Why should the U.S. Government engage religious communities? That was the topic of discussion last week at the first ever interagency policy seminar on "Engaging Communities of Faith to Advance Policy Objectives" hosted by the Foreign Service Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero opened the seminar with these words: "Organized religion makes up the largest part of civil society around the world. Nearly 85 percent of people worldwide participate in a faith tradition... We need to engage with religious communities in order to have a holistic understanding of the factors at play in any given country."
Historically, the State Department and USAID have incorporated religious and community leaders in many aspects of our work. But Secretary Clinton has made this type of engagement a hallmark of how we do business in the first Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, and President Obama has called partnerships with businesses, non-profits, and faith groups a "defining feature of our foreign policy." In fact, as early as her Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary Clinton insisted on greater coordination with religious groups, and so we have been working since the very beginning of her tenure to develop partnerships with faith communities on shared issues of interest such as conflict resolution, environmental protection, and health and development.
Most notably, the President recently formed the Interagency Working Group on Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) to increase the capacity of the U.S. Government for faith-based partnerships. As RGA Co-Chair Joshua DuBois, the Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, explained last week, "faith leaders are among the most trusted members of their society around the world...and religious networks often reach places where we are not, especially in remote, difficult to access locations, and faith leaders often wield credibility that government actors lack."
Before last week's seminar, the RGA Working Group conducted a first-of-its-kind mapping process to determine what we are already doing to engage faith communities to advance our foreign policy objectives. Nine agencies and 167 embassies from around the world responded, and many reports conveyed a deep appreciation of how further engagement could advance America's foreign affairs goals.
There are numerous innovative examples showing how the U.S. government has partnered with faith-based institutions. Our USAID Mission in Madagascar works hand-in-hand with Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious leaders in 422 communes to share information to improve maternal and child health and support the fight against malaria and other diseases. Our Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, recently hosted a regional conference on "The Role of Religious and Community Leaders in Advancing Development in Asia" with over 60 interfaith leaders, political actors, and development practitioners from 14 Asian countries, and Embassy Vatican sponsored a landmark conference where interfaith leaders addressed specific development, environmental, and peace-building challenges and Joshua DuBois gave a keynote speech calling for new partnerships. And it's not just State Department and USAID officials who are developing innovative partnerships abroad; our Department of Agriculture has consulted with religious authorities and others in a number of countries around issues of importing and exporting kosher and halal meats, and Health and Human Services has worked with religious leaders to overcome suspicions about vaccinations as being antithetical to faith.
There were many more examples than I could list here. Yet while activities like these are deepening our relationships and improving lives around the world, we also found that much of our outreach was sporadic, focused primarily on ceremonial events, and all too often ad hoc and uncoordinated. Based on the success of last week's seminar, we will be integrating trainings on faith-based partnerships into other parts of our regular curriculum, and we are also pursuing new policy guidance and legal guidelines to give our diplomats greater clarity about engaging faith communities abroad.
From informing policy planning to influencing policy outcomes, faith communities are a key stakeholder in U.S. foreign policy -- as well as a potential partner for advancing America's objectives overseas -- and so we are taking new strides to engage with them, coordinate our efforts, and find new ways to work together. If you have ideas for potential collaborations, I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org or @RobAtState, and I invite you to visit http://www.state.gov/partnerships and http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/global_partnerships to learn more about our work.