In 2010 the United Nations created the Interagency Task Force on Religion and Sustainable Development (UN-IATF), which today includes more than 20 UN agencies. Its purpose is to provide policy guidance around engagement with faith- based actors, deepen UN system staff’s understanding of the intersections of religion and the UN pillars of development, human rights and peace and security, as well as provide strategic policy guidance.
In September 2018 the UN IATF established the Multi-faith Advisory Council (MFAC), an informal and voluntary entity which consists of 45 religious leaders and heads of faith-based organizations (FBOs). The composition reflects the diversity of religions, regional and national presence, and covers different thematic areas that mirror the UN’s mandate.
In 2019, ACT Alliance General Secretary, Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, was elected co-chair of MFAC and has agreed to answer a few questions to explain its role and contribution to the increased participation of FBOs in building peace and sustainable development.
What is the role of the MFAC?
RBF: The MFAC provides strategic advice and support to the IATF on thematic priority areas. The idea is to assist the UN system through human rights-based policy advocacy, interaction and engagement with faith-based and faith-inspired entities, and by strengthening the UN’s religious literacy. The MFAC encourages greater partnership and joint actions between UN entities and faith-based/inspired actors and serves the greater faith-based community by increasing its understanding of the UN mandate and engagement.
What are your main channels for engagement?
RBF: Well, there are many fronts of engagement. In terms of events, every year we contribute to the Annual Symposium on the Role of Religion in International Affairs and organize an event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly called the Kofi Annan Faith Briefings. We also promote and raise awareness on the work of the United Nations within our respective networks through advocacy and outreach initiatives, using both traditional and new media.
The members of the Council also participate in UN meetings, workshops and conferences contributing with their specific areas of expertise. We also prepare a short annual report, where we assess impact and provide practical recommendations to enhance policy coordination and collaboration. The report is part of the broader IATF-Religion Annual Report, which is then shared with the UN System and other stakeholders. Finally, the co-chairs of the MFAC serve as the focal point for communication and collaboration with the UN IATF. We are responsible for the facilitation of the Council’s meetings and for facilitating, coordinating, and ensuring the success of all activities undertaken by the Council to fulfill the Council’s mandate.
Has the MFAC identified specific thematic priorities?
RBF: Yes, the MFAC has identified six thematic areas of engagement, which are in line with the strategic priorities set by the UN and its faith-based partners for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustaining Peace Agenda. They are: a) environment, including forests, climate change and resource efficiency, b) migration and displacement, including children, trafficking and education, c) gender justice, d) financing for development, e) peacemaking and security, including food security, peace building and reconciliation, and humanitarian engagement, and f) Health, including our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why do you think the role of the Multi-faith Advisory Council is crucial to strengthen the faith literacy within the UN?
RBF: The notion and norm of secularization has fostered a sort of religious illiteracy. For many people, religion exists as a separate dimension of life. In the last decade, the United Nations, multilateral organizations and governments have demonstrated increased interest in religion and faith-based organizations, whether to enforce shared values and objectives, as humanitarian and development providers, or to counter terrorism and hate speeches.
The MFAC can help bridge the gap and assist the UN understand the impact of religion and religious beliefs in the different spheres of our lives by using practical examples of our work in communities as FBOs. We can demonstrate, with evidence, the unique role and positive potential of religious organizations in shaping a world based on social justice and dignity. We can show that religious organizations and leadership can help to localize development and empower people to positively participate and engage in their communities.
Why an inter-faith approach and contribution are critical to sustainable development and justice?
RBF: Religious communities and religious leaders have a strong track record of raising their voices in contexts where economic injustice, extreme poverty and widespread inequality are the norm. They have also been instrumental in denouncing the misuse of political power, racism, violence and religious hate speech that can lead to atrocity crimes. Religion is important not only at a personal and household level, but it can also have an influence on the societal the political values that communities rely on.
The nexus between religion and development has been part of the secular-religious debate, but often religion has been ignored and sidelined in international development theories and strategies. The UN and many governments are increasingly recognizing the important contribution of religious leaders and organizations in political processes, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
They have all come to understand that religion can play both a positive and negative role in the areas of peace and security, sustainable development and human rights. This is why engaging religious actors and leaders is crucial.
What kind of contribution do you expect the council to make concerning gender justice and climate justice?
RBF: Gender justice and climate justice are priority areas of the MFAC. We are aware that our work requires a gender analysis of the roles and relationships of, and between, men and women within society. We also know that transformational development requires equal participation of both men and women in the decision-making. However, due to the diversity of faiths in the membership of the Council, there are still contentious issues that do not allow the Council to speak with one voice around some gender-related issues. We have a long way to go but opening a constructive dialogue on gender justice is the first step towards walking the talk and changing minds and hearts, both internally and externally.
In terms of climate justice, the MFAC recognizes the importance of moving from a traditional economic analysis to an economic system based on sustainability and justice. Without this shift we risk facing one of the worse crisis humanity has ever been confronted with. Growing poverty is the result of political mismanagement and greed. We know that climate change will affect the most vulnerable and we need to be bold in imagining a new system that can protect and value all humanity not only the most privileged.
But, of course, climate justice and gender justice are not separate issues. Efforts to relieve human suffering should use a holistic approach. We cannot operate in a silo and we need to find a nexus that sees humanity’s quest for justice as an overarching goal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the work of many organizations and shifted their attention to respond to this crisis. How the Council is addressing this topic?
RBF: The magnitude and speed of this pandemic was a surprise but we, as FBOs, have the skills and the experience needed to face it. For instance, during the Ebola crisis FBOs and religious leaders were instrumental in the success of the international response. The Council has created a working group to help its members have a more coherent understanding of the consequences of this crisis in communities. The initial plan is to produce collated data and information on COVID-19 to help MFAC members and the UN-IATF follow best practices, ensure coherence and leverage potential partnerships between UN agencies and FBOs. For that, it is important to ensure a common understanding and approach around COVID-19 and explore the intersections with the MFAC’s thematic priorities.
Why is it important for ACT Alliance to be part of this body?
RBF: ACT Alliance is one of the world’s largest faith-based networks working on humanitarian relief, sustainable development and advocacy. Our experience and expertise on the priority areas identified by the MFAC allow us to contribute in the debate by providing practical examples of the positive role that FBOs play in these different areas of action.
Since our establishment more than 10 years ago, we have been engaging with a variety of religious leaders and organizations. We have also been working together with different UN agencies and other stakeholders, as we believe that bringing together different experiences and skills can only strengthen our common quest for justice.
For this reason, I believe that ACT can influence the debate and actions undertaken by MFAC and more broadly by the UN system.
Our participation can also provide an opportunity for the UN system to better realize the different dimensions of what religions literacy means in practice.