A small-group break-out session is conducted during training for members of a United Methodist health board in DR Congo.
Photo by Ted Warnock
By David Tereshchuk *
August, 1, 2013—The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has a clear and determined intention when it comes to the health of local communities.
Increasingly, in the words of Ted Warnock, a General Board of Global Ministries missionary for special projects who works with UMCOR, improving a community’s health conditions and health services requires a major shift from donors and partners providing proposed solutions to ensuring instead a purposeful “building-up of local structures” to achieve the needed improvements.
In practical terms, and focusing mainly on sub-Saharan Africa, UMCOR has helped establish a dozen United Methodist health boards across 16 countries. Four of those health boards are in the vast territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo, covering in turn the regions of Central Congo, Eastern Congo, North Katanga, and Kamina.
Membership of the boards comprises skilled individuals—and though doctors inevitably are among them, other professions are represented too, such as lawyers, teachers and community organizers. The most vital qualification is that members know their communities and their needs really well and are able to learn effective ways to articulate those needs, not least to partners who might wish to help.
“The community itself comes first,” says Warnock, who is working with UMCOR’s Health and Development division to facilitate and lead health boards in capacity building and governance. He points out that such training is provided expressly at the invitation of the local church and its Bishop.
The development of boards may seem an arcane and perhaps dry pursuit, but Warnock has learned that even in the war-battered conditions of DR Congo such patient and forward-looking work is essential. “The context can seem so overwhelming that forming by-laws and the like may even seem irrelevant. But something like this, whose value is not immediately apparent, is, in fact, giving people a fighting chance of getting a system that functions effectively at all levels of the decision-making process and benefits the local communities,” he says.
Warnock emphasizes the value of clarity concerning ethical and organizational issues like conflict of interest: “We’ve heard concerns about whether aid money is reaching those who really need it most. So, we work to ensure transparency on the part of a board toward its community—a transparency that will reflect local and donor interests.”
One international demonstration of the program’s progress will come soon at the United Methodists’ Pan Africa Health Summit, to be held in Ghana on September 9. Boards from all of the African countries that now have them will be represented, and the occasion will provide an opportunity to share practical experiences, discuss common challenges, and share solutions. Warnock, who has taken part in training programs throughout the African countries that will send delegations, expects the interaction of health board representatives to build upon each others’ successes.
“With leadership from different health boards being incorporated into the Pan Africa Health Summit,” he says, “ownership and direction will lead to health priorities and needs being achieved. I see the Summit as an opportunity for long-term professional relationship-building—with a focus on how we can collectively work in partnership on many different levels.”
Your gift to Health Systems Strengthening Program, Advance #982168, will support the creation and training of United Methodist health boards and improved responses to communities’ health needs.
* David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org.