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What's Love Got to Do With It?

The Bristol Commitments, Rotary International, and Healing the World

What's Love Got to Do With It?

by John Hewko

We’ve all heard of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched to much fanfare in New York in September 2015. Yet less well known are the Bristol Faith Commitments, adopted just a few weeks earlier, when representatives from 24 different faith traditions launched 100 ten-year pledges as a response to the SDGs, ranging from poverty, education, and the environment, to more particular but related causes, such as green pilgrimage.

The Bristol Faith Commitments should not be ignored for several reasons.

Secular-religious Partnerships are Becoming the Norm

A processional at the 2015 meeting in Bristol where the Bristol Commitments were pledged. – Photo:  onecountry.org

A processional at the 2015 meeting in Bristol where the Bristol Commitments were pledged. – Photo: onecountry.org

It is notable that Paul Ladd, responsible for planning the post-2015 agenda for the UN Development Program, was in attendance in Bristol, as the new pledges are part of a formal partnership between the UNDP and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

As Brian Pilkington, the chairman of the Alliance stated: “The story of the role of faiths in, for example, creating hospitals and health care or establishing schools and education systems goes back hundreds, even thousands of years: likewise their role in managing natural resources and investing in development.”

And the present is no different. A sampling of the faith commitments which correspond with the SDGs shows the integral role of faith-based NGOs working in harmony with secular bodies in pursuit of shared development goals.

In response to SDG 4, that focuses on quality education for all, the Jesuits “provide education to 175 million refugees and internally displaced people, as well as to millions of poor people.” Another commitment, addressing SDG 5 (gender equality) covers the development of a global network of Hindu women “including businesswomen, politicians, scientists, and religious leaders, to be role models for young women and girls.”

But the Bristol Commitments also include multi-faith efforts, such as the project of “the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims and the Church of Uganda, training people in faith-based forms of climate-smart, sustainable agriculture” to address SDG 2 (zero hunger). And this reflects a normalization of projects that not only cross different faith traditions, but also, due to the nature of the collaboration between the 24 different faiths and the UNDP, demonstrate the potential of faith-based organizations working with secular bodies, employing methods which may be different, but can be just as effective in achieving shared development goals.

Service Above Self is a Bridge for Development Partnerships

There is another, deeper meaning to initiatives like the Commitments which compels leaders in the field of sustainable development to take notice. They elevate service to the principle upon which any organization can unite and collaborate. It provides a bridge for all faiths and all secular organizations, which is vital, because the ambitious SDGs, of which there are 17 in total, and their 169 “associated targets” demand broad and innovative partnerships.

Faith-based NGOs have a particularly important role to play to address today’s challenges, such as the worst refugee crisis since World War II, or the lure of extremism and violence when the social cohesion of societies is frayed.

And the best work of those organizations and communities taking on the SDGs, whether secular or religious in origin, shares a commitment to service to alleviate the root causes of extreme poverty and human suffering.

Local Action Requires Real Interfaith Dialogue

This brings us to the third point of interest concerning the Bristol meeting and its subsequent projects. Specifically, effective collaboration between secular and religious organizations when conducting development programs does not mean syncretism. In other words, as the aid and development market becomes decentralized, governments increasingly turn to civil society, private initiatives, and philanthropy to take on challenges beyond their own capacity. So for those taking on these challenges, the ability to bridge all faiths in the pursuit of service is vital to human development, particularly when more than 80% of the world’s population identifies with a religion.

Again the Bristol Commitments point the way forward. One attendee points to the interventions of the Catholic diocese in his home town of Nakuru, Kenya which “have taken the lead in finding a solution to the problem of excessive fluoride in water which was doing huge damage to people's teeth and bones.” Localized but coordinated responses to shared problems can transcend any narrow view of responsibility for social welfare, without compromising on the core principles of each actor involved.

The localization model is one that has made a great impact for NGOs like Rotary International, which welcomes members of every faith and tradition, united behind the principle of service above self. Rotary is a spearheading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), which has brought polio to the brink of eradication over the last thirty years, with only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria remaining as polio-endemic countries.

The phrase ‘interfaith dialogue’ so often serves as a euphemism for symbolic interactions that don’t attempt to engage with deep-seated grievances or new tensions at the community level.

But it has real meaning if we look at the work being done in the field every day by Rotary volunteers or health professionals. Although we have had an effective vaccine for polio for over half a century, it is a question beyond the discipline of medical science to convince your neighbor to accept that vaccine. And this scenario has been played out thousands of times in the course of our progress in eradicating polio. In the villages of West Bengal or the forests of northern Nigeria, resistance to the vaccine has been overcome by effective advocacy across cultural and religious traditions. In India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, Rotary worked closely with imams and community leaders to build trust and educate about the importance of vaccination. With effective advocacy, many religious authorities have even issued fatwas in support of vaccination.

When Rotary embarked on its first major polio immunization project in the Philippines in 1979, it did so with the active support of the Catholic Church in the country, which led to a successful campaign to protect six million children from polio. This spurred confidence in the belief that it was possible to take on polio on a global scale, vindicated by the progress we’ve made ever since.

But more interfaith work is required to take on the next major challenge to global public health and the SDGs. And development actors who know how to navigate the complex world of religion will be well placed.

In his endorsement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as “an important sign of hope,” Pope Francis has reinvigorated the belief, shared by members of Rotary, that “Acts of Humble Service, no matter how small in scale, can improve communities around the world.

This article was originally published by the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Header Photo: Rotary at work in the world – Photo: The Rotary Foundation