Dr Vicky Lavy

The role of faith-based organisations in global health

Dr Vicky Lavy worked for ten years in Malawi, setting up a palliative care programme for children. She now works for CMF as Head of International Ministries.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

‘Faith makes such an important contribution to development.’ So begins ‘Faith Partnership Principles’ a recent paper from DFID – our government’s Department for International Development. It is a wonderfully encouraging document, recognising the enormous contribution that faith groups make to healthcare in low income countries. The paper goes on to say;

‘Most people in developing countries engage in some form of spiritual practice and believe that their faith plays an important role in their lives. Faith groups can inspire confidence and trust. They are often seen as a true part of the local community and more committed to it than perhaps other groups. Indeed, they are often the first group to which the poor turn in times of need and crisis and to which they give in times of plenty.’

Two key attributes of local churches are

  • Sustainability – they will still be there when donors and aid organisations have moved on and moved out.
  • Coverage – they are present in many communities and often reach marginalised groups who fall under the radar of larger organisations, eg those in very remote areas, the elderly, the disabled and the dying.

Tearfund has worked with local churches in its disaster relief work. Their booklet The Local Church and its Engagement with Disasters gives some inspiring examples drawn from 12 case studies around the world. When disaster strikes, it is the local church that is first on the scene. They have many valuable resources, including people who can be mobilised as volunteers, leaders who are well-known and respected and buildings which can shelter displaced people.

How much health care is provided by faith groups?

A figure that is often cited is that approximately 40% of health services in Sub-Saharan Africa are provided by Faith Based Organisations (FBOs). In 2008 the Gates Foundation commissioned The International Religious Health Assets Programme (IRHAP) to carry out a wide-ranging study looking at the Contribution of Religious Entities to Health in Sub-Saharan Africa. They found that the proportion of services provided by faith groups varied across the continent, ranging from 25% in some Francophone Muslim countries to as much as 70% in parts of East and Southern Africa. Mission hospitals and church-based facilities are the main providers of these services throughout. In strongly Muslim countries such as Mali very little is known about the few FBOs providing facility-based onhealthy flagyl health care, although those that do exist tend to be from Christian backgrounds.

Do faith groups provide good care?

There are very few studies analyzing the care given in faith-based hospitals and clinics and more research is needed. One study published in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology looked at the role of FBOs in the area of maternal/newborn health care in six African countries. It was found that the services provided by FBOs were similar to those offered by governments, but the quality of care received and the patients’ satisfaction were reported to be better, due to better service quality, staffing levels, supplies and cleanliness.

This was certainly my experience during the ten years I lived and worked in Malawi;  most people, including Christians, Muslims and others, wanted to be treated in mission hospitals. They were more confident of receiving safe, compassionate care at mission hospitals than at the government facilities, where staff were often demoralised and supplies were erratic. Muslim patients were happy to be prayed for before surgery and sometimes asked for prayer on the wards. I remember asking the Muslim watchman at our hospital why he attended staff prayers and he said he was happy to be at a place where faith was valued. I think he also enjoyed the singing!

My husband was involved in building the Beit Cure International Hospital, a Christian hospital providing surgical treatment for disabled children. One of the international donors was anxious about funding an overtly Christian hospital in a country with a Muslim president, fearing that it would create tension. However, on the ground there was no problem; everyone welcomed the advent of free care for these needy children who would otherwise never receive treatment. Local Muslim businessmen donated funds towards the building of the hospital and were pleased to have their names displayed in the list of donors.

We can be proud of the history of high-quality health care given to people in resource-poor countries in the name of Christ. Let’s continue to support the on-going work of mission agencies, Christian relief organisations, local churches and dedicated individuals who are caring for ‘the least of these.’

‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:40

Posted by Dr Vicky Lavy
CMF Head of International Ministries

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