Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Washington, D.C.

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you so much, Lise [Grande], thank you for being such a tremendous partner on this, and on all things. I feel like I'm always here, launching something, talking about how we're trying, together, to be nimble and meet some of the central challenges of our time. I won't spend more time echoing your thanks, but I do want to single out Adam Phillips, for his leadership at USAID, in helping bring this Policy for Strategic Religious Engagement to the fore. Grateful also, of course, to Rashad [Hussain] and Melissa [Rogers] for being here, but Adam really spearheaded this with the team at USAID. And it is the first and we're incredibly proud that we now have something that is going to set our Agency on a path to double down on what is working already, and to really expand, I think, and deepen our strategic religious engagement. So, Adam, thank you for your service, thank you for everything you've done to make today happen. Adam has some fans in the house as he should.  

The late Madeleine Albright, a towering public servant, was once asked, “why we can't just keep religion out of foreign policy.”  She answered, adamantly, "we can’t, and we shouldn't. Religion is a large part of what motivates people and shapes their views of justice and right behavior, it must be taken into account." This is so true. As foreign policy leaders, as development professionals, as humanitarians, we must take religion into account. In fact, when we fail to do so, we fail to tap into one of the world's most powerful potential forces for change.  

In my travels to the communities that we serve around the world, I have seen how faith-based leaders are often the most trusted and effective changemakers in their communities. I've witnessed their unique ability to draw from wide networks to convene important, difficult conversations, to bring people together and to inspire action. And I've seen how during times of crisis, which sadly there are too many of these days, they are often the first to arrive and the last to leave. Many have committed their lives to fighting for justice and caring for those with the greatest needs. Grounded in the principles of their faith and living out their religious conviction in a way that uplifts humanity and inspires us all. And when we partner with these changemakers, the results can be extraordinary.  

Take PEPFAR, or the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. PEPFAR, as many of you know, marked its 20th anniversary earlier this year. When the initiative began in the early 2000s research suggested that AIDS would cause early death in as many as half of the teenagers living in the hardest hit countries of southern Africa. Half. Globally, more than 40 million people were living with HIV and the numbers were spiking at alarming rates, as an estimated five million people were newly infected each and every year. To take on that challenge we would need to reach communities at an unprecedented scale, and engage on a topic as fraught, taboo, and personal as sex. And it was clear, faith-based leaders were those with the trust, the moral authority, and the connections across their communities that we needed to meet the challenge.  

So, PEPFAR launched its faith and community initiative, and began more intentionally engaging with faith-based organizations. As religious organizations and faith leaders became partners in providing lifesaving services, breaking down stigma, tapping into their networks and raising awareness, we saw a remarkable increase in identifying cases, reaching those suffering from HIV/AIDS who were not coming forward, and providing them with treatment. Also, religious leaders were absolutely key in disseminating essential information to communities at risk. For instance, in Zambia, when PEPFAR partnered with a faith-based organization to provide care at community posts, the number of HIV cases they successfully identified increased 12-fold. And fully 95 percent of those HIV positive individuals received the critical care they needed to maintain their own health and slow the spread of the virus across their communities.  

Partnerships like these have helped PEPFAR become one of the most successful public health initiatives in history. In total, the initiative has saved an astounding 25 million lives. It never would have been possible, those results never could have come about, without strategic religious engagement. Earlier this year, a cohort of 80 faith-based leaders from across faith traditions and across all 50 states, reflected, “The Story of PEPFAR is a story of medical miracles and mercy, of faith and fierce advocacy. Faith-based organizations were at the frontlines of the communities most affected by HIV/AIDS – by the HIV/AIDS crisis. And faith leaders knew the challenge at hand, and the scale of intervention that was required.” 

At USAID, our long legacy of faith engagement has garnered bipartisan support across administrations through the years. But all too often, we have missed out on opportunities to join faith-based partners in our development work. Because we know these opportunities for partnership are not always perfectly straightforward. While religious organizations possess this undeniable power for good, there have also been real instances throughout history in which religious organizations have used their power to exclude, to impose their views on others, or to offer relief only to people of their same religion. And there are genuine constraints in our own Constitution that require us to be thoughtful and principled when engaging with religious organizations.  

Sometimes, instead of reckoning with this history, facing it squarely, and coming up with a strategy to overcome these challenges, including some confusion about those legal constraints, we refrain from engaging with religious leaders who might be able to further our goals. Today, we are attempting to change that. We are leaning in through USAID’s first-ever Religious Engagement Policy, which is titled – I have a prop – Building Bridges in Development. And I'll let others articulate what each of the letters in bridges stands for – a real USAID strength is coming up and it actually works brilliantly in this instance. So, I'm going to leave that to others. Great suspense.  

This policy reaffirms the fundamental truth that religious actors are integral, necessary partners in development. It offers tools and principles to advance inclusive development, and honors the separation of church and state in our engagement with faith-based leaders. And it gives our workforce what they need to strengthen existing partnerships and build new partnerships with faith-based organizations. Taking advantage of this incredible ability that faith leaders, people of faith, and faith-based organizations have to drive change.  

At their best, religious traditions around the world remind us of the dignity of all people – dignity, a force that has spurred people to action. And this policy illustrates how USAID can partner with faith-based leaders to further these efforts. Through this policy, as Secretary Albright implored, USAID will take religion into account in a deliberate, principled manner. We will tap into the extraordinary potential of religious leaders to help build a more just, compassionate, and equitable world.  

Thank you so much.

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