A top official from a major funding agency says faith communities are crucial to combating the HIV pandemic, but they need to meet international standards of accountability when funds are channelled through them.
Christoph Benn, director of external relations and partnerships at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said relationships between major international funding agencies and faith communities have, "a mixed history".
On the one hand, funding organisations regard the role of faith communities as, "absolutely critical", said Benn. "We want to work with you, [and] channel funds through you, otherwise we often cannot make progress against AIDS and other diseases."
On the other hand, he noted that one challenge in working with faith communities is that of accountability.
"You may be used to being accountable to a higher authority," Benn told the religious leaders but he added that for funding organisations, "accountability is about money".
Benn, a German Lutheran physician who chaired the committee which developed the first policy statement of the World Council of Churches on HIV and AIDS 15 years ago, was addressing a high-level 22 to 23 March inter-religious meeting in Den Dolder, near Utrecht.
The Global Fund official acknowledged that the organisation's procedures are perceived as, "too complex and sometimes cumbersome". With regard to faith communities, he said, "As we want to work with you, the challenge for us is to think how can we improve that, and how can we build capacity within your own communities to deal with the issue of accountability."
Convened by the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and the Dutch Catholic agency Cordaid, the Den Dolder gathering was billed as the, "first-ever religious summit on HIV". The inter-religious meeting brought together around 40 Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders.
The General Secretary of the World Council of churches, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit also referred to the need for accountability in responding to the HIV pandemic. "HIV is an issue of human relationships, an issue of accountability", he said. Listening to those "who are vulnerable, even stigmatised", is the best way to "learn what accountability to the creator of all human beings means".
The executive directors of two UN agencies - the Joint Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), and the Population Fund (UNFPA) – also attended the gathering. The AIDS ambassadors of The Netherlands and Sweden and representatives of networks of people living with HIV, plus organisations active in the response to HIV also participated.
After two intense days, which accommodated some 25 speakers, the religious leaders signed a "personal commitment to action" in which they promised to exercise, "stronger, more visible and practical leadership" in response to the HIV pandemic.
They also committed themselves to work, "tirelessly to end all stigmatising attitudes and actions until people living with HIV are fully included in our religious communities and societies". The signatories undertook to report every 18 months, until 2015, on how they have worked to fulfil their pledge.
In a separate statement, the meeting called for sufficient means of "prevention, treatment, care and support" to be made available to everyone who needs them. Those involved in advocacy work to combat HIV and AIDS describe this approach as, "universal access".
The statement highlights several issues on the HIV agenda, including human rights, education, funding, violence against women, and media campaigns. It calls for, "a massive social mobilisation to prevent vertical transmission of HIV from parent to child".
Speaking at the end of the meeting, the UNFPA executive director, Thoraya Obaid, identified a tension between, "public health messages that are scientifically based" and religious messages. While religious leaders need to "provide moral guidance", Obaid said, it also is their moral responsibility to deal with, "the reality of HIV and its impact on the lives of the people".
In some countries, UNFPA programmes which encourage the distribution of condoms, or that are perceived to support abortion, have run into difficulty with some faith groups.
Obaid said religious leaders are capable of putting an end to "the culture of silence by raising their voices against prejudice and discrimination". They are also "the natural actors to challenge the economic, business and social systems that increase the vulnerability of people", she added.
For UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé, the treatment delivery approach, "is reaching its limits". With five newly infected people for every two put on treatment, what is needed is a "prevention revolution", Sidibé said.
For that to take place, Sidibé said, the role of religious leaders is essential in order to gather energy and momentum to make a difference. "We need you more than you need us," he told the meeting.
"The stigma associated with HIV and AIDS has been like that of no other disease", said Abune Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, speaking at the summit. "Stigma and discrimination help make AIDS a silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it."
A 2007 study released by the Geneva-based World Health Organization noted the key role of faith-based organisations in HIV prevention and care, and said that greater collaboration is needed between faith-based organisations and public health agencies.
The Dutch summit had support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS, the World AIDS Campaign, and the European Council of Religious Leaders (Religions for Peace).
Juan Michel is the World Council of Churches' media relations officer.
With acknowledgments to ENI: www.eni.ch