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The Role of Faith Groups in Foreign Aid and Development

Interview with Zeenat Rahman, Acting Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development

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SOURCE: Interfaith Youth Core

Zeenat Rahman

Sally Steenland talks with Zeenat Rahman, acting director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development, about the crisis in the Horn of Africa, the agency’s work with faith-based partners, and why foreign aid and development are important not just as a reflection of America’s values but as strategic tools for national security and strengthening our economy.

Sally Steenland: Zeenat, I’d like to start by talking about a pressing issue for your agency, which is the massive suffering in the Horn of Africa. More than 13 million people are starving and dying because of famine, drought, and war. Can you tell us what USAID is doing in the region? What is the level of public awareness of this disaster compared with the tsunami in Indonesia or last year’s earthquake in Haiti?

Zeenat Rahman: As you said, more than 13.3 million people are affected by this crisis, and that’s larger than the population of New York and Los Angeles combined. Just in terms of scope and magnitude, it’s five times the size of the crisis in Haiti. Our government has been the lead in providing humanitarian assistance—we’ve provided more than $650 million so far. But even before the drought and famine was declared, USAID was prepositioning supplies in the region. We had early warning systems where we knew that this was pending, so we set up food and supply chains and got wells ready to act quickly when the famine struck. But access has been an issue, especially in parts of Somalia where El-Shabab has basically prevented us from providing assistance. As a result, right now we’re facing a situation where 750,000 people are at risk of losing their lives in the next three months.

To your second question about the level of public awareness, it is far less than with other crises. When you have a longer-term onset disaster such as a famine, it does get less attention than a sudden-onset disaster like a hurricane or earthquake. I think the media has not been talking about it as much as with other crises. The most critical thing we can do right now is raise the level of public awareness—so of course, donations, but also spreading the word about what’s going on is critically important to save 750,000 lives in the next three months.

SS: How are you doing that? How are you spreading the word?

ZR: USAID partnered with the Ad Council to do a campaign called “The FWD [Forward] Campaign,” at USAID.gov/fwd. “FWD” stands for famine, war, drought. It’s a mini-site to communicate what’s happening in the region. There are easily downloadable maps and information graphics to embed in people’s websites. We’re also doing a series of PSAs [public service announcements] that are going to come out in a couple of weeks with celebrities, which should draw attention to the crisis. In addition, and in terms of public awareness, my office has been working closely with faith-based groups to help spread the word through congregations and campaigns that many faith-based groups are already doing.

SS: When USAID is working in the Horn of Africa, who are your partners on the ground? What faith groups do you work with? Is there anything unique about faith groups in terms of skills or a lens through which they look at these issues?

ZR: Faith groups are our partners and implementers in the field. USAID doesn’t have staff on the ground implementing projects, so we work with NGO partners who in turn work with other NGO partners. With the Horn of Africa, or let’s say in Somalia, many times it’s the indigenous groups our contractors are working with, so there are Somali or Somali diaspora on the ground working to deploy resources.

Unique to the faith communities are two things: One is that, in terms of delivering mechanisms, faith communities have a longstanding history of working in the region, so when you have an area with groups like World Relief, Islamic Relief (who we don’t fund but are very supportive of), the Red Cross—they have access and relationships that predate the crisis. Unique to faith communities is negotiating that access because major convoys of food can’t go in—especially in southern Somalia, it’s a very delicate situation, so to have groups like the Red Cross, World Relief, or Catholic Relief Services having those relationships and knowing how to do food disaster is critical to successfully reaching those in dire need.

SS: Sometimes critics of faith-based groups have a generic complaint—I’m not saying that this is true or that they know this from experience, but it’s something you hear. And it is the criticism that faith groups proselytize—they don’t just deliver meals or heal the sick, but try to convert people to their religion. What do you say to that criticism?

ZR: I can speak from the perspective of our partners who we fund to do work in many different countries around the world—and it’s always about the development solution for us. There are rules that we are very careful of—we do not work with groups that proselytize. We work with faith groups on the mechanisms for delivery or nutrition programs or agricultural programs. I can’t comment on what people do with the money they raise on their own, but in terms of who we partner with, we have strict assessment procedures. I would just add that the context on the ground in many countries is different in terms of separation of church and state, so oftentimes the civil society is made of faith-based groups, and if you want to be successful, you have to work with faith-based groups. We think that they’re an asset to the work that we do.

SS: Right now you’re the acting director of a center within USAID called the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Can you talk about some of your projects and campaigns?

ZR: We were established in the previous administration, and the role of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is to be an open door for faith-based organizations to learn how to work with the agency. Faith communities bring assets that we need, and especially at a time of constrained budgets, we want to work with partners. One of our goals is to do outreach to domestic faith communities to talk about the synergies that exist between the work that we’re doing because you rarely find a house of worship without finding work that’s happening internationally and domestically on poverty and development issues. And so that’s a big thing to walk people through the process, to say, “I’m your asset, please use me. If you’re in a specific region, I want to help you figure out which person within the agency is right for you to speak with.”

Secondarily, it’s really important for us to highlight the positive role that faith communities have in implementing solutions. In the slums of Nairobi, more than 70 percent of health care is provided by faith-based organizations. In northern Nigeria, polio eradication can only happen if local imams and other leaders make it their mission. When you had malaria awareness initiatives around using bed nets, the socialization of those messages happened in houses of worship. So the second part is highlighting those examples within the agency and also outside of the agency. We say that civil society is a critical component in development solutions, and faith-based communities have unique assets in terms of their moral voice and the things they’re doing.

And I would say thirdly, a focus is our connection to the White House faith-based office. It’s public awareness and saying, “These are resources not just to work with us, but we recognize that you’re doing incredible work as well. How can we talk about that in a way that helps us understand this big monolith that is the U.S. Agency for International Development?”

SS: The administrator of USAID is Dr. Rajiv Shah, and one of the things he has said about the agency is that its work expresses American values. What does he mean?

ZR: We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the agency this year, and our motto is, “From the American People.” I think whatever side of politics you’re on, you can agree that one thing that defines us as a nation is our generosity. With past crises, Americans have given more generously than anybody else. We feel that the work that we do is very emblematic of who we are as Americans, which is that we want to share our generosity, we want to improve people’s lives. That’s a core component of what defines us.

SS: Some political leaders have said that USAID does even more than that. They say that in addition to expressing our values, USAID’s development work makes our country safer and strengthens our economy. Can you give me some examples of that– especially at a time when we’re under such economic constraints and people might be saying, “Why are we helping folks thousands of miles away when we have so much need at home?”

ZR: I’m going to use a stark example that I’ve heard the administrator use, and when I heard him, I was surprised. He said, “A girl born in southern Sudan today is more likely to die in childbirth than to complete secondary education.” Think about that. When you talk about our moral values combined with national security, a country where that’s the case cannot be a successful, prosperous country. Development is critical to our national security interests. If we don’t help make people’s lives more healthy and successful, that’s going to cause problems for us in the future.

You’ve heard Secretary Gates say it and Secretary Clinton say it, and Administrator Shah says it all the time: Development solutions are far more cost effective than defense solutions, and our foreign policy has to be a combination of development, defense, and diplomacy. They must be inextricably connected. Investing now will save us money in the future.

Yes, we have critical needs in this country that we need to address but we also need to think about our role in the world. If we’re not looking at places that are volatile regions, we’re creating new problems for ourselves.

SS: Can you give us a quick fact—what percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid? People make guesses all the time—10 percent, 20 percent. What’s the real percentage?

ZR: Less than 1 percent of our entire federal budget goes to foreign assistance programs.

SS: Less than 1 percent.

ZR: Yes. People often think it’s 20 percent. It’s less than 1 percent.

SS: It sounds like we get quite a bit from that.

ZR: Absolutely.

SS: I have one last question. What’s your day like? Are you on the road talking to people, are you in meetings—or maybe there is no typical day.

ZR: The answer is yes to all of those! Every day is different. It’s a combination of domestic outreach, spending time here in D.C., and then what I hope will be visits to our missions around the world. On Monday I had a meeting with Catholic Relief Services, where they presented to us their best practices for working with civil society organizations and how to create sustainable solutions. This is something the administrator cares very much about—not just working with local organizations but creating metrics that make it sustainable for them to exist without USAID funding.

I had a great meeting with them, ran back to my office, and had a meeting with the American Jewish World Service. They are starting a two-year global hunger campaign, so we talked about how we can draw attention to the crisis in the Horn of Africa and support the work they’re doing. Later in the day I got a call from Islamic Relief about a trip that they’re doing to the region, and then I ended the day with a meeting with my team talking about social media strategies. I’m part of this big federal agency but our office operates like an NGO. It’s different every day and it’s exciting. I hope more than anything that we’re able to convey and humanize a message about the work that we do: how critically important it is, and being able to connect it to the great work that faith communities and civil society organizations are already doing and find points of synergy where we can work together.

SS: Okay, this is the very last question. In the work you do, you see enormous suffering. On the whole, do you feel despair? Or do you feel hope?

ZR: I feel hope. I’m so grateful for the people I work with. The agency is full of people who’ve devoted their lives to development and to helping those less fortunate. I’ve met incredible people who’ve devoted their careers to humanitarian assistance or emergency assistance or agricultural productivity. To see that and to have meetings every day where you’re talking to people who are doing innovative things with so much energy to help those around the world—I love that I’m a part of that, and if in any way the work we’re doing, the messaging or any of it, can help save lives, that’s the most direct result that keeps me hopeful. We need to be hopeful as Americans as we tackle these challenges because they’re not easy.

SS: Thank you very much for being with us and all the best to you. This is important work.

ZR: Thank you very much, Sally.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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