Hunger, Poverty, Climate Change and COVID-19: What are the roles and responsibilities of religious actors in addressing Africa’s challenges?

24 August 2020

Religious leaders from countries across Africa joined government Ministers, representatives of pan-African intergovernmental policymaking institutions, and experts in a wide-ranging discussion on the role of interfaith action in addressing the growing regional challenges of climate change, hunger, poverty, and loss of livelihood resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The virtual forum was the sixth and final regional meeting to produce policy recommendations for the global G20 Interfaith Forum ahead of proposals that will be submitted to world leaders at this year’s G20 Summit, scheduled to take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October.

Religious and policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic formed a central topic of discussion, but the participants also went beyond the immediate concerns of infection and containment, to discuss how the pandemic is worsening existing development challenges across the continent, and how religious leaders can support in addressing them. 

“We are living through a time of crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be on the minds of both religious leaders and policymakers. The themes of our meeting today, also, reflect this reality. The COVID-19 pandemic has of course affected the daily lives of men, women and children, but it also has exposed other challenges which could be even more serious: lockdowns are threatening to worsen problems of hunger. Without debt relief for countries in need, we could be looking at a recession unlike any other in human history”, said Faisal Bin Muaammar, KAICIID Secretary General. 

Food insecurity was a concern for many of the panellists and participants: Africa continues to struggle to reach the Zero Hunger by 2030 goal enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 2 of the United Nations, and this goal has only grown more distant with COVID-19, environmental degradation and locust swarms in East Africa. Reverend Nicta Lubaale, General Secretary, Organisation of African Instituted Churches, spoke to the need for better utilisation of Africa’s rich natural resource base:

“Africa is endowed with a lot of resources. The scandal of hunger and poverty should be dealt with because it is a scandal of hunger in the midst of plenty. Hunger and poverty are weak before the power of Africa’s faith communities, but we need to work towards this goal. 

(Religious and faith groups should) engage in direct support for people in hunger and poverty. Let’s go beyond caring, and engaging the public, policymakers and policy institutions. Let us reshape the values so that we can engage with gender and generational issues.”

Dr. Iyad Abumoghli, Director, Faith for Earth, United Nations Environment Programme reiterated that misuse, not lack, of resources drive the hunger crisis in many African countries. “Over 70 per cent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa depend on forests and woodlands for their livelihoods. A significant share of these resources is, however, used unsustainably while others are lost through illegal activities. Africa loses an estimated $195 billion USD annually of its natural capital through illicit financial flows, illegal mining, illegal logging, illegal trade in wildlife, unregulated fishing.”

He stressed the need for faith communities to become more involved in the stewardship of natural resources to prevent hunger and food insecurity. 

“Faith-based communities comprise the largest social organizations in Africa. Conservation leaders should reach out to religious communities to collaborate in implementing these recommendations, with a view to enhancing the capacity for value-based sustainability decisions that link nature and human well-being.

The environmental crisis facing the African continent is increasingly seen as a crisis of values and, religion, a primary source of human values”, he said. 

Also on the agenda was debt relief for African countries, which struggle under State-incurred debt burdens, which are in many cases, higher than the national GDP. There are fears that if debt relief is not available, African countries will struggle to secure resources against the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving millions of people vulnerable to disease, but also to hunger and multi-generational poverty. 

Martin Pascal Tine, Ambassador of Senegal to the Holy See, called for joint action by faith communities to lobby policymaking institutions like the G20 to intensify efforts for debt relief. 

Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, Nigeria echoed this call, and also called for faith communities to be engaged in ensuring that capital was directed towards public welfare, and sections of society where it was most needed. 

There was near-universal recognition in the meeting of the need for faith communities to be involved in finding solutions to all these challenges, and to step in where States and public institutions find themselves near breaking point. 

Jelal Chelba, Head of Civil Society Division, Africa Union Citizens and Diaspora Directorate said: “Religious communities have been deeply affected by the pandemic, including cancellation of pilgrimages, religious festivities and restrictions on mosques, churches, synagogues and temples. Despite these hardships, they have continued to work to alleviate suffering, distress and trauma. Such efforts must be sustained and supported by all of us.”

Several of the participating religious leaders mentioned their initial skepticism in engaging with the G20 process, in light of the fact that only one of the G20 countries, South Africa, is located in Africa. But the meeting ended on a note of hope that the G20 leaders would take Africa into account in their deliberations, and that they would be able to speak “to Africa, if not about Africa,” in the words of Cardinal Onaiyekan. 

The recommendations from this meeting will be developed in smaller working groups over the next few days, and will be reflected in the global recommendations of the G20 Interfaith Forum, which will be shared with the leaders of the G20 Summit in November. 

The co-organizers of the 2020 G20 Interfaith Forum are the G20 Interfaith Forum Association, the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the National Committee for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (NCIID).