcher at the UK’s York University and Dr Mwai Makoka, WCC programme executive for Health and Healing from Malawi discussed how faith-based and ecumenical organizations developed PHC projects across the world in the 1980s.
Makoka explained how the WCC in August 1967 mandated the establishment of CMC.
There was a need for coordination as with more than 2,100 hospitals of member churches, operating costs were rising and governments started establishing similar facilities.
There was also a need for theological reflection: the unique contribution to health and medical services that should be offered by the churches.
“The church is not simply another service agency or foreign aid programme,” noted Makoka.
Murugasampillay said that a 25-26 October Global Conference on PHC in Astana, Kazakhstan would recommit to strengthening PHC to achieve universal health coverage and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Walker has done research on the history of faith-based organizations (FBOs) with a focus on Ghana.
In the 1990s, the success the relationship between the faith community and PHC was pushed aside “in favour of pharmaceutical delivery and a socially unequal health care agenda and programmes of disease prevention,” said Walker.
This year the relationship has begun to be restored and looking at the role of the CMC in the WHO is key to that, he said.
“Faith cannot be ignored in global health,” said Walker.