Much has been written about WHO. Relatively little is known, however, about the organisation’s evolving relationship with health-related personal beliefs, ‘faith-based organisations’ (FBOs), religious leaders and religious communities (‘religious actors’). This article presents findings from a 4-year research project on the ‘spiritual dimension’ of health and WHO conducted at the University of Zürich. Drawing on archival research in Geneva and interviews with current and former WHO staff, consultants and programme partners, we identify three stages in this relationship. Although since its founding individuals within WHO occasionally engaged with religious actors, it was not until the 1970s, when the primary healthcare strategy was developed in consultation with the Christian Medical Commission, that their concerns began to influence WHO policies. By the early 1990s, the failure to roll out primary healthcare globally was accompanied by a loss of interest in religion within WHO. With the spread of HIV/AIDS however, health-related religious beliefs were increasingly recognised in the development of a major quality of life instrument by the Division of Mental Health, and the work of a WHO expert committee on cancer pain relief and the subsequent establishment of palliative care.
While the 1990s saw a cooling off of activities, in the years since, the HIV/AIDS, Ebola and COVID-19 crises have periodically brought religious actors to the attention of the organisation. This study focuses on what we suggest may be understood as a trend towards a closer association between the activities of WHO and religious actors, which has occurred in fits and starts and is marked by attempts at institutional translation and periods of forgetting and remembering.


A cursory look through the wealth of material produced by WHO and its six regional offices turns up remarkably few references to religion. Yet, the vast majority of the world’s population is religiously affiliated, and WHO is an important player in the Global South, where state-run public health infrastructure is often weak, and health-related personal beliefs, ‘faith-based organisations’ (FBOs) and religious leaders and -communities (‘religious actors’) play a key role in the provision of healthcare. Given these circumstances, it may seem surprising that their concerns do not feature more prominently in the organisation’s agenda. Even more so as, since the 1990s and particularly the early 2000s, the importance of FBOs in the United Nations (UN) system has become more evident and several UN agencies and major donors have begun to build sustained partnerships with religious actors.

In the early 2000s, academic research followed suit, when a recognised group of scholars produced the first in-depth investigation of the often hidden influence exerted by religious actors in the UN. Several monographs and edited volumes have since been published on the intersection of religion and the UN system, with a major research project completed recently at the University of Kent. Meanwhile, intersectoral collaborations such as the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) have gathered mounting evidence of the contribution by religious actors to development work.

Winiger F, Peng-Keller S. Religion and the World Health Organization: an evolving relationship. BMJ Global Health 2021;6:e004073. doi:10.1136/ bmjgh-2020-004073

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