Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches


Thank you for asking me to speak during the WCC and ACT Alliance Joint Day on the theme “Ecumenical Diakonia and Sustainable Development, with a specific focus on ‘Ecumenical Diakonia: the joys and challenges of working together from a faith and rights approach’.

Firstly, I will illustrate the landmarks of the WCC and ACT Alliance joint journey that calls for celebration and joy. Second, I will highlight a few areas that require both institutions to continue to build bridges. Third, my presentation points out opportunities and potentials as we continue to pray, walk, work and remember together.

Ecumenical diakonia is an integral part of the mission of the church. It is about transformation of lives and working to change a long history of asymmetrical power relationships between humanitarian actors. Hence at the formation of the WCC in 1948, it was a major pillar that addressed humanitarian needs in the aftermath of conflict. The International Convention on Human Rights was also established in 1948. The issue of faith and rights as informing each other, not least in the context of the aftermath of the Second World War and the continuing challenges to human dignity. Declining respect for human rights must force Faith Based Organizations to address this issue.


I: The Joys of Praying and working - Ongoing- Cooperation

There are milestones that should give us joy and gratitude to one another and above all to God.

i) The long-standing vision, commitment, legacy of the ecumenical movement through CICARWS work over many decades with churches and social movements grounding the faith basis of diakonia as well as affirming diakonia as a component of the mandate of the church.

ii) Lessons learnt on resource sharing from Larnaca and El Escorial consultations in the 1980s and discerning the Way, now translated as “using your talents”.

iii) The formation and existence of ACT Alliance enlisted heated debates between WCC and leadership of Specialized Ministries. We should celebrate strengthened relationships, including our sharing, the National Platforms, a desire to be professional and alignment with global developments from a faith platform.

iv) Joint efforts by specialized ministries through the formation of ACT Alliance which provides platforms for coordination of resource mobilization and activities and sharing of experiences.

v) The joint advocacy office in New York that has strengthened cooperation between ecumenical partners and churches on MDGs and now on SDGs.

vi) Giving voice to the voiceless – integrating advocacy into humanitarian work.


II: Areas of bridge building: Challenges

Over the years the movement has evolved “ecumenical discipline” to guide operations and relationships between the various organizations across the globe. As we reflect on bridges to build and challenges, the question we need to ask is: How can the one ecumenical movement be as Olav Fyke Tveit put it, “a thick and not a thin layer that holds all of us” (July 2018 – Kigali). From an African perspective, we ask how the philosophy and idea of “Ubuntu” – You are because I am and I am because you are, be strengthened; because the philosophy of Ubuntu is about our lived realities together with all creatures in “web of life”. We are tasked to rethink and to ensure that the language and approach of rights does not necessarily conflict with that of Faith. Rather, our task is to develop a life affirming, enriching, sustaining and fullness of life approach/approaches. Let me lift up a couple of issues/concerns that need bridge building in our work as ACT Alliance and WCC.

  1. Relationship with churches which revised statutes should enshrine and build on the achievements made since the Malawi meeting on the theme of “Hope in Action”. It is of uttermost importance to remind ourselves that the basis and foundation of our identity including matters diaconal, is our Christian faith and values that we subscribe to. Other identities, such as NGOism, risk losing our strategic niche. Therefore, ACT and WCC should ensure that our identity is acknowledged, articulated in documents as our DNA including our strategic niche. It is this understanding.  The relationship between churches as a base for ACT – Alliance and WCC should form the basis of identity and inform the work.
  2. The role of churches as spaces of solidarity, accompaniment and refuge in contexts of trauma and mental illnesses caused by different forms of violence, racism, xenophobia and discrimination/marginalization. Churches could through ACT national platforms continue to be symbols and enablers of unity in diversity.
  3. Hold creative tension between Faith and Rights approaches constantly ascertaining that ACT-Alliance as an FBO should first and foremost bring to the fore faith perspectives at the same time drawing from the Rights approach that which is relevant in a sensitive manner.
  4. Dialogue on narrowed spaces for diversity and shrinking space for civil society organizations. Respect of human dignity of all and earth communities for a just, fair and safer world.  In addition, the global crisis of values is a trend that impacts the work and bridge building between FBOs and other actors especially governments is of essence. It should be noted that shrinking space for CSOs impacts on social accountability.
  5. Power Relations within and between ACT Alliance and members. “You cannot cut a Mugumo Tree with a Razor blade”. The issue of power relations in humanitarian work and the partnerships thereof has dogged our methods and approaches of diakonia. Financial muscle and a long culture of asymmetrical power relations mean skeletons remain in the closets, posing a danger of making  unhealthy partnerships real. The type of surgery required for change of attitudes, mind set and long term imbibed culture which is like a “Mugumo tree” cannot be done by a razor blade but an axe.  This is because although we all now have seats at the table, the weight of the voices remains differentiated.
  6. Security and Humanitarian Code of Conduct, both WCC and ACT have staff codes of conduct in place. We are however aware of the violations that take place in the field and offices, as well as the insecure work environments.  Given recent developments in humanitarian work and the rise of violence against women and girls including children, monitoring mechanisms should be reviewed, developed appropriate to cultural contexts so that voices of victims and survivors can be heard and redress sought.


    III: Exploring new opportunities

    Global challenges and changes require exploration of new opportunities. For example, it is evident that the humanitarian crisis no longer attracts the requisite resources as witnessed in the conflict in Yemen and the Horn of Africa including other places. Environmental changes – such as ever more frequent hurricanes – have increased demand for humanitarian aid beyond national and global contingency plans. It is therefore time for change and to live the change we advocate.

    1. Multilateral and bilateral agencies have intentionally reached out to FBOS as partners in socio-economic development and conflict resolution. What are the long-term consequences of this on the faith paradigm, practice and nature and scope of respective constituencies? What are the risks of “instrumentatlization” of FBOs? How do we add value?
    2. The place and role of ACT-Alliance and WCC in Advocacy, especially the processes of decision making, potential overlaps and National Platforms that retain the place and role of churches as the main stream, while other actors/NGOs are streams - as resource organizations. The need to jointly assess how to ascertain coherence of and synchronized advocacy messaging that emanates from local contexts of people and churches and not necessarily above.
    3. The move by secular actors to partner with FBOs provides an opportunity to reflect on the “Theology of Wealth Creation” (Prov. 8), from a Christian perspective a process started some years ago by John Taylor, former Christian Aid Director. Moreover, the work begun on Ecumenical Diakonia should continue and develop an inclusive Theology of Diakonia that will guide and anchor faith approach in the work in the coming years.
    4. Environmental challenges and how to work together to reflect on ecological footprints and how to transit to low carbon society; eradication of poverty and just communities of women and men.
    5. Social and multiple accountability requirements while a challenge it also provides potential to find avenues and mechanisms for creative and constructive dialogue at national and global level with governments and other actors.


      Trends from the past are reappearing, including: modern slavery, racism and xenophobia, migration, poverty and environmental degradation. Millions of women, children and men are in conflict zones and under kleptocratic leadership where they lack access to basic services. In these contexts, FBOs and not least the churches are on the frontline of saving lives, sheltering those on the move and in search of refuge. The ministry of diakonia must re-engineer its approaches and accept and implement the assertion by Hellen Keller which is Biblical in the book of Ecclesiastics that “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”.

      Ours is to find, nurture and support the leadership of our time that cherishes and works for the common good of humanity and the proclamation of the good news of Jesus that liberates and saves humanity from the vices of destruction of the people of God and the earth communities. And so in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity” (Martin Luther King Jr.). And may I add leadership in love with and stewards of the earth creatures. Let us arise to the call and embrace the challenges as we pray, walk and work together.