UMCOR’s Growing Impact on Global Health

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Since 2008, The United Methodist Church has made significant advances in the area of Global Health. That year, the church defined its Four Areas of Focus and gave birth to the Imagine No Malaria (INM) initiative. Church leaders chose malaria as a lens through which to view health issues around the world holistically in order to develop a strategic response. It was then that I joined the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), first as the director of the Malaria Initiative and more recently as director of Global Health.

Malaria is not endemic in all parts of the world, but it is widespread, preying especially on children and pregnant women. It can kill—yet is preventable. So it was a good starting point in the development of a comprehensive global health strategy.

While devising programs to combat malaria, The United Methodist Church was able to respond effectively to an urgent call for help coming from Africa as articulated by the African episcopal leaders of the UMC. To meet the challenges we faced, UMCOR assessed the capacity of the United Methodist health system in a host of African countries. As a result, we not only saved lives, we laid a foundation of learning to strengthen our health ministry worldwide.

Meeting challenges also impacted the way INM, UMCOR, and the United Methodist health networks in Africa formed partnerships. As part of INM, the church has partnered with high-level international partners as well as with resource-poor communities. Working together, we channeled our energy into capacity building in African communities, building systems to monitor and evaluate our program.

Specifically, we entered into partnership with the United Nations Foundation, joining global efforts against malaria and raising our level of accountability for use of funds and levels of programmatic impact. Then, since most of our health teams in Africa had little experience with institutional donors, we needed to develop their skills in strategic planning, proposal writing, and financial management before INM funds could be disbursed. We also faced a significant technical challenge in proving the impact of our action programs—showing that our distribution of mosquito nets, provision of anti-malarial medicines, and training of community health aides were, together, decreasing the incidence of malaria and saving lives. To provide proof, we had to develop monitoring and evaluation systems—extending from UMCOR and INM to the community level at which INM programs are implemented.

Early Successes

For the past five years, UMCOR—working in Africa with and through Imagine No Malaria—has made important strides both in the fight against malaria and in building local capacity and infrastructure to confront a whole spectrum of health issues and needs.

Undergirding these successes, UMCOR helped annual conferences in Africa organize 12 health boards impacting 16 African countries. The health board members have worked with UMCOR in developing administrative skills. They have been trained in governance, ownership, capacity building, and sustainability. Health boards were specifically sanctioned to apply for INM funds. They have become centers of accountability for each conference, making them reliable partners for donors, large or small.

Building up highly capable, self-governing health boards has significance beyond INM. The boards are able to envision the global health needs of an entire annual conference and find ways to meet those needs. Health boards establish plans, promote partnerships, develop and implement policies, and encourage excellence in the delivery of both preventive and curative health care.

Through INM and health boards in various African countries, UMCOR has also trained and mobilized more than 5,400 community health agents who provide their communities with information about health issues and introduce changes for healthier living. Approximately $32.9 million in cash, pledges and annual conference goals has been raised for the Imagine No Malaria initiative, and INM has distributed approximately 1.2 million mosquito nets in seven African countries.

Future Goals

As UMCOR’s director of Global Health Initiatives, I have proposed four primary strategies for moving ahead.

  • Build on UMCOR’s experience with INM to encompass broader maternal and child survival issues and programs. This would include issues of hunger and nutrition, safe birthing initiatives, immunizations, and access to potable water in developing countries around the world. It would also addressing chronic health issues such as malnutrition, obesity, heart disease, and cancer—perils that also plague communities in the United States.

  • Continue to strengthen the capacity of our partners in Africa and expand those efforts to other parts of the world. A meaningful focus on data and the impact of UMCOR programs linked to capacity building will help us strengthen those programs by showing us what works and what does not.

  • Extend UMCOR’s focus on water—a major health and development issue for the next century. We will focus on extending access to clean, safe water and help communities maintain safe water sources.

  • Maintain and expand strategic partnerships, both within and outside The United Methodist Church. We will partner with other church agencies, US congregations, and annual conferences, as well as with foundations and other humanitarian organizations.

According to the United Nations Millennium Development Report, 2012, “For the first time since records on poverty began, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen in every developing region, including sub-Saharan Africa.” There are fewer urban slum dwellers in the world, and access to potable drinking water has reached an additional 2 billion people since 1990. Malaria and tuberculosis transmission and death rates are declining, and more people than ever who live with HIV and AIDS have access to treatment. United Methodists are making substantial contributions to these advances.

Yet despite global gains, there are still reasons for concern. More than 15.5 percent of the world’s population—especially children in Southern Asia and Africa—are undernourished. More than 780 million people around the world lack access to clean water. And while maternal mortality rates are improving, the pace of change remains slow. A great deal more remains to be done to make our world a healthier place.

Shannon Trilli serves as the director of Global Health for UMCOR. Prior to her current assignment, she oversaw UMCOR’s participation in the Imagine No Malaria campaign.