Small charities and religious groups in Africa can play a key role in fighting malaria and federal money is being allocated to increase their efforts, Bush administration officials said during a White House meeting on Thursday.
But despite the praise for the ability of local African groups, especially churches, to help hard-to-reach rural villages, some participants said the government needs to cut red tape to allow such groups better access to the billions of dollars the U.S. government sets aside for foreign assistance.
The gathering brought together about 150 nonprofit leaders with federal officials who oversee aid programs — as well as first lady Laura Bush — to discuss ways to curb malaria, which is sometimes called "the disease of sad contradictions" because despite being treatable and preventable, it kills about 1 million people a year.
To emphasize the importance of churches, mosques, and synagogues, the Gallup Organization, in Princeton, N.J., released a survey that said the majority of Africans in 19 sub-Saharan nations — 76 percent — said they trusted religious organizations more than any other institution, including the military, banks, hospitals, the news media, the judicial system, or their national government. (The survey, which was conducted last year and included 1,000 respondents in each country, did not ask Africans about their views of secular charities.)
Given that high-level of trust, the U.S. government wants to establish new partnerships with religious groups, as well as nonsectarian charities overseas, said R. Timothy Ziemer, a retired naval admiral who now leads anti-malaria efforts for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
He said the president has set aside about $7-million a year for small organizations to combat malaria; the purpose of the funds is similar to programs that Mr. Bush has established to help small, domestic charities gain access to government dollars.
Mr. Ziemer said he learned the importance of allowing local people to solve local problems as the former executive director of World Relief, a Christian nonprofit group in Baltimore. During a trip to Haiti several years ago in that role, he suggested that the Haitian doctor who lead the charity's program in the country should leave to avoid a flare-up of violence and political turmoil.
The doctor refused, saying the impoverished nation's only hope was charity and church leaders.
"He looked at me with real indignation and he said, 'I can't believe you asked me that,'" Mr. Ziemer said.
Mr. Ziemer also emphasized more than lip service is needed to establish new collaborations. "It's easy to talk about partnerships. It's not about putting six logos on one piece of paper, and we do a lot of that, and we all know it. It's all about having a single objective."
Nonprofit leaders applauded the government's push to support groups it has overlooked in the past, but several also raised some concerns.
Ray Martin, executive director of Christian Connections for International Health, a coalition of religious groups in McLean, Va., urged the Agency for International Development to streamline its grant and contract system to allow small charities to receive more money.
"There's an inherent difficulty, if not inconsistency, between a huge global donor organization and the need to get to the grass-roots level," he said. "Business as usual" for the agency is giving money to "the larger organizations who have on staff the grant writers, the lawyers, the contract officers, who know how to play the game."
Mr. Martin, who previously worked for the U.S. aid agency and the World Bank, admitted that small nonprofit organizations also need to improve their financial reporting and efforts to evaluate their charitable programs to benefit from government funds.
Randall L. Tobias, director of foreign assistance at the State Department, acknowledged the problem and said he was trying to reduce federal bureaucracy by drawing on his business experience.
"I'm not an expert on malaria; I'm not an expert on HIV/AIDS. But I have had some experience in trying to make things happen," said Mr. Tobias, who was formerly the chief executive officer of the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company.
He admitted, however, that the government had a ways to go to accomplish the goal.
"We are working hard to try to simplify things," he said. But "these things didn't get complicated overnight and they're not going to get fixed overnight."