WHO hooks up with non-State players, but will that help faith groups?

(Photo: © Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)African Christian Health Associations Platform chairperson Karen Sichinga from Zambia addresses a meeting looking at the role of church and faith based organizations in providing health services held at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva Switzerland on May 25, 2016.

The World Health Assembly has adopted the World Health Organization Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors, after more than two years of intergovernmental negotiations.

It was announced on May 28, the final day of the WHA, which involved a variety of church and faith-based organizations among the many non-state actors during its week of meetings in Geneva as it grappled with the new arrangement.

"The framework on engagement with non-state actors was arguably the most difficult item to negotiate," WHO director general, Dr. Margaret Chan said in her closing remarks after grappling with corporate interests and NGOs arguing their cases.

NGOs and faith-based organizations are uncertain if this will increase the voice they have in the world health body, but international organizations are certain that the role of faith groups is vital in global health.

Members of the United Nations, international groups and non-governmental organizations came together at a panel discussion entitled "Global Public Health: The future role of faith-based organizations" held on 25 May in the Ecumenical Centre at the World Council of Churches.

WCC general secretary, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, said, "It is not a discussion of whether faith-based organizations belong to big discourse, but is one of how shall we do it, and how shall we do it in a decent way."

He said that FBOs, the acronym used to refer to religious groups in health, made up of the likes of Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others had met at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul the week before.

Tveit said in seeking a holistic solution to medical health, use can be made of the "commitment, capacity and networks" along with the "real faith, faith in God and faith in the gifts God has given to the church to participate" in the "healing of the world and bringing just communities together."

Representatives of UN groups and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said it was easier to deal with representative groups such as the WCC and ACHAP (African Christian Health Associations Platform) whose chairperson, Karen Sichinga from Zambia, spoke.

"It is clear that therefore our national governments cannot work alone. They will require strong partnerships and from non-state actors such as Christian health associations," said Sichinga noting, "it is estimated that 20 to 60 percent of health care in sub-Saharan Africa is provided by FBOs mainly from the Christian faith."

Sichinga said, "Governments need to transform the way they operate and need to be more cognizant of the role of our association or FBOs. FBOs' unique role has to be strengthened by national governments and by our international community.

"We have been relied upon by our national government to deliver services at low cost, high efficiency and reduced bureaucracy. We bring to the table value for money serving poor and vulnerable communities for more than 100 years."

Dr. Sam Mwenda, general secretary of the Christian Health Association of Kenya (CHAK) and vice chair of ACHAP said, "FBOs' engagement with health is a long-term commitment. Even in times of conflict in our nations we continue being there working through our extensive networks.

"We provide a wide range of health services and with compassion to those who are really disadvantaged. We have a lot of investment in infrastructure at parish, national and global levels."

Mwenda said Christian health associations embrace partnerships and in Kenya they are training doctors and nurse and are responsible for about 40 percent of medical services in the country.

The panel moderator, Dr. Manoj Kurian coordinator of the WCC's Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, noted that the transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) has shown an unfinished agenda in global public health.

The meeting looked at transforming from the era of the MDGs to the UN's SDGs for 2030 in which medical services are clearly mapped.

Dr. Christoph Benn, director of external relations at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria told the panel that faith communities play a fundamental role in addressing health challenges.


"Many hospitals and clinics around the world can trace their roots to people of faith and are still managed by churches and other religious bodies," said Benn, noting that faith leaders and institutions have been fundamental in addressing stigma and educating communities about health.

Dr. Cherian Varghese,coordinator for the management of Non Communicable Diseases for the WHO from India explained that civil society along with FBOs are powerful in the medical health services sector.

"At the national level FBOs can be role models helping churches to promote good health in their work as providers of health care and with their community participation can influence health literacy," said Varghese.

"In the international context, the WCC is engaged in global advocacy for highlighting health needs as it participates in global dialogue and policy making."

Dr Mwai Makoka, executive director of the Christian Health Association of Malawi said that church health groups represent a structure complementary to governments for service delivery.

"They have the same goals but different mandates. The one is constitutional while the other is biblical," said Makoka.

He noted that medical institutions run by FBOs "are resilient, especially where governments are weak or nonexistent, and in emergencies and epidemics," while citing the combatting of HIV and AIDS and Ebola.

Theresa Nyamupachitu, a senior program advisor with IMA World Health in Kenya spoke about her US-based international NGO founded in 1960 by six Protestant mission organizations with a vision of health, healing and well-being for all.

"FBOs play a significant role in health service delivery – with geographic coverage, infrastructure, different services and with their community network" and are they are "first responders in emergencies such as in the Christian Health Association of Liberia," in the fight against Ebola

Dr Bimal Charles, general secretary of the Christian Medical Association of India (CMAI) explained how this group punches above its weight in many of the Indian states, serving not only minority Christians but all others in the country.

In Allied Health Science, the CMAI runs 25 Allied Health Professional (paramedical) courses through 57 training centers under the Central Education Board of CMAI and also supports many government health ventures in different aspects of health care.

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