Faith-based groups in the United States are quite controversial, but in Africa, where the AIDS epidemic has reached truly biblical proportions, these groups are drawing praise from across the political spectrum.
In Senegal, for example, the Muslim community has been recognized for its role in keeping AIDS from ever gaining a significant foothold in the country. Similarly, Uganda’s Christian community has contributed greatly to reducing infection rates there, and other Christian groups have been caring for the orphans and victims in countries being devastated by the disease, such as South Africa. Across Africa, faith-based groups are succeeding because they are the only institution able to reach the vast majority of the population.
The American philanthropic community is taking notice, and active donors report an interesting discovery: In Africa’s struggle against AIDS, less really is more. “Tons of money is being spent on HIV and AIDS by our government, Europe, and Japan,” says Raymond Ruddy, founder of Gerard Health Foundation in South Natick, Massachusetts. “More money,” he continues, “is generally not needed. Small amounts of money, directed to the right place, is.”
Yet how to find the right place? Because many programs are small and isolated from Africa’s urban regions, the best ones are often difficult to identify. While still no easy task, small faith-based groups are becoming known to donors thanks to new funding ventures and philanthropists like Ruddy.
One such new funding venture involves a recent partnership between Geneva Global, Inc., and the National Christian Foundation. Geneva Global is a professional services firm started and subsidized by a European foundation whose team of research experts identify highly effective local programs in the world’s poorest regions. Geneva charges a fixed fee of 10 percent of grants for its services. Steve Beck, Geneva Global executive vice president, tells Philanthropy that a donor recently approached his company asking for help investing $1 million into African faith-based groups battling AIDS. It proved a particularly difficult task, said Beck, because “no large-scale evaluations of grassroots, church-based programs have been performed.”
To improve his group’s ability to effectively research and identify good African programs, Beck decided to grow the fund. Using the initial $1 million grant as seed capital, Beck joined forces with the National Christian Foundation and created the donor-advised Fund for Local Christian Action on AIDS in Africa. Together, the two groups recruited new donors for the fund, which closed this July with around $2 million. Geneva identifies the grantees and decides where to place the funds, while NCF manages the fund and distributes the money. More than 100 programs will be funded over six months. If all goes well, more and larger funds will be created.
While Beck believes it’s important to provide antiretroviral drugs at affordable costs to those affected by the disease, he also believes faith-based groups have the best hope of bringing about the behavioral changes needed to slow infection rates. “The top cause of transmission in Africa is adultery and casual sex,” according to Geneva’s prospectus, and the church’s “expertise in fostering behavioral change . . . uniquely qualifies it to deal with AIDS.”
Shepherd Smith is president of the seven-year-old Institute for Youth Development—a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that teaches youth to make positive lifestyle choices—and has been involved with the African AIDS crisis since the 1980s. Like Beck, Smith lauds the effectiveness of small religious groups in Africa. “There are countless opportunities, and great, great need,” he tells Philanthropy. “It’s the small missionary doctor with the clinic in a village who’s going to do the most with the money.”
Martin Ssempa leads the sort of small group that Smith favors. A native of Uganda, Ssempa lost both a brother and sister to AIDS. As a freshman at Makerere University, Ssempa created a grassroots group called Cross for the Virus that took a play Ssempa wrote highlighting the dangers of HIV/AIDS to schools across Uganda.
From that small group, he has grown a ministry that works with 5,000 college students per week in Uganda. Though he based his program on abstinence, he knew it wouldn’t suffice to have kids just sign a card pledging abstinence. “There is the big challenge of how you help kids deal with Saturday night pressure,” Ssempa tells Philanthropy. He created the White House, a drop-in center where college students could gather, talk, get HIV/AIDS information, and receive peer counseling.
Ssempa works on a shoestring budget funded entirely by family and a few churches in the United States, where his wife is from. He’d like more donors to work with groups like his but understands the difficulty in identifying effective groups. Africans, he explains, do not have a history of creating paper trails. “We’re not very much a paper culture. Foundations could do a great deal to sustain change by growing the ability of these groups to prepare reports.”
Ruddy of Gerard believes that AIDS will be beaten through individuals like Ssempa running operations that are local, proven, and based in abstinence and fidelity—the model that reversed the infection rate in Uganda. Since 1992, when the rate of infection in Uganda was at a high of 21 percent among some populations, this central African nation has achieved stunning progress. While some countries ignored or even denied that AIDS was a problem in the early 1990s, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet, took action. They developed the ABC model for fighting the disease: Abstinence, Being faithful, and Condom use. Ruddy notes that Museveni stressed abstinence and being faithful because the country was broke. “Following the reign of Idi Amin,” Ruddy says, “Uganda didn’t have any foreign advisors telling them to buy and distribute condoms. Also, Uganda didn’t have any money. So even if they wanted to buy condoms, they couldn’t.” Museveni and his wife took their message to the country’s churches instead, and prevalence rates fell to around 6 percent today. Even the left-leaning Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), known for its skepticism of domestic abstinence programs, has acknowledged the important role the faith community played in this success: Faith-based groups, SIECUS has said, created “broad community mobilization in support of delayed sexual onset, [and] reductions in casual partnerships,” which in turn led to dramatic declines in AIDS cases.
“Uganda is the model,” says Ruddy, and much of his work centers on getting that message out. He has funded trips to Uganda, along with the Maclellan Foundation of Chattanooga, expressly to show U.S. government officials and other Americans how effective abstinence can be in fighting AIDS. He’s also made a recent grant to Smith’s Institute for Youth Development to package Uganda’s ABC package and take it to other countries.
In some African nations, such as Senegal, AIDS never has gained a strong foothold, again in large measure thanks to the religious community. Senegal, and its faith-based groups have been active on the frontlines from the beginning. Dr. Anne Peterson, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), says that in the mid-1980s, Senegal’s Muslim religious leaders overcame their reluctance to talk about how the disease was spread and got involved. AIDS was stopped cold. Today the country, which is 95 percent Muslim, has a prevalence rate of under 1 percent. “The Muslim people are wonderful to work with,” says Smith, because “they share the values” of abstinence and faithfulness.
Ironically, religious groups have achieved the least in countries like South Africa, where the prevalence rate tops 20 percent, mainly because of government hostility to AIDS work. (President Thabo Mbeki only weeks ago admitted that HIV causes AIDS.)
In such circumstances, coordinated efforts between religious groups, community groups, government, and international aid groups becomes impossible. “Where the government is a problem,” Smith says, “the religious community doesn’t have a good shot” of slowing infection rates since their message of abstinence and fidelity is not backed by government officials. Instead, in South Africa, faith-based groups have turned to caring for those living with the disease and protecting the children left as orphans.
While new avenues into the African AIDS crisis are opening up to philanthropists, it remains an area donors should enter with care. Smith says the donor still must “do as much research” as possible before funding an organization. “Make sure the group has been on the ground in Africa for a decade,” he advises, “because they’re the one who’s going to best know what’s going on in the community.”
One way to alleviate the problem of finding good grantees, notes Ssempa, would be to establish a clearinghouse of information on African groups effectively fighting AIDS. Smith and Dr. Peterson agree. Peterson hopes to put something together through USAID, and Smith notes that the Christian Medical and Dental Association is doing the same.
“It’s not easy to identify the smaller groups,” Smith concludes, but “resources to the right people will yield tremendous results.”
Martin Davis is managing editor of Philanthropy. Intern Adam Schaeffer contributed to this report