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Global-health forum calls for religious, secular solidarity
Participants at a packed global health forum at McCaw Hall were told that Christian, government and secular groups can work together to foster humanitarian programs around the world
Seattle Times science reporter
Imagine a Christian organization, funded by the U.S. government, working with mosques in Afghanistan to improve child survival — and all in the shadow of the U.S. military.
"That's like throwing a match on kerosene," said Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, to a packed house Sunday during a global health forum at McCaw Hall.
But those disparate groups, including the Federal Way-based Christian charity, were able to work together to achieve their common humanitarian goal. The key to such collaborations, Stearns said, is for religious groups to recognize that secular organizations and groups from other faiths are not three-headed monsters — and vice versa. "There is room for everyone, and we can't afford to have anyone on the sidelines," he said.
With more than 200 Seattle-area organizations working to improve health and reduce poverty in the world's poorest nations, the goal of Sunday's forum was to foster collaboration between faith-based and secular groups, said Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Washington Global Health Alliance, one of the event organizers.
The world's richest philanthropy quickly learned the value of working with religious groups, said Bill Gates Sr., who ran the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in its early days and still helps set priorities. Gates partnered with the United Methodist Church to make the battle against malaria a signature issue. Today, the United Methodists are one of the world's top donors to the cause.
Cooperation from religious leaders will also be vital in eradicating polio, said Dr. Gary Darmstadt, director of family health at the Gates Foundation. Fueled by coercive population-control programs in the past, rumors spread in Nigeria that polio shots were a ruse to sterilize girls. Last year, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates traveled to Nigeria to meet with national leaders and prominent imams, who are now working to counter the rumors and encourage vaccination.
But Darmstadt said he hopes to see relations improve between religious and secular groups. "I would say we're not working as closely together as we could."
Darmstadt is just back from London, where he joined Melinda Gates in raising more than $4 billion in pledges from governments and foundations for a cause that has already alienated the Catholic Church and some other religious groups: boosting access to contraceptives in Africa and India. The Gates Foundation alone pledged to double its spending on family planning over the next eight years, to a total of $1 billion.
Religious groups can't be expected to participate in activities that violate their core principles, Stearns said. So obviously, Catholic groups won't be partnering with Gates to distribute contraceptives. But such points of disagreement don't mean cooperation isn't possible in other arenas, he said — a sentiment echoed by the senior Gates. "The public discourse around religion can give the impression that there is more disputed ground than common ground," Gates said, "and that's not true."
Many secular groups dismiss faith-based organizations as a bunch of "Bible thumpers from Alabama," Stearns said. But like World Vision, most groups have policies against proselytizing, he said.
Abed Ayoub, CEO of Islamic Relief USA, said his group battles the perception that they fund terrorists. Since the 9/11 attacks, federal investigators have combed through the organization's records several times, finding nothing amiss.
Islamic Relief, which specializes in disaster response around the world, does not inject religion into any of its work, Ayoub said. "Relief should not be used to advance any political ideology or religion."
Religious groups that want to help must be careful that they don't make the situation worse with well-intentioned but ill-informed efforts, panelists cautioned. Stories abound of facilities built but never used because outside groups neglected to learn about local needs and preferences. Equipment that local people can't afford to maintain sits idle. Stearns urged congregations to seek advice from organizations like World Vision before heading overseas. "I always say that when it comes to helping the poor, it is rocket science — it's complicated."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org