The 70th Anniversary of the World Council of Churches
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Director-General of the World Health Organization
Dr Olav Tveit, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It’s a pleasure to be here today. Thank you so much for the invitation.
First of all, I’d like to start by wishing you a very happy 70th birthday!
As you may know, this year is also WHO’s 70th anniversary.
Our two organizations have much in common – not only because we are the same age, not only because we are neighbours, but because we share many of the same ideals.
WHO was founded in 1948 on the conviction that health is a human right to be enjoyed by all people.
That conviction is as strong now as it was then. We are all born equal.
No one should get sick and die just because they are poor.
This is the essence of universal health coverage. And it is the essence of the Sustainable Development Goals, with their catch-cry of “leave no one behind”.
Health and healing were central to the life and work of Jesus.
And health and healing have been central to the life and work of churches ever since.
The First Council of Nicaea ordered the construction of hospitals in every cathedral town in the Roman Empire, to care for the poor, the sick, widows and strangers.
Today, churches and faith-based organizations remain major providers of health care, especially for poor and marginalized people.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, churches provide between 40 percent and 60 percent of health care, and provide significant training for health workers.
The World Council of Churches has been an important partner for WHO for many years.
The MoU between our two organizations in 1975 enabled WCC to help advance primary health care.
Now, as we prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Alma Ata declaration in Kazakhstan this October, the time is right for a new MoU to mobilise faith-based organizations for universal health coverage and the SDGs.
The WCC’s network, with over 350 churches, and the services and training they provide, can play a major role in contributing to the achievement of UHC.
Your new health strategy provides an excellent opportunity to work together to support national health systems. Our focus must be on delivering not only better-quality care for vulnerable populations, but care that is wholistic and compassionate.
Just a few weeks ago, the World Health Assembly approved WHO’s new General Programme of Work – our strategic plan for the next five years.
Our objective is to support countries to achieve the health-related targets in the SDGs.
At its heart are three strategic priorities that we call the “triple billion” targets:
1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage;
1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies;
1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being.
I see a role for the World Council of Churches in each of these three priorities.
On universal health coverage, churches and faith-based organizations play a vital role, not only in delivering services and training health workers, but also in raising your voices on behalf of those who have none.
On health emergencies, churches can use the trust they have in communities to provide reliable information about how people can avoid infection and stay safe.
We saw this most recently during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when your work helped people to change risky practices and eventually brought Ebola under control.
And on better health and well-being, WCC is already working with churches to help implement programmes that promote healthy lifestyles, control non-communicable diseases, address antimicrobial resistance, improve access to essential medicines and much more.
But we still have a lot of work to do together.
Our latest data shows that more than half the world’s population lacks access to essential health services, like routine vaccination for children, treatment for HIV and tuberculosis, basic sanitation, cancer screening, or the ability to see a health worker.
Even when services are available, using them can mean financial ruin. Almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty every year because of the costs of paying for care out of their own pockets.
We must not tolerate a world like that. Together, we can change it.
Achieving universal health coverage by 2030 will require more commitment and more investments on the part of governments and all partners.
But it’s not just the provision of services that matters; it’s the quality of those services that is also of vital importance.
If people do not trust services because they are unsafe or of low quality, they won’t use them.
The basis of quality care is a people-centred approach in which services are designed and delivered according to what people say they need, not what someone else decides they should have.
Without quality, there is no UHC.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As places of community and solidarity, churches and other faith-based institutions can play a vital role in promoting health. Faith leaders carry a voice of authority that sometimes speaks louder than that of governments and other leaders.
Our shared vision should be for “Health Promoting Churches” all over the world that help to promote the physical and mental well-being of their people, as well as their spiritual well-being.
Thank you for your commitment and support. I look forward to walking and serving with you for justice and peace, and to create a healthier, safer and fairer world.