Nigeria is a land of contrasts and conflict. Too often potential allies are mistaken as enemies and, for the nation's more than 184 million people, one key path to survival is distinguishing who, or what, is truly the enemy.
Emblematic of an oil-rich nation burdened with the “resource curse,” Nigeria suffers under a history of rampant corruption and vast inequality in distribution of wealth. As armed conflict, ethnic tensions and social isolation haunt the region, the most dominant killer in Nigeria is malaria.
Malaria is a serious health risk throughout southern Africa, nowhere more so than in Nigeria. In 2010, more people died of the disease than in any other country. With some 300,000 fatalities every year, Nigeria was ground-zero for the global effort to halt and reverse the incidence of malaria by 2015, as defined in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in place in 2000.
With the target year for the MDGs unfolding, the progress made over the past 15 years points to success in many key areas, including a 42 percent reduction in global mortality rates from the disease between 2000 and 2012. In Africa, mortality rates from Malaria decreased 49 percent over the same period. But even with large "interventions" from global aid organizations. making headway against the disease remained slow in the beginning, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Having nets 'in place' and having nets 'used' are two different indicators of success,” wrote Bill Brieger of Johns Hopkins University in his blog Malaria Matters in 2010. "A major weakness of past public health programming has been providing people with technologically sound and useful interventions without taking into full account the social, cultural and behavioral factors that influence acceptance and use of the interventions."
"There wasn't attention paid to how to change people's behavior around using them," says Goldman. "They could be [used as] fishing nets or bridal gowns or, because they’re given away for free, considered worthless. Beyond that there was [a perception of] nefarious intentions behind the distribution. So, a lot of suspicion because something comes and is just dropped on a community.”
"One of our sweet spots in grant-making is that we look at where we can add-on in terms of our funding into more significant funders or more significant projects," Goldman says. "We're often not the largest funder in the pipes, but we can come in and add a creative element.
"It's because of that approach to our grant-making that we really consider ourselves entrepreneurial. We come from a business background so that's really what's in our DNA. The entrepreneurial piece is looking for those opportunities where we can be nimble and not as beholden to whatever the interest might be, whether it's shareholders or policymakers."
"We're living in a world of high distrust right now," says Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special U.N. advisor on the MDGs, in an online video interview. That distrust is seen repeatedly on the international stage as developed and developing nations grapple with issues of governance, climate change and sustainable growth, spilling over into the simple use of bed nets to protect an at-risk population from malaria.
But that skepticism is changing. The trend, writes Hipple, is that "faith matters."
"The importance and influence of faith leaders is more widely accepted in the international development field than ever before," says Hipple, "including by many funders in highly secular governments and agencies."
"Faith has always had an intense, but uneasy relationship with development," James writes. "For decades religion has been subject to ‘long-term and systematic neglect’ by donors, despite the fact that faith-based organizations (FBOs) historically were at the forefront of service delivery and social movements. Many saw faith as something divisive and regressive – a development ‘taboo’ according to ver Beek (2000)."
"Faith was clearly a powerful motivating force, for good or evil. The previous strategy of ignoring faith as irrelevant in aid was defunct," James writes.
"Hope is the antidote to the fear, powerlessness, (and) dependence that is at the root of many development challenges today," James writes.
Nigeria is a country invaded by terror, by international corporations exploiting natural resources, siphoning off that wealth to a crony few, and to what is often perceived as the dictates of the developed world. Overcoming mistrust and resistance in accepting an effective and increasingly available solution to malaria, or a host of other problems, isn't going to happen in Washington or the capitals of Europe.
It starts with what Goldman calls a "common-sense" understanding that involving religious leaders in communities on the ground will deliver better outcomes.
A recent article published in the journal Lancet describes the data and evidence-based connection between engaging faith-based communities and improved health: "The sharpening focus on global health and the growing recognition of the capacities and scope of faith-based groups for improving community health outcomes suggest an intentional and systematic approach to forging strong, sustained partnerships between public sector agencies and faith-based organizations," write authors Jean F. Duff and Warren W. Buckingham III. "Converging global health trends, economic realities, and changing development approaches argue for closer partnership between faith and governmental groups in support of the Millennium Development Goals and forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals."
"We're very excited about that," Goldman says. "This is probably six to seven years of our work with our partners: actually funding projects and looking at where there are pockets of funding ... or policy where we can start to really use some of this evidence and data ... and getting the broader message out there about involving either faith-based organizations or faith leaders and communities on the ground."
"I probably spend more time in Washington, D.C. than I should," says Goldman, "because the the U.S. government and U.S. policymakers are one key set of people with whom we want to use the evidence from the grants we make with our partners and other foundations that we collaborate with, and also globally with other partners ... "
"In the context of Nigeria, as is the case in so many countries all over the world, it is a very faith-based country at the community level," Goldman says. "Data shows that roughly 98 percent of Nigerians affiliate within their faith communities, most predominantly Islam and Christianity".
"So, first of all you look at where people go to get their community messaging and support, and it's from their pastors and their imams."
As faith leaders speak to the benefit of using bed nets within their religious gatherings, workers at the community level reinforce the message, linking the bed nets to a decrease in malaria.
"So, the intervention of having trusted leaders at a community level say, 'I know these bed nets will actually help decrease malaria, which is killing our children -- and our adults,'" says Goldman.
"We talk about grassroots and also 'grasstops,'" says Goldman, "and [seeking] influence and leadership in any context we're working."
"It wasn't GHR and our partner CIFA coming in and saying this. It was through the inner religious council of leadership across a diverse group of religions."
"It's the training; it's the looking at the social cohesion; it's the actual focus on the science and the truth of what's happening with the disease," Goldman says.
As deadly as the disease is, malaria can be vanquished. Through trust-building, education, using bed nets and now the possibility of a malaria vaccine, many lives are saved. But perhaps the most important element of interfaith action is the potential to open dialog, spread understanding and overcome hate.
"... We have been very supportive of strengthening or forming inter-religious councils across many countries," says Goldman, "because we see that as a way to better outcomes."
Can those better outcomes impact the inter-religious warfare afflicting so many parts of the world?
"From the very beginning [that] was our real hope for Africa and across so many of our grant programs." Goldman says.
"Now it's really easy for me to be able to talk to you about Nigeria and malaria because we have statistics on increased usage of bed nets," Goldman says. "But we don't have statistics yet to really see if having better outcomes in health, child marriage or integrating children with stronger families will also lead to -- we use the term social cohesion -- but essentially peace. We think of this as essentially peace-building."
As progress is assessed for achieving the Millennium Development Goals of reversing malaria, ending poverty, and building a more just and sustainable world, this remains the focus of the grant-making efforts of the GHR Foundation and its partners across the globe. Perhaps the biggest lesson informing adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals is that little gets done without trust, cooperation and the willingness to see that there truly is more that unites us than divides us.
It is impossible to deny the violence splashed across news headlines and throughout history, so much of it in the name of religious extremism and intolerance. As devastating as the mosquito's bite can be, spreading the killer disease of malaria, it serves also as a lesson for us all. A unifying force that can bring bitter enemies together in common cause for a better world: one pastor, one imam and one community at a time.
Image credits: World Bank Photo Collection, BBC World Service, all courtesy Flickr
Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists