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Religions as partners in COVID-19 response

This year’s PaRD Annual Forum was different. The event has been held virtually with only few PaRD members physically gathering at Humboldt University in Berlin. But this didn’t prevent high level speakers from joining the discussions!

Festival of Lights at Humboldt University

Despite all challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PaRD has hosted virtually its Annual Forum and General Assembly of Members 2020 from 3 to 4 September. The discussions focussed on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sustainable development and on ways of better communication between Faith-Based Organizations (FBO), Local Faith Actors (LFA) and governments to respond and get access to funding. The few PaRD Members that were able to attend the meeting in physical presence, gathered in the Senate Hall at Humboldt University in Berlin. As PaRD Member, the University’s Research Programme on Religions and Sustainable Development hosted a Capacity building workshop together with PaRD work-stream WECARE and presented its findings and expertise around religious actors and COVID-19 response at the Annual Forum.

In the meantime, around 80 members and high-level panellists attended and spoke at the Forum virtually. Since this year’s meeting originally was planned to take place in South Africa and had to be postponed to 2021, PaRD Secretariat on behalf of the PaRD Steering Group invited the Minister of Health in the Republic of South Africa, Dr Zwelini Mkhize, and Mr Alvin Botes, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of the Republic of South Africa to speak at the virtual panels. Also, the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, gave a keynote address, as well as many other valued PaRD members such as International Dialogue Center (KAICIID), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), US Agency for International Development (USAID), World Bank, World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), Georgetown University, Christian Aid, ACT Alliance and more.

COVID-19, as all speakers agreed, has become a new challenge for sustainable development. According to Christian Aid’s “Building back with justice” report published in July 2020, the world now faces the deepest economic contraction since the Great Depression. Millions more people who were already struggling with poverty will face even more severe hardships. Falling incomes and disruption to trade and transport have made food increasingly unaffordable for many people in the poorest countries. Namely, the report states: “Without swift and effective government intervention, human suffering will be prolonged, and individuals and societies will face a much bigger challenge in recovering from the pandemic. Richer countries have been able to act, and have done so on an extraordinary scale, setting aside economic orthodoxies to protect jobs and incomes, safeguard essential services, support businesses, and stabilise markets. Poor countries, with few resources, limited safety nets and weak essential services, have not had the same space to act.”

As South Africa’s Health Minister, Dr Zwelini Mkhize, said during his PaRD Annual Forum’s Opening speech: “The pandemic has unmasked the depth of social challenges like wealth gaps, food insecurity, job and income insecurity, poverty, access to health care and access to clean water and efficient energy.” Governments alone don’t have the capacity to cope with those pandemics. Faith communities were an important partner for the government not only in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but also with regard to the planned implementation of a National Health Insurance in the Republic of South Africa and the Community Oriented Primary Health Care, where faith communities work at local level and have a presence “in every corner of the country.”

On behalf of the people of South Africa, I would like to thank the religious community for the overwhelming support at every level as we navigated our way through the devastating storm of COVID-19: from the donations of Personal protective equipment (PPE) from countless Faith-Based Organizations, to volunteers delivering medicines, food and hope to the destitute.

That is why he called for strong, sustainable partnerships between governments and faith communities to enhance long term sustainable solutions for the people.

Cooperation between religions and governments needed

In his keynote speech, Mr Alvin Botes, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of the Republic of South Africa, highlighted the country’s solidarity within the African continent, signing the Agenda 2063 of the African Union, “because we want an Africa that is more inclusive regarding prosperity and we want to close the inequality gap”. Indeed, this year, South Africa has the chair position of the African Union, with the objective “Silenc the guns”. Mr. Botes referred to challenges in regions of Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo and to the Peace Process in Sudan. “Our observation in South Africa is, that if you don’t silence the guns, the possibility for prosperity, development and post-peace development becomes very limited”, he said. He agreed that governments needed to rely on religious communities as important social capital and partners.

I hope of this conference up until 2021, the key should be thinking about development skills, huge anti-poverty programmes, that will define our partnerships.

According to the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, “churches do not want just to be implementers of government programs or policies,” but have a personal relationship with the people they serve and not only a bureaucratic one. He claimed that oftentimes there was a lack of continuity in political leadership by the governments. Regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the poor, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka called to move from rhetoric to implementation.

The Church, the state and the NGOs in partnership should act with urgency to address Covid-19 challenges and not only the immediate emergencies, but also structural changes for the way state and faith networks cooperate after Covid-19.

This pandemic has highlighted the importance of Faith-Based Organizations that have been able to swiftly build up their networks to develop response systems, much like they did in Ebola and Zika, Dr Kenneth Staley, Executive Director of the USAID COVID-19 Task Force, stated. “They have longstanding connections to hospitals and clinics, local leadership and most importantly to communities and families and that has made them a go to resource for information and basic needs and of course emotional and spiritual support.” What he found most inspiring was the commitment to service that these organizations had. “World Vision for example has committed 350 million dollars from its own resources to scale up its work with faith leaders. And I think that the network that they’re creating has the potential to really be a game changer in terms of how we distribute information because much of what we need to think about is infection control and social and behavioural change”, Dr Staley said.

The environmental dimension of COVID-19-response

“The current pandemic has added more strain to the existing global challenges”, Dr Iyad Abu Moghli, Principal Advisor for Strategic Engagement with Faith-Based Organizations (FBO) at UN Environment, highlighted. “Had we made faster progress on the SDGs, the world would have been better equipped to face COVID-19: with stronger health systems, fewer people living in poverty, less gender inequality, a healthier environment and more resilient societies”, he said. That had made the SDGs a top priority agenda again. And climate change remained a real threat, Abu Moghli reminded the attendees: “January 2020 was the hottest month of January ever recorded, one million species will be put to extinction within the next years, and air pollution is killing millions of people every year.” According to him, the international community should consider the environmental dimension as part of a global response to the pandemic:

We need to improve science and policy options to better understand and respond to zoonotic threats and design risk and response programmes to improve countries’ ability to reduce zoonotic threats through approaches that take impact on nature into consideration.

Gender-based violence under Lockdown

Ms. Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, Chief Executive of Christian Aid, pointed to the negative consequences of the pandemic for women and girls. For example in Colombia, Christian Aid had seen an over 50 percent increase of gender-based violence. Furthermore, women and girls working in the informal sector were strongly affected for example in Bangladesh or South Sudan. She quoted from the Christian Aid report, saying: “There is a real danger that people in poverty are forced to take short-term measures to cope with the crisis, from selling assets to withdrawing their children from school, that carry long-term costs and deepen already extreme wealth inequalities. These impacts are likely to fall most heavily on women and girls, widening the disparity with men and boys.”

Further findings on the consequences of COVID-19 on religious communities and Faith Based Organizations were presented after the discussions by Ms. Mercy Niwe, Leader of Global Faith Engagement at the World Bank and her evidence body on “FBO COVID-19 response” as well as the survey on Religious leaders’ perspectives on Corona by the Research Programme on Religions and Sustainable Development of Humboldt University.

How can Local Faith Actors find better access to funding?

With these challenges becoming more critical throughout the pandemic, the main question is how Local Faith Actors and Faith-Based Organizations can have access to more funding for their COVID-19 responses? In the Multi-stakeholder Roundtable Discussion, funding partners, implementing partners and analysts came together to discuss. Ms. Mercy Niwe from World Bank outlined three main challenges that FBOs face in accessing funding.

1. Lack of capacity: “On behalf of the FBOs to access bank funds and understanding bank cooperation, but also lack of understanding from bilateral and multilateral agencies of the critical role and impact of faith in development.”

2. Lack of proper coordination at country level: “It is imperative that FBOs coordinate with our country officers and any mission officers so that cooperation starts there and organically can go to the global level.”

3. Lack of proof of concept and quantitative data “on the critical role and impact of faith in development. There is a lot of focus on the micro issues that might not feed into the SDGs. So, as we collaborate and build each other’s capacity, it is crucial for us to really focus our work on the most vulnerable.”

Dr Thorsten Göbel, Director of Programmes at ACT Alliance, addressed the continuing invisibility of Local Faith Actors during COVID-19 response.

There is an overall tendency that more of humanitarian COVID-19 funding goes to large actors and grants and less to NGOs. This doesn’t really fit to the COVID-19 work LFA are doing.

Therefore, he stressed the need to create coalitions between various faith actors and other interested actors to deploy larger sums of money. Furthermore, too little of UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan has flown to local and faith actors. “More funds need to flow quicker to local NGOs”, he ended.

Dr Olivia Wilkinson, Director of Research, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, stated that LFAs are primarily funded by transnational religious networks and international FBOs. Localization between international FBOs and LFAs has been on-going for many years.

We could learn a lot from localization and funding from these relationships between international FBOs, transnational religious networks and Local Faith Actors delivering services and helping their communities on a daily basis.

Even though religious institutions struggled to continue and finance their work throughout the crisis, they continued their services with positive examples of religious leaders giving up their salary to be able to help the communities.  

Her colleague from World Faiths Development Dialogue, Georgetown University, Dr Katherine Marshall, summarized: “We’re talking about the largest financial packages that have ever been mobilized in the development world”, emphasizing that faith communities should be part of the decision-making process on funds allocation. “Most promising are community driven development programmes, large national programmes that are open to different communities, basically applying to some kind of fund. There are many forms of these in many countries and they’re very promising and should be open,” Dr Marshall said.

How can Local Faith Actors find better access to funding?

Dealing with poorer countries’ debts has been another important issue addressed during the PaRD Annual Forum. “With a predicted shrinking of 7 percent in Africa’s overall economy in the current COVID-19 crisis, debts are an important issue to be addressed mainly by the non-state actors”, Mr. Alvin Botes, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of the Republic of South Africa, outlined. “The accumulation of debts will lead to less funding of social programmes”, he stated, not undermining that China so far has been the biggest creditor in Africa.

Ms. Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, Chief Executive of Christian Aid, did not hide her critique on the role of governments in this regard: “What we have seen in the past months is a lack of ambition and commitment by governments to actually look at the situation of debt crises. We as Christian Aid found that more than 64 countries spent more on servicing the debts than on public health care”, she said. “COVID-19 is often said to be an equalizer of people. Of course, anybody can be infected, but at the end COVID-19 has increased the inequalities.

So, my ask especially from governments who are with us on this platform today: Can we please agree an ambitious debt relief package for the most debt distressed developing countries including the cancellation of the debt repayments for this year and for next year?

The problem of corruption

The president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, made it pretty clear that some people in South Africa are seeing this crisis “not as moment of solidarity but as an opportunity to selfishly enrich themselves by stealing the resources meant to alleviate Covid-19 through corruption.” The speakers agreed that corruption is an important issue to consider when it comes to funding for LFAs. Sheikh Nuruddeen Lemu, Director of Research and Training, Da’wah Institute of Nigeria, addressed the problem of money laundering in Nigeria, making the transfer of money from other countries to NGOs in Nigeria difficult.

There is a need for major donors to see what kind of conversations they can have with the Nigerian government and the central banks to see how they can ease and filter known NGOs from those who are questionable.

He stated the need for more creative and easier ways of direct funding for local NGOs, “because sometimes the administrative costs of the foreign partners especially the foreign currency really becomes a big leaking bucket”. Dr Katherine Marshall from World Faiths Development Dialogue, Georgetown University, reminded religious leaders to face the problem of corruption in their own communities and make their voice against corruption heard on international platforms and conferences.

PaRD as a platform for dialogue for religions and governments

PaRD is a unique platform bringing together governmental and non-governmental entities. Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer from KAICIID, who moderated the discussions as a PaRD Co-Chair, summarized: “In this space we are trying to explore ways for best engagement and ways to complement each other’s effort from religious actors and policy makers. I am hoping, which is really the core mandate and mission of PaRD to have such a space alive and constructive for sharing lessons learnt and experiences and inform policies that can be responses implemented on the ground.”

Having two representatives of the South African government on board, the attendees of the panel discussion also got the chance to hear their expectations towards PaRD:

It should be of interest for PaRD on how to activate closer cooperation between state and non-state actors. The South African government wants PaRD and all participating stakeholders to increase its footprint and to deepen partnership in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa.

His suggestion to PaRD was to discuss how religious communities could become a reliable and trustworthy partner for social cohesion, in the execution of poverty reduction and development programmes and that their role for development could be deeper defined.

Finally, also the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, highlighted that PaRD should not be a “talk-shop”, but that the discussions “must lead to concrete action and implementable programmes that make a difference in the lives of people for the better.” He added: “It is my hope that when we meet next year, here in South Africa, we will be able to evaluate the extent of our success and where we have failed and note the reasons for such failure and to avoid them in the future”, the Bishop said. 

By Claudia Zeisel, PaRD Secretariat

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