Will the Hunger Challenge be as “fun” as it seems?

Today was shopping day for some of our staff participating in the Hunger Challenge. The task: to figure out what to buy in order to eat on just $34.33 for the next week. The amount is equivalent to the $1.25 a day that many people in Haiti live on. Our adjusted amount will be $4.90 a day, which doesn’t sound too difficult, but our first eye opener was how much planning, calculating and creativity went into making $34 stretch for a week.

A week's worth of groceries.
Here's what Mark and Erin bought with their $34. Will it last them a week?

Mark and his wife Erin had a lot of fun planning their menu together for the week, then figuring out which things—like a hunk of cheese or a loaf of bread—could be used in more than one meal. They decided to spend only half of their combined $68 on groceries and save the rest for a few splurges, like Erin’s daily Dr. Pepper from the gas station soda fountain. They’re also planning dinner out on Friday night while shopping at Ikea. The store has a hot dog, chips and a drink for $1.99, which fits in their budget. Monday is their anniversary, so they’ll order pizza from Little Caesar’s for $5.

Other meals include taco soup, minus the meat (for three nights), grilled cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and of course, some Top Ramen for snacks.

The hardest things to give up? “Soft drinks,” said Mark, who usually drinks soda with lunch and dinner, but will be drinking only water this week.

“We really realized that if you’re careful, you can save a whole bunch,” he said. “We were surprised at how much food we could get.” It may be a little monotonous, he admits, but they’ve got a bag of chocolate chip cookies dipped in milk to look forward to at the end of the day.

But the Hunger Challenge is not all about budgeting and careful shopping. It’s about experiencing—just an inkling—of what other people live with every day of their lives.

Think about the fact that we’re spending our entire $34 on food. What about all the other things families need to be healthy like soap and toothpaste? Here are just a few things I would normally include in my grocery budget, but won’t be buying this week or I’d starve:

Toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, cleaning products, cat food, cat litter, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, over-the-counter medicines, staples (flour, sugar, spices, shortening, oil, etc.), condiments (salad dressing, mayo, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, etc.), soft drinks, juice, other beverages, light bulbs … I could go on and on.

The point is, when you’re faced with a small amount of money needing to stretch for a week, food alone becomes the priority.

Planning for this week might feel “fun” to those of us who don’t live this way every day, but I find it hard to imagine those living in constant poverty would even have the energy to plan a week’s worth of meals. For us, this is a week-long experiment. For millions of people, it’s a way of life.

Follow our team’s Hunger Challenge updates on Facebook and Twitter, as well as this blog.

Independence: Evidence of a Job Well Done

This past week I moved my oldest daughter into her college dorm two states away. The milestone, as it is for most parents, was bittersweet. I kept reminding myself that although I will miss her at home, this is the purposeful outcome of 18 years of parenting. We raise our kids with the intent of molding them into healthy, stable, independent adults. The fact that she can now take care of herself means I’ve done my job well.

Two Kenyan students walk home from school.
School boys walking home from Lekanka Hills Primary School.

A recent comment from our Kenya staff reminded me that our work in developing communities has a similar intention. The staff member said, “The community based institutions are showing signs of walking on their own without the help of World Concern.” Way to go World Concern, if I do say so myself! This is an indicator that we’re doing our job well.

One of the young men who received help from our programs in Kenya is a living example of this principle. Otuma Taek had little hope of overcoming the cycle of poverty in his remote pastoralist village. He had a dream of becoming a teacher, but drought had taken its toll on his father’s diminishing cattle stock and his family could not afford the 22,000 Kenyan shillings (approximately $270 USD) annual tuition for him to attend high school. It seemed his eight years of hard work and good grades in primary school would be wasted.

But everything changed for Otuma when the village development committee chose him to receive a World Concern scholarship. Otuma enrolled at Narok High School where he had to undergo a qualifying year, which meant he spent five years in high school instead of four—another indication of his willingness to go the distance to gain an education. In addition to paying half his tuition, the program offered life skills seminars, which he says helped him avoid joining the wrong crowd in high school. He completed his final exam with a respectable C average.

Today, Otuma is a teacher at Lekanka Hills Primary School, where he teaches math to fourth and fifth graders and passes along the valuable education he received to the next generation. His hope is that this next generation of students will follow his legacy and someday make a difference in their village as well.

In this same way, we hope eventually World Concern’s support won’t be needed in this community anymore. The village will sustain itself, and we can say, “Well done.”

Every parent able to care for their children

Mother and child Sri Lanka

I have been fortunate to take a few days off to relax at a friend’s cabin in the woods.  I was thinking and praying while sitting in a camp chair in the Wenatchee River.  It was the heat of the day and I was being refreshed with my feet soaking in the water.

The conversation I was having with God was about the vision He has given me for the world.  There are many things which should be changed in our world, but I am called to a particular vision—a calling Melissa and I received in 1999 that has become clearer as we have sought to be obedient.  We choose serving with World Concern because the vision we have been given intersects with World Concern’s.

I have a vision of a world where every parent (grandparent, caregiver) can meet the needs of their children.  Traveling the world I have seen that parents everywhere care deeply about their children, even as I do about my four children.  Parents are given the responsibility by God to raise up their children and in almost all cases this is what they desire to do.  Yet hundreds of millions cannot provide the basic needs.  It is not lack of concern or effort it is bigger world issues.

We must change the world.  We must create a place where every parent can provide nutrition, shelter, health, education and spiritual nurture for their children.  Our world view is formed within our families and communities. God created the family for this purpose.  If we are going to change the world it must be done generationally through families.

How would I feel if someone else had to step in and provide care for my children?  It is demoralizing to have others care for our children.  When parents are set aside so that outsiders can meet their children’s needs, it may feel good to the outsider, but it is a very negative experience for the parent.  We need to provide for the family needs by empowering the parents.

In disaster situations this may require direct food inputs, but let us do so with the family in mind.  Most of the need in the world can be overcome through supporting the caregivers by providing education, health systems, water, food security, education, and income opportunity.  Wrapping all of that will be the need for Biblical values that direct life decisions.

We know that future generations must be prepared to run this world.  Strengthening the family to meet the needs of their children is a generational solution to poverty.  Children raised by parents meeting their needs will learn to do the same for their children in turn.  Parents have the greatest influence on the lives of children we can and must positively change that influence.

Obama’s Cairo Speech & Islam: Should the poor rejoice?

CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4: U.S. President Barack Obama makes his key Middle East speech at Cairo University June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. In his speech, President Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims", declaring that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end". (Photo by Getty Images)

I’ve just returned from Asia and, because World Concern works many places in the Islamic world, I listened closely to Obama’s Cairo speech. This morning I was in the middle of writing an email responding to a very conservative critique of the speech when I took a call from our Area Director for Africa. Because of the now uncontested control of Al Shabab in the two major areas of our work, we have had to table any plans for expansion even though the need of the poor increases. We will expand in Somaliland where there is greater stability.

The media report on only a few of the attacks of Islamic fundamentalists, especially if they target Europeans or Americans or involve a suicide bombing. Even more than those who are killed, though, the poor pay the price for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. They may flee their homes in the midst of fighting, as we now see tens of thousands doing in Somalia and Pakistan. They may remain as helping agencies are driven out or required to curtail their work as we are having to do. And they may not even be able to cultivate or harvest a crop. Men and boys who would be working to feed the family are forcefully conscripted into militias. The suffering of the poor is many times greater than those who are violently killed or maimed.

So will Obama’s speech make anything better? The conservative commentary that I read was a resounding “no” for one of these reasons.

1) Saying something does not make it so. Failing to challenge intolerance of other faiths even among non-fundamentalist governments and communities does not protect minorities. Policy differences still remain. Nothing is really different on the ground after the speech than before.

2) Fundamentalists are not going to change their beliefs and practices as a result of the speech because their actions are rooted in an Islamic expression that would discount the words of infidels.

I’ll concede those two points but that does not mean that “words are cheap” or that nothing has changed.

The criticism does not recognize and words and symbols are powerful, not in bringing magical solutions to seemingly intractable problems but in changing the context in which they are seen and discussed. Sure, a speech will not solve all of the contradictions within the doctrine and practice of Islam anymore than a Papal edict would have stopped the IRA until the power of the community had turned against the violence in Ireland. Yes, there is a significant difference between the foundations of Islam and Christianity in how we regard political power and nature of kingdom. Islam is too savvy to embrace grace and such impractical concepts such as loving enemies. The Prophet Mohammed entered Mecca at the head of an army from Medina and triumphed over those who had ignored him earlier, establishing a religious/political reign that has been contested ever since his death. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and was killed by his opponents less than a week later, triumphing only through his death and resurrection and establishing a Kingdom of servants.  Islam and Christianity are different at their cores.

Even though words and symbols alone do not change circumstances on the ground nor reconcile true differences between faiths, peoples or nations, I believe in their power in changing the context in which debate and discussion happens. When I meet an obstructive government official who wants a bribe, I will not oppose him but try to include him in solving the problem that he has created. “Let’s see. It does look like we have a problem. How do we manage to solve it.”  That approach has worked more often than not and certainly better than the confrontational approach that drips with judgment. I do not expect the official never to extort money again as a result of this interchange but rather to solve an immediate problem. By (hopefully) changing the context of the discussion from “me against you” to “we’ll solve this together”, my words and attitude make a difference.

I also think that Obama is right in presuming that most Muslims worldwide do not want to live under a fundamentalist regime, not even in Somalia. Muslims are created in God’s image and worthy of respect. They desire to live in peace and without fear. Fundamentalists of any flavor eventually hang themselves on their own rope but US rhetoric and attitudes have given the Islamists a lot more rope to work with before it begins to tighten. Obama’s speech shortened the rope and Obama and his team are not naïve enough to think that all will now be well. But we have a better chance for progress.

Finally, isn’t there an Arabic tradition of fine words and hospitable actions on the part of both guests and hosts while action, if there is any, takes place behind the scenes? Obama respected that tradition, again showing that he values those within Arabic and more broadly Islamic cuItures. I think that we need to look more closely at the responses of the Muslim man and woman in the street to gauge the success of the speech in accomplishing what the US hoped that it would—not in solving the problems but in beginning to change the ethos in which the problems are discussed. The last president to be able to do that effectively was Carter and the peace that he facilitated between Egypt and Israel has been among the few hopeful elements that has endured in the Middle East.

Do I think, then, that we’ll be able to immediately revive our plans to expand our work in southern Somalia because of a speech in Cairo? No, of course not. But I do believe that it incrementally reduces the power of the fundamentalists who sacrifice help for the poor among their own people to acheiving and maintaining rule over them.

And I believe, because we are created in God’s image, we wish to be respected and valued. Approaching those with whom we disagree with respect will not in itself close the gap that divides us but does make bridge-building easier.

The Cross and the Poor: A Good Friday Meditation

Crucifix from Oberammergua
Crucifix from Oberammergua

The Cross and the Poor: A Good Friday Meditation

 

 

 

  But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” John 12:32

 For most of my life, when I read this verse, what really went through my mind was “But I, when I rise from the dead, will draw all people to myself.”  Good Friday slipped by quietly, a whistle-stop on the way to Easter. I identified with the joy of Easter. In our family, we triumphed in the empty cross.

 And, after all, it is triumph that draws people, is it not? Surely Jesus, had his thoughts not been haunted by the imminence of his death, would have realized that it the victory of Easter would draw people to him and not the horrendous pain, betrayal and abandonment of the cross. Don’t we flee from blood, torture, injustice, suffering and death? Those of us who grow up with little suffering, as I did, cannot understand the attraction of the crucifixion but eagerly embrace victory. Embracing the crucifixion threatens to drag us down toward death but the resurrection lifts us up to a life even better than the good one we enjoy now.

 But then I went to live among the poor, like those with whom Jesus lived, and began to realize that Jesus’ words were incisive, not short-sighted. Preaching only the triumph of Easter among the poor often stirs up only the hopes of Palm Sunday-of enemies defeated, of riches obtained, of a good life-hopes that are dashed between Sunday and the next Friday. Drawn only to a god of triumph, they are betrayed.  

 But a God on the cross, one who understands their sufferings because He too, has suffered and still draws their pain and sin into himself-that God is one whose love they can receive .

 I think back to a wood and thatch house raised on stilts over the stinky river that flows through Phnom Penh, Cambodia. With my hands on the shoulders on Chup Ly, a Vietnamese young woman in the last stages of AIDS, I prayed quietly as the Vietnamese pastor prayed aloud. Chup Ly, sold into sex work by her parents, had been drawn to Jesus and placed her belief in Him. As I prayed, I thought, “Shall I pray that I somehow take some of her suffering into myself and perhaps lessen it?”  The answer came back, “Meredith, I’ve already done that and am doing it now. You are too small a person to bear such pain. It’s not your commission.”

  “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw Chup Ly to myself.”

 I think of the fright of a five-year old child in a village in Mozambique watching as his older brother convulses in a sweat-soaked bed from malaria, grows still and finally cools into death.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this bewildered child and his brother to myself.”

 I think of the helplessness of the father, waiting beside the road with other laborers, hoping that someone will come and exploit his labor for the day so that he can feed his children.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this helpless man and his family to myself.”

 I think of the resigned pain in the eyes of the mother who watches her infant suckle ever more weakly at breasts withered from starvation.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this starving mother and child to myself.”

 I think of the twelve year old girl sold to sex traffickers, who alone, enslaved and abandoned, waits in terror in a small, dingy room as the approaching footsteps of the first man ever to have bought her echo in the hallway.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this terrified and soon to be violated girl to myself.”

 On this Good Friday, as I remember Chup Ly, dying of AIDS in Phnom Penh, I know with deep certainty that I must embrace both Good Friday and Easter.  “What is our calling then? We are called, simply, to hold on to (the risen) Christ and his cross with one hand, with all our might; and to hold on to those we are given to love with the other hand, with all our might, with courage, humor, self-abandonment, creativity, flair, tears, silence, sympathy, gentleness, flexibility, Christlikeness. When we find their tears becoming our own, we may know that healing has begun to happen….” (NT Wright, For All God’s Worth, pp 98-99)

Fighting Poverty in a Violent Place: Sri Lanka

Ragu was killed while helping the poor in Sri Lanka.
Ragu was killed while helping the poor in Sri Lanka.

9/11 is a date that will always be associated with violence. For most of us, we think of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but there was another act of violence on that day. On September 11, 2006, Ragu was killed-shot down as he worked with World Concern to serve the poor in Sri Lanka.

 Ragunathan (Ragu) was one of the field workers, working with community members to get their homes rebuilt and also to rebuild their lives and livelihood after the tsunami that devastated Banda Aceh, Indonesia washed ashore in eastern Sri Lanka. .

 After the tsunami struck the Government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers crafted a fragile truce. In August 2006, the truce fell apart. One of the hotly contested areas was around the port city of Trincomalee, built on the largest protected natural bay in all of Asia.

 On September 11 2006, during the course of his work near Trincomalee, Ragu stopped his motorcycle beside the road to answer his cell phone. While he was talking, he was shot dead. To this day nobody knows who did it. Was it a soldier thinking that Ragu was reporting information to Tamil fighters during this time of war, or a Tiger assassin, mistaking Ragu’s development work for collaborating with the government? Or was it a targeted killing because of a dispute going on in Ragu’s village at the time? Nobody knows-even now.

 When I was in Trincomalee last year, I passed by the spot in the road where Ragu was killed. I wanted to find out more about this man who had died while helping others.

 Ragu, a Tamil, was a father of five, three daughters and two sons. His last born, a son, was only four days old on the day Ragu was killed. Ragu was the poorest of the World Concern field workers. Though he was poor enough to qualify for a rebuilt home for himself and his family, he removed his own name from the list. Others needed homes so much more than he.

 When he attended staff meetings and training events with the team involved in rebuilding, Ragu asked the practical questions, always with others in mind. “Why is the supply of concrete delayed?” “When will the supplies be transported?”

 Ian McInnes who later led the Sri Lanka office once listened to Ragu talking with farmers who had received a house and were now were asking World Concern to give even more things-things that they could now provide for themselves.

 “You have a home now. Now is the time for you to pick yourselves up and rebuild. And, if you are thinking of fleeing the area, make sure that you give this home to someone else, just as it was given to you.”

 Ian wrote a letter to affirm and praise Ragu. Ragu carried it in his rear pocket wherever he went.

 The World Concern family in Sri Lanka and around the world rallied around Ragu’s widow and the children. All of Ragu’s children are able to go to school. Ragu’s oldest child completing secondary school at a local Catholic boarding school and the youngest will celebrate his third birthday on September 11, 2009.  

 Fighting world poverty in places of violence carries a price.  The number of humanitarian workers killed worldwide has continued to climb. Nine in ten die in acts of violence.

Fighting Poverty in a Violent Place: Somalia

Poverty in Somalia
Photo courtesy of the NY Times

Working on poverty reduction is hard anywhere in the world but is harder some places than others. World Concern is one of the few agencies that has worked in Somalia for over three decades. There is no effective central government in Somalia and the areas of our work are sometimes occupied by one of the rival groups and then another, sometimes from one day to the next. Violence in Somalia is always imminent. It is one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to fight poverty. We were recently asked by a donor how we are able to work in places like Somalia where there is so much violence.  Here is how our staff in Africa answered.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Somalia has one of the worst human development indices and the south in particular bears the burden. Due to the protracted conflict and natural disasters there have been an estimated 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid and a further 1 million are internally displaced (Somalia CAP 2009).

World Concern has worked in Somalia for almost 30 years. Through that experience, we have developed an understanding of the Somali people, especially in the areas that you referred to in your email. The current program primarily targets the unarmed, marginalized Somalia Bantus, who have small farms, and people affected by leprosy. Because of frequent conflicts with neighboring pastoralists (herders) who come in search of water and pasture for their animals, World Concern expanded the program to address water issues for the pastoralists.

The program is being implemented in an area that is located away from the main trade routes, providing some protection from conflicting groups. The residents of the area are the marginalized Somali Bantus. One of the villages a major settlement of people affected by leprosy. The project is designed to benefit 45,000 people, 24,200 of whom are direct beneficiaries.

The Somali political landscape is very dynamic with frequent changes. World Concern has always worked with and through the community elders and their structures such Community Development Committees, and Sector committees for the various activities. These are manned by the beneficiary community who come from the target groups. We do not deal with the armed groups in any way.

World Concern works with the locally elected central committee of elders which has remained unchanged over the years in spite of the constant shift of power in the area. The Central Committee is in charge of selecting the Community Development Committee. World Concern has continually trained the Central Committee and the Community Development Committees to build their capacity for project implementation.

The present programming is aimed at saving lives and reducing conflict between communities through capacity building. World Concern through consultative meetings with the community leadership has shared responsibilities in the implementation activities.

What would happen if our programs were forced to end either by a decision of the US government or because of violence from the Somali groups in power in our areas?

    1. We would have to immediately cease our activities without any planning or preparation.
    2. It would negatively reflect on the image of World Concern in the community because we failed to honor the obligation of completing the program. This would also make reentry into the community difficult. It would enhance recruitment of militants.
    3. It would negatively impact the work and reputation of our the local partners we work with on the ground.
    4. Most of the resources we and the communities have invested would be wasted because we would be unable to continue the activities essential to securing benefits to the people in the area of our work.
    5. The very fragile local economy would shrink even further because of lack of employment and reduced commerce.
    6. The community would suffer even more.  The already marginalized households and leprosy affected people would suffer greater oppression and be deprived of access to services essential to their welfare. Without our work with both of the competeing communities, conflict between pastoralists and farmers would probably increase.  Because we would not complete our planned activities, many in the area of our work would either lose their livelihoods. It would affect 80% of the pastoralists, 90% of the farmers, and 100% of those who fish as a major part of their livelihood.

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Doing good well is more than simply knowing how to pursue interventions with excellence. Working in places like Somalia requires a strong commitment to the Somali people, patience, great wisdom in complex personal and group relationships. It means that we develop relationships with local leaders who are concerned about their people. It means that we must find local partners who will risk violence and carry on even when there are infrequent visits and interrupeted communication.  It means that our staff must depend daily upon a merciful God and be willing to submit their ideas and action to His direction.  It is only God who nurtures the courage of our staff to work in the face of uncertainly and sudden violence.

Global Recession and the Work of Reducing World Poverty

From Wikimedia
From Wikimedia

As I sit here today trying to figure out how best to handle reduced funding as a result of the global recession, I remember what I have often heard during my career. People have lamented, “If only those agencies dedicated to helping the poor could be run like businesses, they could operate with such efficiency that things would be great.”  They often have in mind not small family-run businesses but large corporate entities.

 I recognize that there are many things that we in the volunteer sector must learn from business. While I deeply appreciate the insights that I’ve received from those whose vocation is private enterprise, recent events have made me skeptical of this comment when said without critical thought. 

 For instance, let’s take one of the controversial bonuses in big financial firms-a modest one of only $1 million-and look at what we do at World Concern with the same amount.

 For an entire year, we operate microfinance and village savings and loans in five of the poorest countries in the world–Kenya, Sudan, Haiti, Bangladesh and Bolivia.  There are over 21,000 participants who directly benefit with savings and small loans. Most are poor women. If we include the family members of the participants in the programs, the total number of those who benefit climbs to over 100,000. Each participant also receives additional training in business practices and many also receive training in the broad number of problems that they face in their community-health, agricultural and some vocational training. The cost per participant per year is about $47.50(thirteen cents a day–or 1/50th of the new McStarbucks breakfast offering) and, if we include all who benefit, it is $8.33 per person per year.

 The repayment rate on the loans that go to these 21,000 families-over 92%. What about the credit default instrument? If one person is having problems paying the loan on time, and those problems are legitimate, the group will often assist in repayment. And then the group will make sure that the ir group member, who may have suffered an illness in the family or other problem, eventually repays the group.

What kind of business environment do these people operate in? A tough one. And they have survived floods in Bolivia, multiple hurricanes in Haiti, ethnic conflict in Kenya, grinding poverty in Bangladesh, and clan warfare in Sudan in which their businesses and stock were burned to the ground. And still with an overall repayment rate of over 92%. 

And for the $1 million, we not only meet on-the-ground costs, including the full cost of our program staff. The million includes all our overhead and technical support costs globally as well as the cost of raising the money to support this ministry.

 And what is our bonus? How about enough left over to provide community schools to 3500 kids in Bangladesh for a year and to pay for six months of anti-trafficking and child protection in Southeast Asia?

 What can we learn from some businesses that have recently been in the press? Probably not cost-effectiveness or excellent performance. There are better ways of investing a million dollars, and our lives.

Women & World Poverty

Women in Poverty

On Thursday, January 29, 2009, President Obama signed his first bill – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act (CNN article).

For many years, Lilly Ledbetter worked received much less than her male counterparts who were doing exactly the same work but she did not discover the discrepancy until she reached retirement. She wanted some restitution for the years she had been underpaid but a narrow interpretation of the Statute of Limitations required that she file suit within 180 days of her first unfair paycheck. Since she did not discover the unfairness in the pay system until her retirement, the Supreme Court, on the basis of the present law, threw out the favorable judgment of the lower courts. This law changed the Statute of Limitations to 180 days after the most recent paycheck, providing more recourse to women who do not discover the inequity for many years.

I hope that Lilly Ledbetter will now be able to receive a fair judgment but, if we trace this news event backwards from today’s headlines, we discover that it is rooted in a core belief about equity and gender that is not a part of many of the cultures where I have worked during the years.

If Lilly had herself believed that it’s OK to pay women unequal pay for equal work because that’s just how things were, she would never have brought suit to begin with. That belief, in turn, is rooted in an even more basic belief that women are inherently worth less than men. And that is the core belief, shared by both women and men, in many of the countries of our work that we challenge and begin to change through our microfinance.

On a recent trip to Bangladesh, I asked Khushi (her name means “Happy”) what in her leadership of Women’s Small Business Assistance Center (WSBAC), World Concern’s micro-finance program for women in poverty, brought her the greatest satisfaction. She did not point first to increased family income or even the impact of that income on the women’s families—kids going to school, getting needed health care or enabling the further growth of the women’s businesses. Instead she said, “When we start the program the women look at the ground, many will not speak and, those who do speak share without confidence or spirit. Later in the program, they speak directly and with confidence. They talk of what they can do. They have a much greater influence in their family—their husbands respect them more. They know that they can do things.”

I’ve come to think of this experience as “seeing the lights go on in the eyes” because, quite literally, that is what happens as something that had been asleep in the women is stirred into life, shines through their eyes and is pantomimed in their confident body language—heads up, leaning forward, even interrupting one another to share with confidence and enthusiasm.

I saw it in the eyes of Anowa who was the head of a women’s microcredit group in the village of Kalipur.  This group helps women in poverty lift themselves up.  She sews together jute bags for cement and other items. Wholesalers now place orders with her and she has hired two additional women to help her. Another, after the death of her son caused her to lose her snack shop, began a rickshaw repair business and now owns two rickshaws. A third bought a good milk cow and now sells the five liters of milk it produces a day for Taka 50 (about $.70) a liter. Others make dresses, run market stalls, buy and sell. The eight women call named their community bank “Hashi” or “smile.”

Why is giving women loans, training and encouragement to run their own businesses so different from simply giving them money? This week I discovered a new (to me) insight that I had never seen in quite the same way before. I was again reading the first few chapters of Genesis, foundational to transforming development.

God spoke the animals into being, giving them their life. But Adam and Eve spoke their names into being, giving them their identities. There is great power in both actions. Only God can do the first, giving life to a baby girl in Bangladesh, but people, especially the child’s family, give the girl and the woman she becomes her identity.

Our staff and the WSBAC program speak three new identities into being for these women—community bank member, businesswoman and borrower.

  • Community bank member—As a community bank member, the women participate in making decisions that make a difference. The group must decide who will get the loans first and who will not. The women must become critical thinkers, evaluating the credit-worthiness and character of the applicant, and the likelihood of her success. Girls who transition quickly from the rote memorization of primary school—if they are able to attend—to the passive submission and obedience of a teen-aged wife and mother, may never have engaged in critical thought and decision-making. When the women in the group pay off their loans on time, as over 95% of the over 3,000 clients do, the group members come to be known as smart, insightful and savvy rather than slow, passive and dull women how must look to men for insight.
  • Borrower—As a borrower who must repay her loan with interest, a woman, whose identity was shaped by dependence upon others, is renamed as trusted, responsible and respected. For a woman whose identity is almost exclusively shaped by child-bearing and passive obedience to their husbands, becoming a debtor is a tribute to the confidence that others have in her competence. And when she pays off the first loan successfully and moves to larger second and third loans, respect for her grows within the village and with her husband and family.
  • Businesswoman—Businesswomen must plan, use simple accounting to make business decisions, and find suppliers and markets—even if their business is only a market stall. The women, many for the first time, must make investment decisions regarding money. They must decide what risks they are willing to take. For women whose time line for most decisions extend no later than the next day, extending their sense of control and influence permits hope to take root. If we feel that the decisions that we take today will have no influence over what happens in the future, our hope either dies or slips inexorably into numbing passivity.

Why, then, does the light shine in the eyes of these women? It is because we speak the same words of identity to them that God communicated to Eve—the good news of Genesis. “You are created in my image. Therefore you have value in and of yourself. Together with Adam you are to exercise dominion and stewardship over my creation—responsibly exercising your initiative, intelligence and creativity to make it productive.” Nobody has ever spoken this identity into being for millions of women in the world—an identity that is rooted in the character and action of God. The gifts and responsibility that God gave these women by virtue of their creation have not been awakened or developed. For many this awakening is the first step on a pathway that draws them nearer to the one whose image they bear.

World Poverty and Hope

Mid-second week in the Obama administration, hope continues. More than any president in my memory (beginning with Eisenhower), no president has ever entered office buoyed by the expectations and hopes not only of Americans and all the world.

I arrived in Kenya, Africa on my last trip on the same day that the election results were announced and walked into Obamania that probably had no parallel in the world. The recent saying in Kenya that the United States would have a Luo (Obama’s father’s tribe) president before Kenya had come true and all Kenya rejoiced together. My first work day in Africa was scrapped by a hastily called holiday across the entire country.  I too join in the hope that the only president in my memory who had actually worked among the poor will make poverty reduction a priority, not just as a policy but from a heart that better understands.

As I traveled throughout Kenya during the following week, however, I realized anew that the hope placed in Obama would not soon translate into hope that will reach the people I visited.

Later on in the American election week, I stooped down to enter the narrow and low doorway  of a traditional Maasai hut. Making my way through semidarkness I sat down in the small central room with the open fire in the center, glowing red and occasionally flaming up through the smoke that filled the essentially windowless room. For about ninety minutes I talked through a translator with the two Maasai women, one a grandmother and the other her daughter—kind of—she was actually her late husband’s brother’s daughter’s daughter–who together were rearing 13 children without a man in the household.  They talked about the complexity of their lives, of how they had to fight off men who would harass them, of the problems of dealing with sickness among the children and their few cows and goats, of the second woman’s own birth son and how her husband who had deserted her had come back to try and take the son in order to sell him off to others as a laborer. When I asked about their daily joys, they said it was to see the children grow and know that they were enabling them to do it.

As we prepared to leave, the older woman who had never gone to church before suddenly and without prompting not only announced that she would begin to attend but also that she would stop brewing pombee the local and illegal brew. We were all surprised because we had never specifically suggested that she begin to attend church, and did not even know that she was brewing local beer.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

She said it was because we (the World Concern project) were the only ones helping her with her physical needs who also sit, listen, inquire and give her a chance to share her story.  The others just plunk down whatever they are giving and go. And at this point we had given her nothing. We had only come into her house, drunk her tea and listened to her for an hour or so, following the example of the church volunteers, trained by our program, who also visit and listen and bring practical assistance.

President Obama will, I hope, continue the assistance to World Concern and other agencies that enable us to help combat poverty in Africa. But not all help is the same. As Christians we really believe that each man, woman and child is created by God in his image and worthy of respect and dignity. When this belief is transformed into practice—in showing a Maasai widow and an abandoned mother that they are people of value by receiving their hospitality and listening to them—respect animated by the love of Christ—we go beyond assistance, powerfully inviting lives to be transformed in hope.

So, yes, I share the hope of many in the nation that President Obama will bring positive change. But transforming change is truly brought about by men and women who follow Christ and become his hands and feet bringing assistance, see the poor through his eyes and speak his words of life.