Partnering Religious Congregations with UNICEF

The UN and UNICEF and the Faith Interface

Whilst many governments have gone to great lengths to diminish the role of faith and religion in public affairs, the UN has developed a very constructive interface with faith leaders. The Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has spoken publicly many times to highlight the important role of faith in world affairs.

In a message for Interfaith Harmony Week on 1 February 2013 he said: “For billions of people around the world, faith is an essential foundation of life. It provides strength in times of difficulty and an important sense of community. The vast majority of people of faith live in harmony with their neighbours, whatever their creed, but each religion also harbours a strident minority prepared to assert fundamentalist doctrines through bigotry and extreme violence.

When Mr. Ki-moon addressed the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions on the topic of “Promoting Dialogue for Peace and Prosperity in Turbulent Times” in Kazakhstan on 10 June 2015 he pointed out that: “Religious leaders – traditional and non-traditional – have a pivotal role to play. In his message to the World Conference on Dialogue on 16 July 2008 in Spain, he said:
“We should do more to create platforms for engagement with religious leaders at the international level. For a number of years now, the United Nations has been strengthening and broadening its interaction with faith-based organizations. The Alliance of Civilizations, along with the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, UNESCO and other UN bodies, have been playing an important part in this process, including by advancing new partnership initiatives and talking frankly about cross-cultural concerns.

At the General Assembly on 22 April 2015 the Secretary General urged faith leaders gathered to stand up for the collective good and amplify their voices in support of moderation and mutual understanding, warning that he fears an “empathy gap” is causing people to turn their eyes from injustice and numbing them to atrocities.

UNICEF is out front in answering that call.
In the foreword to Partnering with Religious Communities for Children published by UNICEF in January 2012, Anthony Lake, Executive Director wrote: “Long before there was a UNICEF, faith communities were among the greatest advocates for the world’s neediest children, providing guidance, aid and comfort to millions of disadvantaged families. In fact, the Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely accept human rights treaty in the world – reflects deeply held values embedded within religious traditions that uphold the inherent dignity of every child and the centrality of the family in building strong communities.

“Today, faith communities continue to be an indispensable partner in UNICEF’s work to advance children’s rights and enhance their well-being. Such partnerships are especially important in our renewed focus on reaching the poorest, most vulnerable and hardest to reach children and families”.

Apart from the benefit of the networks of FBOs, UNICEF emphasises the shared values and the moral influence and leadership that FBOs bring to activities. It states that: “The Convention on the Rights of the Child expresses a holistic vision of the child that is informed by and reflects values shared with the world’s major religious traditions, such as a holistic notion of the child and a comprehensive understanding of his or her physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs … and the importance given to the family as the best place for bringing up a child.”

It acknowledges that: “Religious communities have developed structures and defined relationships shaped by these values, and their mandates and belief systems encourage efforts to speak out on behalf of and assist the disadvantaged, marginalised, and vulnerable. Their traditions of intergenerational sharing of knowledge and faith help to sustain and perpetuate these systems”.

In relation to moral influence and leadership, UNICEF declares that: “Due to their moral influence, religious leaders can influence thinking, foster dialogue, and set priorities for members of their communities. For example, 74% of people in Africa identify religious leaders as the group they trust most. Religious leaders shape social values and promote responsible behaviours that respect the dignity and sanctity of all life. Many religious leaders are skilled and influential communicators who can reach the hearts and minds of millions of people in ways that humanitarian actors cannot. Because they have more access to the family and personal spheres than most outside actors, religious leaders serve as an important conduit of communication for social change and transformation. Religious leaders provide spiritual support and stability which can help meet people’s psychosocial needs in the face of adversity”.
Faith-based organisations such as Religious Congregations often enjoy higher levels of trust from the community, better access and broader local knowledge, all of which are important assets in programme design and delivery, including in complex and insecure environments.

The key recommendation that we take away from this discussion is the need for humanitarian actors, including UNICEF, to deepen their understanding of religious traditions across faiths and to become more ‘faith literate’. This means a better understanding not only of the central role of faith in the communities we work with, but more concretely of faith structures and networks, and of the different approaches needed for effectively engaging with different types of faith-based actors.

It is clear that the UNICEF recognises faith-inspired organisations as important agents of transformative change in the world. Religious Congregations with missionaries on the ground are part of that change.

For further information on how your Congregation can interact directly with UNICEF contact me at

Sister Deirdre Mullan RSM, PhD

Partnering Religious Congregations with UNICEF

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