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.

World Poverty Photos

Poverty Photos

Take a look at some poverty photos.  See how people live in poverty around the world.

If you like the poverty photos, or think they are especially powerful, please share w/ your friends.  There’s a link below the poverty photos (look for “Share This”) that enables you to easily share around web.

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.

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.

Why a Poverty Blog?

Bangladesh--Where this story began.

In January 1977, just over 32 years ago, my wife, Kendra, my daughter, Heather, who had just celebrated her first birthday, and I arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh to begin what we thought would be a two year assignment but stretched to seven.

Our shipment of supplies, dishes and things turned up about three months later just as we were moving into our field assignment in Kamalganj, a rural area in northeastern Bangladesh. As we carried boxes of paper diapers, kid’s toys, clothes and other things that we had shipped into a small house that had originally been built for leprosy patients we began to see our world and our place in quite differently.

I am the son of a Baptist pastor and grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia where he pastored a small church. Kendra, a missionary kid was born in Barbados when it was still a British colony and grew up there and in Grenada. Neither of our families were rich by American standards—probably on the basis of money alone, we would have been lower middle class. We grew up thinking of ourselves not as poor but certainly not as rich either.

As we moved in that day, all that we owned in the world fit on the floor of one of the four 100 square feet concrete rooms that comprised our new house—almost without stacking. As our possessions disappeared into the house, however, what seemed to us minimal in the US suddenly seemed excessive. With a start we realized at a gut level that we were rich. With that personal revelation, much around us began to change. Previously we were able to read biblical instruction concerning possessions without guilt, sometimes subtly seasoned with self-righteousness. With the new recognition that we were rich, the same passages became acutely uncomfortable. Beginning with that discomfort, a two year assignment also slowly transformed into a lifelong vocation, and for over thirty years we have led others in ministry to God among the poor.

We quickly came to realize that simply providing money and goods would not in itself change the culture of poverty. If the ship bringing our shipment to Bangladesh had sunk in the Indian Ocean, we would not then have been poor, only inconvenienced for a period. Neither life nor even wealth is actually measured by the accumulation of possessions alone.

In the years since, our family lived seven year in Kenya and I have traveled to dozens of impoverished countries. None of my travels have moved me to romanticize poverty—it is terrible, rooted in injustice and eats slowly away at all that a person is meant by God to be. But I have also been transformed by thousands of hours of conversations with the poor, especially those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and come to new understandings of God’s heart.

That is why I am writing this blog—not to give answers but to chronicle my journey especially during this leg of the trip with my colleagues at World Concern.

Meredith