The United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA's) Legacy of Engaging Faith-Based Organizations as Cultural Agents of Change

By Karam, Azza | Cross Currents, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA's) Legacy of Engaging Faith-Based Organizations as Cultural Agents of Change


Karam, Azza, Cross Currents


Introduction-What Is UNFPA?

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is an international development agency that promotes the right of every woman, man, and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA's mission statement is to support countries in using population data for policies and programs to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.

Thus, UNFPA helps governments, at their request, to formulate policies and strategies to reduce poverty and support sustainable development. The Fund also assists countries to collect and analyze population data that can help them understand population trends. And it encourages governments to take into account the needs of future generations, as well as those alive today.

The close links between sustainable development and reproductive health and gender equality, the other main areas of UNFPA's work, were affirmed at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. UNFPA is guided in its work by the Programme of Action (PoA) adopted there. At the conference, 179 countries agreed that meeting needs for education and health, including reproductive health, is a prerequisite for sustainable development over the longer term. They also agreed on a roadmap for progress with the following goals:

1. Universal access to reproductive health services by 2015.

2. Universal primary education and closing the gender gap in education by 2015.

3. Reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent by 2015.

4. Reducing infant mortality.

5. Increasing life expectancy.

6. Reducing HIV infection rates.

UNFPA maintains that reaching the goals of the PoA of the ICPD is also essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight goals, which are fully aligned with the ICPD roadmap, have the overarching aim of reducing extreme poverty by half by 2015. UNFPA therefore brings its special expertise in reproductive health and population issues to the worldwide collaborative effort of meeting the MDGs.

This article will outline why UNFPA came to deal with faith-based organizations (FBOs) how it does so as a matter of principles and policy--providing some examples of this work--and will conclude with a few lessons learned and recommendations.

The specificity of UNFPA

As a means of understanding UNFPA's working modality, it is important to highlight five unique aspects of the Fund and its work:

1. UNFPA is the only UN body that provides a comprehensive package of services simultaneously, for and about reproductive health as well as broader population dynamics (e.g., census and data for development, urbanization, migration, disability care, and elderly welfare). This is a critical part of its mandate and distinguishes it from other international agencies working on various specific aspects of health, gender or statistics, and information gathering. This mandate can be described as one that covers human welfare from before conception to the moment of passing. And as vast a responsibility as this is, the Fund is actually one of the "smaller" agencies/bodies within the UN system, relative to financial and human resources.

2. With such a mandate, UNFPA has effectively been given the task of implementing some of the goals that touch on the most sensitive and intimate spheres of human existence, including reproductive health and rights, with all the incumbent baggage of gender relations and gendered identities, sexuality, and related population issues. This means that whether it is counting people, or making everyone count, UNFPA has to deal with many cultural and social taboos, intricately connected to political and economic challenges.

3. UNFPA has emerged as the only UN agency that has invested in systematically developing, training, and successfully testing a unique three-pronged programming methodology: combining gender equality, cultural sensitivity, and the human rights-based approach to programming. …

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