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Imagine waking up tomorrow and reading that 750 children in Washington under the age of four died overnight of the same disease. Imagine waking up the next day and reading that 750 more pre-schoolers had died in Chicago, also of the same disease. The next day, imagine it is Dallas, and then Miami, and then Portland, and then Boston. Imagine this goes on for weeks, months, years, in every region of the country.
Wouldn’t you do everything in your power to stop it? Wouldn’t you expect your government to explore every means necessary to end it? Wouldn’t you expect groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye on fundamental issues to put those differences aside and work together to halt the devastating progress of the disease?
For the people of Nigeria — who are losing 750 children every day to the bite of malaria-carrying mosquitoes — the answers to those questions are “yes, yes, and yes.”
As we observe World Malaria Day today — remembering the 300 million worldwide who suffer from it, and the nearly one million who die from it, most of them African children and pregnant mothers — an extraordinary event will be unfolding six blocks from the White House, at the National Geographic Society. There, a first-of-its kind group is meeting to open a new front in the race against malaria in Nigeria.
The meeting is called the One World Against Malaria Summit, and its message is simple: interfaith cooperation is the key to reaching the U.N. Secretary General’s ambitious goals for malaria– universal mosquito net coverage in Africa by 2010 and an end to malaria deaths on the continent by 2015.
What makes it groundbreaking is the participants: the meeting is led by the U.N. Special Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, and the legendary social entrepreneur Ed Scott, who co-founded the Center for Global Development, the Bono-led advocacy organization DATA, and the new Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty (CIFA). Together, they have convened African and U.S. faith leaders, global policymakers, and global health NGOs. (I have more than a passing interest–I am serving as president of CIFA).
The practical core of this gathering is to push forward a new model of interfaith cooperation on the ground in Africa. The model was pioneered by CIFA in Nigeria.
There, Mr. Scott and his staff brought together high-level Christian and Muslim leaders — led by Archbishop John Oneiyakan of Abuja and Sultan Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar of Sokoto — to form a partnership to fight malaria. Together, they are now working with the Nigerian government and international organizations to distribute mosquito nets and educate local communities on malaria prevention.
This interfaith group is unique for two reasons. First, although Christian and Muslim institutions have long been involved in efforts to fight malaria, they have neither cooperated at the local level nor forged any kind of real partnership with the government. Second, Nigeria is a country with a history of religious violence. As recently as December, hundreds of people were killed in Christian-Muslim riots in the Plateau state. Any effort to bring these communities together, particularly to save the lives of constituents, will serve to bridge deeply rooted religious differences.
Collectively, what leaders in Nigeria realized is that faith-based organizations bring something to the malaria fight that no government or NGO can begin to touch: the ability to mobilize massive numbers of grassroots volunteers in rural communities where poverty and disease are at their worst, and the reach of secular-based NGOs is at its most limited. It’s true in Nigeria, and it is true elsewhere.
As Rick Warren has said, millions of villages in the world that have no school, no health clinic, no business, and no government. But they have houses of worship, and often more than one. What would happen if they could be mobilized to fight poverty and disease?
This is why it’s vital that President Obama and Congress hear the message: next month, Congress begins debate on the president’s budget. There will likely be divisions over whether faith-based organizations deserve to receive additional (or frankly, any) public funding to advance efforts to fight global poverty, HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, poor maternal health, and a long list of other scourges. The message from those on the front lines of that battle, gathered today at the National Geographic Society, is clear: the faith community is vital to these efforts.
While legitimate reasons have kept faith-based organizations and our government at arm’s length in the past, the urgency of these global crises — and the massive potential of the faith community to make a difference — have never been greater. If the archbishop and the sultan have found ways to work together, the president should be able to join them.