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“There needs to be a serious conversation on engaging with local faith-based groups.”
The goal of sustained inter-faith action to help achieve Zero Hunger gathered critical momentum on Monday (13 June) as representatives from a range of faith-inspired NGOs and faith communities gathered at the World Food Programme's headquarters in Rome.
Invited by WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin to join a dialogue with the organization's membership, participants stressed the potential that faith-based communities have for driving forward the Zero Hunger agenda at a local level all around the world.
"This is a historic day," said discussion moderator Josh Dubois, former head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under US President Barack Obama. Noting that it was the first time WFP had gathered its faith-based partners together in this way, he said faith communities had several qualities which could drive forward efforts to achieve Zero Hunger, among them "moral imagination" and "practical capacity".Serious need to engage
"There needs to be a serious conversation on engaging with local faith-based groups," said Kevin Jenkins, CEO of World Vision. "I feel that faith-based groups have been massively underutilized in the past. We need to engage and see where they fit in best, where they can be most helpful."
Several participants highlighted that religious groups had always been engaged in humanitarian and development work, and striking out for a goal as ambitious as Zero Hunger made little sense without them.
"When crisis hits, it's always the church, the synagogue, the mosque that people go to for help," said Mohamed Ashmawey, former CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide. He added that local religious communities could play an important role in a sustained, worldwide effort to end hunger.
"These are the oldest social service providers in the world and they have always been the first responders in emergencies," said Dr Azza Karam, chair of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Faith-Based Organizations.Seeking more understanding
She urged WFP and the UN to seek a better understanding of how faith-based groups carry out their critical social service work so as to enable better collaboration in the future.
David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and the Alliance to End Hunger, agreed that there needed to be learning, both on the UN side and on the side of religious groups involved in humanitarian and development work.
"It really seems feasible to finally end hunger by 2030. But it requires all of us to change: religious communities, governments, WFP - all of us," he said. "And we religious communities need to be stronger in our advocacy with governments."
Dr Gunisha Kaur, Director of the Global Health Initiative at the Weill Cornell Medical College, said: "It's only by breaking with the normal approaches that we can hope to achieve the goal of Zero Hunger." She said that by embarking on a "multi-dimensional" approach in which faith-based groups would play their part to the full, the world could "double the potential impact" of efforts to achieve Zero Hunger.Common sense of urgency
Several speakers voiced their moral indignation that hunger still existed in a world which had been able to send people to the moon. There was also a common sense of urgency.
"Let's remember that prayer is a preparation for action," said Swami Agnivesh, social activist and member of the board of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. "We should take hunger as a structural form of violence. This is the real terrorism. Until we have this perspective, we can't solve this problem."
The host of the event, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, paid tribute to the "concrete actions" of faith-inspired communities in many remote and difficult environments. This, she said, made them natural partners for WFP.
She also pointed to the potential of faith communities to win hearts and minds: "Religious leaders and communities offer enormous potential to galvanise global political will, catalyse local action and achieve lasting change in the lives of vulnerable people. By working together, we will broaden and strengthen our collective reach."