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Dr. Azza Karam - World Interfaith Harmony Week

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World Interfaith Harmony Week


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Dr. Azza Karam

Dr. Azza Karam, United Nations Population Fund. UN Photo Paulo Filgueiras.

Interfaith Harmony and Human Development

I come from a region of the world, the Middle East or the Arab region, which is as we speak witnessing historic moments of heroism and courage.
The United Nations came into being at a time of intense global changes more than 60 years ago. Since then it has grown in size, importance, impact, meaning, and relevance.

As a multilateral organization with national, regional, and international institutional outreach, the United Nations is unique.

As a multilateral organization which has massive human power engaged within it as its own staff and affiliated to it in myriad capacities, undertaking peacekeeping operations in its name, among many other forms, with mandates extending to each and every aspect of human and other lives, and the development, rights, peace, and security thereof, the United Nations is an amazing entity.

As a multilateral organization which has succeeded in extending its influence and infrastructure to encompass a huge range of mechanisms which serve almost 200 countries’ governments, which convenes, develops, deploys, plans, coordinates critical international conventions and interventions responding to human needs, the United Nations is unparalleled.

But the realities around us have also changed from a world in which nation states made decisions to govern every aspect within their own boundaries and organize their own armies to a world where non-state actors, various peoples, and a plethora of multi-state bodies proliferate.

The geopolitical alliances, governance regimes, and direction of international development aid are all shifting. The very air we breathe, the environment around us including plants and animals, are facing drastic changes in survival patterns.

One of the many changes becoming increasingly difficult to ignore for long-standing secular organizations is the extent to which religion is surfacing as a critical broker of human and governmental existence. This appears at first sight to be in some ways contradictory to the secular ethos of the United Nations system and its human rights mandate, but that would be a short-sighted perspective.

It must not be forgotten that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself is predicated upon the very values common to every faith tradition, and as such it is not an instrument without faith but rather a product of the world’s common faiths.

I believe that interfaith harmony lies at the very foundation of human development, which in turn is part and parcel of the prevention of conflicts, resolution of conflict, and long-term sustainability of peacebuilding.

It is therefore timely and necessary that at this junction of our political, economic, and cultural interaction we address the issue of religion and development in general, and the role of interfaith harmony in forging sustainable human development in particular.

But why should the UN engage in faith communities? A study published by the World Health Organization in the early part of this millennium provided an important reality check for all of us working on social development.

It told us that anywhere between 30 to 40 percent of basic health care is being provided through faith-based organizations – FBOs, as we call them in UN-ese. Sometimes these kinds of services can extend to 75 percent in countries where there is armed conflict or humanitarian disaster situations.

In other words, we cannot work on social development and sustainable human development without engaging with and acknowledging the work of the faith-based community.

An informed and systematic outreach to partners in the world of religion – which, it must be unequivocally stated, is bigger, wider, and much more complicated than the world of secular international development put together, and where community service provision has already been a reality for centuries – is quintessential.

My organization, the United Nations Population Fund, has played an active role thanks to a woman whom I should give due credit to, Dr. Nafis Sadik, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, and with strong support from the current Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

The UN Population Fund founded and forged together an interagency task force on faith-based organizations and the Millennium Development Goals. Today the task force has ten UN offices, agencies, and bodies engaged within it. Among its key activities is to facilitate the coordination amongst ourselves, learning from each other, and systematic, strategic engagement and interaction.

What have we learned so far in the UN system? We’ve learned that faith-based organizations and religion are not one and the same. The world of religion is way too vast and complicated. So this means we have to be learned, strategic, and delivery-oriented in how we determine, manage, and evaluate our partnerships.
We’ve learned that instead of inventing the wheel in development, the engagement of religious communities has to be sustained. We have to build on existing knowledge and practices and be part of broader civil society engagement and government partnerships.

We’ve learned that as a United Nations mechanism we cannot and should not work with only one faith tradition, only one faith organization, or only one religious leader.

We are obliged to work with all faiths, several faith organizations, and varied religious representatives on a multiplicity of human development needs, and we must do so maintaining mutual respect and appreciation for the respective strengths and modus operandi as long as there is agreement on the goals of human development, human rights, peace, and security of all peoples.

The lessons learned over the years have resulted in some interesting trends, one which argues that religion is way too contentious and should be kept out of the public realm, and another which encompasses those running to embrace them, what is now effectively a new fashion with little study of the impact involved. Both trends represent challenges, and yet they also represent strengths.

We need to enhance, strengthen, and support the rights-based culture of the United Nations. In order to do so, a sensitivity to the impact of religion on all aspects of life needs to be diligently studiedly and systematically applied.

This does not mean becoming apologists for any abuse of human rights. On the contrary, this would entail strengthening our arguments for human rights and dignity from within every faith tradition.

The initiative of creating an Interfaith Harmony Week is a testament to the wisdom of the member states supporting this initiative. It’s also a testament to the institution of the United Nations which enabled this important week of reflection in the machinery of this complex system.

To those individuals and civil society organizations who worked tirelessly with the UN to realize this week, we send you our deepest appreciation. And to each and all of you, a very heavy debt of gratitude. The United Nations remains a vital and ever more necessary body.

I would conclude by echoing what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself has articulated: “I have long believed that when governments and civil society work towards a common goal, transformational change is possible. Faiths and religion are a central part of that equation.”

Salaam aleikum.

Azza Karam, Ph.D. serves as a Senior Technical Advisor, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). She coordinates global activities around mobilizing “cultural agents of change,” manages the Global Interfaith Network for Population and Development, and coordinates the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Faith-Based Engagement. Previously, she served as the Senior Policy Advisor in the regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). With the support of the Ford Foundation, she founded the first Global Women of Faith Network during her tenure at Religions for Peace, while also advising on interfaith development work in Muslim nations, and served as the President of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations. In various countries in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, she has managed global developmental programmes, taught at a number of universities, and published widely on political economy, democratization, human rights, and religion.

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