AIDS 2012: Faith-based aid and secular humanitarians still uneasy bedfellows

WASHINGTON, DC — Here at the (ridiculously) big International AIDS Conference, I’ve been wandering around listening to scientists talk about science and policy makers talk about policy but not hearing much about another critical issue in AIDS:

Charity, and the role of faith-based groups.

Being charitable is the central tenet of almost every religion. Charity is the ‘greatest form of love’ in Christianity, the ‘third pillar’ of Islam as well as the ‘third observance’ for Hindus and the obligatory ‘tzedakah’ of Judaism.

It’s a guiding principle for faith-based organizations working around the world to help the poor, assist in disaster relief and provide for those in need.

And, perhaps surprisingly for many, it has been a critical force that led to one of the greatest achievements in modern global health — the expansion of anti-HIV treatment to millions of people who would have otherwise died.

I’m talking about PEPFAR, the $15 billion program President George W. Bush launched in 2003 to distribute anti-HIV drugs to millions of infected people living in poor parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

PEPFAR is mentioned in perhaps every other speech here at the International AIDS Conference, AIDS 2012, as one of those game-changers. Infrequently, some folks also mention, usually just in passing, something like the ‘contributions of the faith-based community.’

What’s probably not appreciated is that U.S. leadership in responding to the global AIDS pandemic came together thanks to an unusual partnership of evangelical Christians and very secular AIDS activists, isolationist conservatives and bleeding-heart liberals.

This holy-unholy alliance also caused some problems, of course, fighting over “abstinence-only” programs and other moralistic requirements. But there’s little question that the faith-based community played a critical role in “turning the tide” (the theme for AIDS 2012) in the pandemic.

But charity is not a word you hear much in the secular aid and development community. The term is studiously avoided, if not denigrated. Secular humanitarians don’t like ‘charity’ and prefer less-loaded words like aid or development.

This is just one sign of the disconnect between faith-based and secular organizations working on the same fronts and even in the same places. Despite the successful history in partnering to turn around the AIDS pandemic, they still often don’t talk to each other — and may even be a little wary of, or hostile towards, each other.

At AIDS 2012, there are a few sessions devoted to the role of faith-based organizations, but probably the biggest such gathering will be off-site today at Georgetown University. The fact that this big event it off-site also may be another sign of the disconnect.

The Georgetown event features video keynotes from Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, as well as Presidential wannabe Mitt Romney, a number of top religious figures and other big guns in the policy arena. It would have been a major event at AIDS 2012. The event was put together mostly by Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church, which has also been a key player in promoting evangelicals to support many social causes such as fighting AIDS in Africa.

So here’s this important event, featuring many organizations playing critical roles in AIDS meeting separately.

Reducing separation is at the heart of a new effort in secular humanist Seattle (the biggest city in the reportedly most un-churched state of Washington). Seattle, thanks largely to the presence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has become something of an epicenter for exploring creative solutions to challenges in aid and development.

This split between the faith-based groups and the secular aid community seems like a huge challenge to many. So why do the faith-based communities and secular humanitarian communities still tend to circle around each other rather than work together?

David Brenner

“There’s still a lot of mistrust and misunderstanding,” said David Brenner, a Seattle attorney specializing in non-profit law and an elder at University Presbyterian who is spearheading an effort to survey and coordinate local faith-based groups doing humanitarian work overseas.

This mistrust and misunderstanding is just part of the problem, Brenner said. Another big problem is the invisibility of most faith-based organizations.

“Nobody really knows how many of these groups are out there, or what they are all doing,” he said.

Unlike some larger groups such as World Vision or Catholic Relief Services, Brenner said, most religiously oriented do-gooders tend to operate independently. One of his goals as a member of the faith-based community is to conduct a survey to first identify all of them and encourage them to work together. Next, he added, is to get the faith-based groups to work more with secular aid and development organizations.

The first step Brenner and others took on this path toward building this bridge was to organize a recent event sponsored by the Washington Global Health Alliance entitled ‘How Faith-based and Secular Organizations Partner for Better Global Health.’

The event, held a few weeks ago at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, attracted nearly 700 people and is part of Global Health Month in Seattle. Rich Stearns of World Vision USA was there (as he is for the DC event today), Abed Ayoub of Islamic Relief USA, Caryl Stern of UNICEF were among the lead speakers. Bill Gates Sr was the keynote speaker.

“What connects us is much more important than what separates us,” said Gates Sr. “A belief in the sanctity of every human being. A conviction that human effort can improve the world. Those are common themes that cross the boundaries of faith.

Gates Sr. emphasized that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not faith-based but does partner with a number of religious groups. He talked about the moral, humanitarian views of John Wesley and said his late wife Mary often used to quote to their kids from Luke in the New Testament: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”

“One secular way of saying that these days is pay it forward,” said Gates Sr.

Most of the speakers at the Seattle event talked about how important it is to collaborate and gave examples of how they do work in partnerships with the secular community, which might give you the impression that the chasm has already been bridged and all is well. The larger faith-based organizations like World Vision often do work together on projects with secular organizations like UNICEF, or the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But Brenner said this remains the exception to the rule.

“It’s unfortunate because our basic goals are the same and we can be much more effective if we can truly collaborate,” he said. Bringing the secular and faith-based humanitarians closer together will require respect and tolerance for our differences, Brenner said, but that by itself should make the world a better place.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.