Tony Blair Faith Foundation Annual Report
It’s four and a half years since we started work on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (TBFF) – an organisation which gives practical form to Tony Blair’s vision of helping people better understand the role of religions in the modern world. TBFF creates opportunities for people of different faiths to come together, learn from each other and take joint action for the common good. We aim to tackle prejudice, conflict and extremism.
The publication of this annual report covering 2010-2011, and the rapidly growing nature of the activity we do around the world, means that we’re a year ahead of what we are reporting on. So I wanted to introduce this year’s annual report with an update on our progress to date so that you get a sense of how we are progressing in fulfilling our core mission – to help build understanding and make faith part of the solution and the future.
The activity outlined in the annual report and the subsequent months since have been about the steady growth of our work. We deliberately haven’t tried to run an organisation going a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s about strengthening and improving the work that we do – often the first time this type of work has been undertaken in certain areas of the world – and making sure we do it well, appropriately and effectively.
The report covers our activities up to the end of the last financial year – April 2011. In the nine months since then, we still have the same eight lead universities in our Faith and Globalisation: Yale, Durham, McGill, Monterrey Tech in Mexico, National University of Singapore, University of Western Australia, Peking University and the University of Sierra Leone. These universities formulate intellectually rigorous and multi-disciplinary courses to help inform academics, policy makers and the wider world about the role of faith in the modern world. But we have also deepened the work we do, building truly strong partnerships and relationships between the research institutions in the network to produce some unique and critically important analysis. There is teaching, research, public events, publications, all of which aims to build understanding of the changes the world is undergoing; and the challenges to those of us who seek peaceful co-existence. And we have a growing number of associate universities worldwide to supplement and enhance this work.
Though religious extremism is thankfully still rare, prejudice against people of a different faith is still frequent, and misunderstanding and ignorance of other religions is pretty common. So our schools programme – Face to Faith – connects the next generation, through facilitated video-conferences and a secure website. Students learn about themselves and each other - we sometimes say it’s designed to be an inoculation for young people against the possibilities of future extremist influence as it builds negotiation skills, critical thinking and resilience. We know it’s effective. Face to Faith has been evaluated by a team of independent researchers from the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit who found that “the project has opened up issues of the ways religions are represented by encouraging pupils to go beyond assuming that what one student says about their religious practice or belief represent all of that religion.” (Professor Bob Jackson, Professor of Education at Warwick University)
And so we have deepened our engagement - not just by increasing the number of countries in the programme from 15 to 17 – but by signing MOUs with the governments of Italy, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Authority, to help embed the programme into the mainstream of those countries’ education systems. This past year, the Secretary of State for Education Arne Duncan has talked about the benefits of the programme, and learning about religious perspectives, in public schools in the USA. Over the coming year, we hope to reach more agreements in some of the other countries where we work.
Another huge area of consolidation for us is our Faiths Act work - putting people of diverse faiths to work together to make a positive difference where it is needed. Around 80% of those we now work with never had meaningful encounter with someone of another faith before. But how can we best show it?
Sierra Leone is a country of 6 million people. And there are just 102 medics. Only a fifth of children under five or pregnant women slept under a treated bednet when surveyed in 2009, despite malaria being the single biggest killer of Sierra Leoneans. But in every village, no matter how remote, there are churches and mosques. So the obvious – but not easy – thing to do is to get the Christians and the Muslims working where the medics can’t reach.
Starting September 2011, we organised a programme of training Muslim and Christian leaders to work together to train their local congregations and communities in malaria prevention. As of last Monday, we had trained 192 religious leaders. They’d trained 3,106 of their community leaders – our multi-faith malaria champions. Working in teams, those 3,106 Christians and Muslims have made 41,932 household visits, to talk to occupants about how to prevent sickness and death from malaria. With the average household being 5.1 people in Sierra Leone, as this cascades out, we could reach 15% of the population in a year.
Our Sierra Leone Faiths Act work is supported by multi-faith volunteer groups organised or inspired by the Foundation’s call to action in 143 countries around the world. And it is driven by a young leadership programme, the Faiths Act Fellows, who give a year of their lives to work in multi-faith pairs in local communities in Sierra Leone, the UK, the USA, Canada and India, doing just this sort of practical co-operation in place of interfaith conflict and division.
And finally, Faith Shorts our film competition. We ran it for the first time in 2010, as described in our report, with real success in providing a global voice to young people’s personal expressions of their faith. In 2011, we ran it again – but again consolidated and reinforced it, making it more impactful, and this time for under 18s only. Culminating in an awards ceremony at 195 Piccadilly, the home of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), our winners from the Philippines, Canada and the UK made moving films about adversity, hope and inspiration. The judges, including Hugh Jackman, Jet Li, Anil Kapoor, Dawn French, Amr Khaled, Sherry Lansing and the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, had some tough decisions on their hands in judging films from such a talented and optimistic group of young people.
The work we have been tasked to do is important. Those causing religious conflict may be small in number, but are highly motivated, well organised and have a catastrophic impact. They have millions of dollars behind them. If we want to create a peaceful world, we must be more determined, more creative, practical and deeply effective. None of this can be achieved without funding.
I am grateful to the generous donors who have funded us so far, especially in challenging economic times and amongst the plethora of other challenges they could have chosen to address. We’ve tried to raise funds to allow for growth and improvement across the board, keep our running costs as low as possible, and evaluate our work properly – all the while planning sensibly for the future. Readers of annual reports are often interested in the financial health of the charity. The nature of our programmes is that we invest in the projects and our partners for a decent period of time, with our programmes often running over the course of one or more academic years. And the nature of raising funds in this uncertain climate for most charities is that the pattern of income can vary from month to month, often not matching the pattern of planned expenditure. But we’ve been fortunate enough to raise around the same amount or a little more most years than we’re planning to spend the next (the year before it was actually the other way round – and we spent more than we raised during the year), so we can make reasonable plans for the year ahead. So whilst we started the year beginning May 2011 with some tough fundraising targets to match the trustees ambitions for our work for the year ending April 2012, we at least knew that we could continue to honour some on-going promises to partners and beneficiaries and continue with our work whilst we tried to raise it. I’m particularly appreciative of our hard-working staff whose efficiency has allowed us to spend more than 90% of our money directly on charitable activities.
More than ever, our work depends on the dedicated and talented team working from TBFF offices in London, Toronto, and our TBFF–US office in New Haven. Not to mention our Face to Faith country co-ordinators in UK, US, Canada, India, Mexico, Jordan, Lebanon, Italy, Egypt, Israel, Palestinian Territories, UAE, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Pakistan; and our 34 Faiths Act Fellows in the UK, US, Canada, Sierra Leone and India. Added to this our volunteers in 143 countries, the thousands of students and teachers engaged around the world, and our students and professors in our eight research universities and beyond. Their combined effort shows that there is a positive and real stand for multi-faith peace-building, collaboration and practical co-operation. Warm thanks come from me, our Board of Trustees and our Patron Tony Blair to you all.