The Nexus of Faith and Health

The contribution of faith-based organizations (FBOs) to health services and in reaching poor communities around the world has long been the subject of debate among public health experts and policymakers. To explore the nexus between faith and health, the CSIS Global Health Policy Center convened two recent events. The first focused on faith-based organizations and family planning in Kenya, and the second, timed for the release of the new Lancet series on faith-based health care, examined the contributions of faith organizations to global health efforts, and implications for U.S. policy. Both events identified unique strengths and challenges associated with faith-based health programs, as well as opportunities for greater dialogue and collaboration among governments, donors, and faith-based health providers to reach health goals. 

The role of FBOs in Kenya in advancing access to family planning services and mobilizing interfaith advocacy for family planning was discussed on June 29 by Dr. Samuel Mwenda Rukunga of the Christian Health Association of Kenya (CHAK) and Peter Kariuki Munene, of the Faith to Action Network. Both speakers emphasized the valuable role FBOs can play in health promotion and community engagement, given their unique ability to reach women and families with information about the health benefits of family planning and to engage directly with religious leaders. While acknowledging that some public health experts see faith leaders as a barrier to family planning, both panelists argued that these leaders can become champions if provided with adequate information and support.

The second event, on July 10, focused on the findings of the new Lancet series, “Faith-based health care” and the US policy perspective on the role of FBO’s in global health. A number of authors from the series were featured on the first panel, including Jill Olivier from the School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town; Andrew Tomkins, Institute for Global Health, Institute of Child Health, University College, London; Jean Duff, from the Partnership for Faith and Development; as well as William Summerskill, senior executive editor of The Lancet; and Anita Smith, from Children’s AIDS Fund International. The panelists discussed the evidence they compiled on the intersection of FBOs and global health, most notably on the role of FBOs in providing health care to the rural poor, in supporting the international development system, and in increasing the resiliency of communities. Data gaps serve as a major obstacle to analyzing the impact of FBOs on healthcare, and the authors stressed that FBO contributions need to be documented to provide a better evidence base for decision-making in policy, funding, and partnerships.

The second panel focused on U.S. engagement with FBOs in global health, with Sandy Thurman of the State Department’s Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator, Mark Brinkmoeller with USAID’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and Jen Kates with the Kaiser Family Foundation. The panelists discussed the need for better U.S. government mechanisms for partnering with FBOs, to clearly establish roles and responsibilities in health partnerships. At a time when the U.S. is increasingly focused on country ownership in health, the speakers also indicated the importance of FBO inclusion among the grassroots organizations that are identified as critical to sustainable development. Another aspect of sustainability includes financing, since many FBOs have important links to the private sector to support their health programs. New data from 2014 show that U.S. funding for health channeled through FBOs forms a smaller percentage than is commonly assumed, approximately 13%. The panelists also discussed the faith community’s role in pushing the Bush administration to step up its commitment to fighting global AIDS, which led to the establishment of PEPFAR, and FBO contributions to the Ebola response, including efforts to approach and inform affected communities with cultural understanding.

The panelists also discussed the challenges of working with FBOs, especially involving family planning/reproductive health and the LGBT community. A particularly difficult example involved Uganda, where the U.S. withdrew funding for the Inter-Religious Council in Uganda, which actively campaigned for the draconian Anti-homosexuality Act and thus put HIV clients at risk.

Both events highlighted the need to better understand the contributions of faith-based health providers, and for national governments, donors, and FBOs to find ways to engage productively on global health issues. Moving forward, it will be critical to improve coordination between the faith and health communities, both to build on the important work that faith-based health organizations are doing in communities around the world, and to address the conflicts that arise in their provision of health care.

Janet Fleischman
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Global Health Policy Center