Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne leads one of the world's most admired development initiatives: the Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya movement. Inspired by Buddhist principles and founded (in Sri Lanka) by his father in 1958, Sarvodaya has pioneered village level development for 57 years. Many ideas that Sarvodaya advanced decades ago, like participatory engagement of communities, were looked at askance as revolutionary and impractical, but today are accepted as central premises of sound development work. Dr. Ariyaratne is in demand in many quarters - as a public health specialist, physician, strategic leader, advocate for children, and finance specialist. But when we spoke recently he was most passionate about his work to heal the wounds of Sri Lanka's bitter conflict.
The city of Sarajevo has vivid reminders of the horrors of war and the uncomfortable fact that violent conflict is not far away in time or space. The term "ethnic cleansing" was first used in this region. In a beautiful valley, surrounded by green hills, with many spires of minarets and churchtowers, many buildings are scarred by bullets, a main street is referred to as "sniper alley," and graves, red splashes marked on pavement and memorials keep memories of siege and suffering alive. Worse, ever present tensions that led to war still simmer. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Jews share a history and a country but live largely apart with daily tensions even if largely subdued.
Perpetually snarled traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, symbolizes the vibrant spirit of this nation of 160 million but also the host of difficult problems it confronts. Bangladesh is in the cross-hairs of changing climate (since most of the country is near sea level). The earthquakes in neighboring Nepal were felt in Bangladesh, a reminder of high disaster risks. A highly complex and acrimonious political scene dominates issues about state roles. The lively press points out a host of contradictions, between actively contested elections and political tension and stalemate, a rich cultural and ethical heritage and high levels of corruption, and enviable growth rates and still deep poverty.
This year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59) held at the UN in New York focused on progress made toward women’s rights and empowerment in the past 20 years, referring back to the 1995 meeting in Beijing and its resulting declaration and platform for action. As I learned at CSW this past week, women from various faith traditions were present at the 1995 event and continue to be engaged in “gender justice” work today and at CSW59.
Male voices dominate many discussions about religion so two realities can be overlooked: that religion is important to many women, and that women are vital to religious institutions and practice.
Religion is everywhere on the map these days, fiercely debated, cajoled, maligned, and blessed. But if you wanted to pick an institution that would forge new approaches in this sensitive field, the World Bank would scarcely come to mind. In friendly quarters it is seen as rather staid with a bent to statistics and economic jargon. Its critics portray it as inextricably allied with the one percent that represents world wealth and power. Spiritual scarcely comes to mind as an appropriate adjective and neither does openness to far-ranging partnerships.
It's interfaith harmony week. This is one of many special times that United Nations member states have agreed upon to focus on a problem or issue. Interfaith Harmony week began in 2010, a sort of middle path between more far-reaching efforts to focus on religious matters in a UN setting, and a not insignificant current of unease about even broaching the topic. The idea is that around the world groups use the platform to engage in different activities. This year, with horrendous religious tensions so much in evidence, the week takes on a special significance.
Good news, bad news. Since 2000, over 500 million children have been vaccinated with support from the global alliance for vaccines known as GAVI. GAVI estimates that during that period vaccinations prevented seven million deaths. Less good: a fifth of children in the world's poorest countries are not vaccinated and some 1.5 million children each year die from vaccine-preventable diseases. On the "good" ledger, just weeks ago, in budget slashing times, world governments at a conference in Berlin pledged over $7.5 billion for GAVI supported immunization campaigns. Meanwhile, however, headlines in the United States suggest that a raging debate calls vaccination itself into question. And in parts of the world (notably northern Nigeria and Pakistan) vaccination has taken on horrendous political connotations with murders of vaccinators occasionally wrapped up in religious rhetoric.
"Without faith, there is no hope, and without hope there is no future." During a December meeting in Berlin with a group of Christian development actors, German Parliamentary State Secretary Hans-Joachim Fuchtel of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development spoke movingly about the power of religious values to motivate people and their governments to act decisively on behalf of the millions who suffer across the world. He also set the responsibility to act squarely in the context of faith and the moral values that, his comments suggest, are inextricably linked to a religious heritage. He cited Paul, the Ten Commandments, and the example of the life of Jesus in pressing the point that religious values clearly belong in discussions about the international development agenda because faith, hope, and charity are what it is primarily about.
The pervasiveness of religion in the everyday lives of Kenyans struck me forcibly when our team was in Kenya this November. As an American who, by nature, is conditioned to keep religion relegated to the private sphere, the omnipresent manifestations of religion all around the city of Nairobi were almost jarring. The store fronts of local businesses bear the name of Mary, Jesus, or God; for instance, God’s Mercy Unisex Hair Salon. If the store name had no mention of religion, you were sure to see crosses or art depicting religious scenes somewhere within the store. It seemed as if churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples dotted every intersection. And Nairobi’s numerous schools and health facilities often showed signs of sponsorship or funding from faith-inspired organizations through their insignias or names.