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.

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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.

Haiti Humanitarians – HIV Seamstresses

This woman is learning how to sew in World Concern's HIV support program in Haiti.
This woman is learning how to sew in World Concern's HIV support program in Haiti.

It’s not exactly a place filled with optimism, but I saw glimpses of hope today in a World Concern Haiti care center for those living with HIV. Within a compound surrounded by concrete and a sliding metal gate, I slipped into a warm, sun-lit back room that was packed with sewing machines, amateur seamstresses and a couple of teachers.

While many of these HIV positive people may have lost their jobs because of the ongoing stigma about HIV and AIDS, these ladies will be able to start their own tailoring businesses once they learn this valuable skill.

Today I saw these seamstresses hard at work, but they were not sewing clothes. It wasn’t even fabric. They were cutting out paper patterns and practicing on those before they moved on to the real thing. If they stick with it, one of their first paid jobs will be to make school uniforms for children in Haiti.

And here’s the really inspired thing: Many of those school children are orphans who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. So you have a generation of seamstresses facing an enormous obstacle brought on by this horrible disease who are helping children who are also touched by AIDS, but still have plenty of hope for a good future.

This is good humanitarian aid. Incomes for people who were shut-out from opportunities – and promise for the next generation. Pretty cool!

Finding Hope in Haiti

I find it interesting how people react when I tell them that I am going to Haiti for a week and a half. “We’ll pray for you,” is a common response. No one seems to have a good impression of the country, though many Haitians try as hard as they can to live good lives. The problem is that the country is broken in many ways, and has been for far too long. The rate of AIDS is quite high (5.6%), Port-au-Prince is a haven for crime (don’t go out after dark, I am told), and people are eating dirt out of desperation (really).

World Concern's Derek Sciba shows boys in Kenya their image on a video camera viewfinder.
World Concern's Derek Sciba shows boys in Kenya their image on a video camera viewfinder.

World Concern humanitarians have worked in Haiti for a long time, through crises and hurricanes and political upheaval. We’ve had the same director there for the past couple of decades. In spite of the ongoing poverty, we’ve had a significant impact on the thousands of lives we’ve been able to touch.

My goal in Haiti is to document what’s going on there right now. Our programs include support for those with HIV and children orphaned from AIDS. We are rebuilding water systems and livelihoods after hurricanes roared across the island last year. We’re even doing simple things that mean so much, like giving children goats. The goats have babies and produce milk, providing income and tuition for schools.

I’ll have a still camera, a video camera and a notepad, and will travel with Christon, the country director, to projects across the island. If I can get my international phone to work as I wish – I will also microblog on World Concern’s Twitter account. We want to show our supporters how their money is being spent – and relay stories about those promising people who are determined to change the nature of the country.

After I return from Haiti, I will spend a couple of weeks back in America, then head to Southeast Asia to document World Concern’s work in that region.

Disaster Relief Journal – High Security During Travel

World Concern travels to hard-to-reach places to provide disaster relief. This often means many hours on difficult roads to reach people in great need.
World Concern travels to hard-to-reach places to provide disaster relief. This often means many hours on difficult roads to reach people in great need.

The most common element in all our program fields is the difficulty in just getting there.

This past week we ventured into a new area, just north of our current program area in eastern Chad.

Although it is only about 150 miles, it took us about 12 hours and a couple of days to prepare.

In the whole country of Chad, there are only 2 paved roads outside the capital, N’Djamena, neither of them terribly long.  Around here, we mostly follow tracks in the sand.

The short 3-month rainy season is intense, creating many wide sandy river beds called wadis.  These fill quickly with water during the rainy season.

In the dry season, you can easily get bogged in the deep soft sand of the wadi.  In the dry season, the main problem isn’t the wadis, though, it is the militia.  They find NGO vehicles soft targets.

Not long ago in an area not far from our destination the director of another NGO was killed in an ambush while attempting to provide disaster relief.

We take security very seriously, traveling in as large convoys as possible, carrying radios and satellite phones, checking with locals along the way about the road ahead.

We were supposed to meet up with a convoy of 4 vehicles at a town part-way there, but the government had declared that day a national holiday the night before.  So we arrived at the meeting point only to find that the other group wasn’t traveling due to the holiday.  We had 2 vehicles of our own, the minimum required for that road to avoid an ambush and plowed on anyway.

The drivers are used to sand, so were able to slip into and out of 4-wheel drive as we would fourth gear on a highway.  They were great and never let us bog down in any of the wadis, though it was touch and go a couple of times.

Our lead drier was from that region and hadn’t been there for a year or more, so every now and again we’d suddenly stop while Isaaka ran out into some seemingly random field, falling into an embrace with someone out harvesting their millet.  Then we’d be on our way again.

Although we arrived at our destination at around 2pm, we were sent onwards to meet the Chef de Canton (like the Mayor) and Sous-Prefet (like the Governor) in Hadjer Hadid, another 30km (18 miles) up the road.

It took about an hour to get there, then another 3 hours to find the Sous-Prefet, wait for him to decide to meet with us, then meet with him, then repeat the process with the Chef de Canton, all the while drinking sticky-sweet, scalding hot tea in 90+ degree weather.

All the formalities done, we were able to trundle back to Arkoum, our final destination, arriving much later than we really should have been on the road.  Within 15 minutes of arriving, we were setting up camp in the dark under a thankfully bright moon, eating a meal of rice and canned sardines.

It took us about 12 hours to get 150 miles, and that was without any problems at all with the vehicles or the road.

Poverty in Sri Lanka

The BBC reported today (article)  that the Sri Lankan army had taken the last of the major cities held by the Tamil Tigers and would soon have them surrounded. As in all wars, no matter how conscientious the warring sides may be about civilian deaths and injuries, they suffer tremendously. This is especially true in a fight against a terrorist movement that is rooted among a minority population. In Sri Lanka this is made worse because the Tigers tend to prevent movement of their people into a safe area. The Sri Lankan army and much of the rest of the world call them hostages to the Tigers. The Tigers call them supporters. Hostages or collaborators, they suffer.

I first visited Sri Lanka in 1983 just as the first full wave of communal violence broke out between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. The shops belonging to Tamils were still smoldering in Columbo when I arrived from Bangladesh where I was living with my family. I had come to work with Sri Lankan Christians to set up a relief response. The riot in Columbo was precipitated by a Tamil Tiger ambush in northern Sri Lanka in which nine Sinhalese soldiers were killed.

I finally returned to Sri Lanka last September to visit our work in eastern Sri Lanka among Tamil civilians, many of whom had been displaced several times as they tried to flee the fighting. As I met our mostly young staff, I realized that most of them had lived most of their youth and adult lives between my two visits. Because our work eastern Sri Lanka is largely among Tamils, most of our local staff are also Tamil. They have grown up in the face of a national conflict that became a part of everyday life.

I gained just a glimpse of what life is like now as we passed through one checkpoint after another. As we passed through checkpoints I was shielded from close questioning and body and luggage searches by my nationality and race—clearly not of Tamil or Sinhalese descent—and the World Concern flag and highly visible World Concern name and logo on our hood. The Sinhalese police and military have come to respect our integrity, the quality of our programs and our heart of service to the people.

As I passed soldier after soldier stretched out over kilometers of road, each in sight (during the daytime) of the next one along the road,  I tried to imagine the feeling of the lone military sentry in the middle of the night, whose major role is that of the canary in the mine—unable to hold off an armed assault from infiltrating  Tamil Tigers but whose violent death would alert a forceful response.

As I passed through the checkpoints, I also tried to imagine the growing panic of a young Tamil innocent of any terrorist activity or leanings as he realizes during his questioning that he is for some reason he does not understand falling under suspicion, Or the Tamil child trying to avoid forced recruitment by the Tigers.

As I reflected on the lives of our staff, so different from my own, I realized that Jesus could better understand than I.

  • Jesus lived in a country under military occupation. I imagined Jesus moving off the road with the twelve young men in his group as Roman soldiers passed, trying to obscure their “groupness” by separating, casting their eyes downward and fading into the sides of the road.
  • Many tried to recruit Jesus into the Zealots who carried out a low level insurgency against Rome. They appealed to the prophets who had predicted the coming of a victorious ruler who would free them from the Romans, portions of scripture that Jesus had heard many times from his childhood. His disciples certainly saw the military potential of a general who could heal the sick, raise the dead, feed a regiment from five small loaves of bread and two fishes, and control the weather.
  • Jesus sometimes moved in secret, answered questions in such a way to share his message without giving any specific cause for his arrest, and lived daily with his life under threat.

Even up to the night of his arrest, Jesus struggled with the decision whether to use his power to thwart and defeat his enemies or to die at their hand. During his arrest, for the first and only recorded time in his life, Jesus healed a wound given in an act of violence—a wound inflicted by his follower on one who had come to arrest him. This was the last miracle he performed before his death.

Jesus carried out his mission, giving his life to save those who killed him. He was arrested immediately following that internal struggle in the garden.

As I share with our staff, I appealed to them to model Jesus’ life in occupied Palestne, in many ways paralleling their own.

  • Jesus knowingly washed the feet of the enemy’s informant along with his other followers, illustrating for Judas and all of his disciples that true power lies in loving service and not in conquest and that true leadership is found in humble submission and not in command.
  • He showed that Christian martyrs die with words of forgiveness of their enemies on their lips and not curses.
  • By his death and resurrection, he showed that victory comes through apparent weakness and life springs from death willing suffered for the salvation of others.

I had been meditating on this quotation from Cardinal Suhard, at one time the Bishop of Paris, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”   Trying to understand how to be a Follower of Christ in Sri Lanka, torn by 24 years of war, helped me understand in a deeper way how Jesus’ way is so utterly different from any other.

Humanitarians Act to Stop Child Trafficking

Humanitarian organization World Concern helps stop human trafficking at the border of Cambodia and Thailand.
Humanitarian organization World Concern helps stop human trafficking at the border of Cambodia and Thailand.

She’s 13 years old and badly disfigured. Her eye has been gouged from her face, ripped out with a metal shard by a woman holding her captive in a Cambodian sex trafficking operation. The story of Long Pross is a difficult one to stomach, but as described in a recent New York Times OpEd piece by Nicholas Kristof, it is the kind of story westerners must hear.

It doesn’t matter the gender, and sadly it doesn’t matter the age. Trafficking children for indentured servitude, prostitution or sex slavery is an enormous industry. More than 1 million children are trafficked every year, sometimes for as little as $20. World Concern and partner agency CHO see it all the time at the Poi Pet border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand. The photos that you see with this story are all from that crossing.

The classic scenario is that predators will approach a poor family in Cambodia, telling children, or even their parents, that they have work for them in Thailand. Once the children say goodbye, they often never return. If they are one of the lucky ones to escape with their lives, they are often dumped in a park just inside the Cambodian border, near the gate.

Humanitarian Organization World Concern works to educate children and families to prevent this from ever happening. We do this with our School on a Mat program. An instructor gathers children in a shady area to hear an urgent message: do not believe the lies of work and opportunity. They learn how the scam works – and how to say no. Separate from that, we offer children a chance to learn and find opportunities in legitimate business. Some children learn how to sew; other teen-agers may learn how to repair motorcycle engines. We offer real, sustainable solutions, far from the horrors of trafficking.

Young men learn how to repair motorcycles as part of the World Concern program to stop human trafficking.
Young men learn how to repair motorcycles as part of the World Concern program to stop human trafficking.

My background is as a reporter in broadcast news. I have covered dozens and dozens of murders. After a while, even the awful seems to run together with the basic statistics of the story; how many bullets were fired, the status of the investigation, the time of the crime.

But I recall a situation where a news director specifically wanted to reveal graphic details in the heartbreaking murder of a young woman killed in a nightclub. I will always remember this case. The teenage girl went into an all-ages show at a nightclub, but no one remembered her coming out. There was a massive search across the city. She was only found days later buried in debris inside a storage closet. The accused murderer had a history of aggression and sexual deviance. All of this and more came out in the police investigation, and a great deal of it actually made air.

The news director’s rationale for disclosing these details: to cause outrage. To let the community know that this crime is something out of the ordinary, something heinous, something to not forget. And as I followed the criminal case of the sex offending murderer, I believe he was held accountable because the community knew the gravity of the crime.

This is why child trafficking stories like that of Long Pross need to be told. Life really can be horrible for vulnerable people like her. Though these stories may be difficult to hear, those of us with resources can and should act to protect the innocent.

Learn more about how World Concern protects children.

Teach one child how to be safe from trafficking for $35.

Humanitarian organization World Concern teaches children about the dangers of child trafficking.
Humanitarian organization World Concern teaches children about the dangers of child trafficking.

Be a Christmas Humanitarian

Who can resist a pig? One sow can produce 20 offspring a year.
Who can resist a pig? One sow can produce 20 offspring a year.

People are so pleased to be helping the poor this Christmas. Maybe it’s the economy, but it seems like the Global Gift Guide really resonates with people this year. There seems to be more empathy. We have had a lot of positive feedback from donors. They realize that there are plenty of human beings out there who still need the basics: food, shelter, water – and hope for the future.

I was talking with a lady in Alaska about a week ago who lives alone, outside a small town that doesn’t get a lot of sunshine around Christmas. She may live in an isolated area, but she certainly has compassion beyond her own community – and supports humanitarian causes through World Concern. She was particularly interested in the gift to prevent child trafficking. The gift is $500, so she went in on it with a friend.

The money they donated will provide tools to educate at risk communities in Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal about the danger posed by child trafficking. Because of people like this donor, children will learn that the promises they hear about jobs in other cities are scams that usually lead to sexual abuse or indentured servitude. And these are kids, often just 10, 11 or 12 years old!

If you are an American or live in some other Western country, you probably don’t need stuff. Stuff like gadgets. Or accessories for the house. Or unnecessary clothes. So the Global Gift Guide is a good alternative – a way to be a humanitarian this Christmas.

I encourage you to check out the Global Gift Guide if you haven’t already – especially if you are still shopping for Christmas. Give a goat! Or a pig! These gifts will be special to your loved one – and certainly to the poor and vulnerable people who will receive your compassion.

Visit the Global Gift Guide at www.worldconcern.org/ggg

Be a humanitarian this Christmas - give a goat!
Be a humanitarian this Christmas - give a goat!

Humanitarian Aid Resources

Whether you work for a humanitarian aid agency or simply care about the poor, it helps to find good resources. Below are a few of my favorites:

Humanitarian aid in kenya africa
Girl at an orphans and vulnerable children sign-up event in Kenya. She is likely an AIDS orphan.