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.
I arrived in Dhaka at the peak of the summertime, where my sweat-drenched shirt never dries in the near 100 degree heat, and the power seems to go out every few hours (like it did as I typed this sentence).
During my first five minutes in Bangladesh, beggars approached us as we walked to our vehicle at the airport, then more beggars asked for our help as we drove on the streets. Crammed among the cars are 3-wheeled rickshaws driven by thin chauffeurs. If they’re not waiting for a customer, they’re standing on the pedals, straining against a load.
Other countries where I have documented World Concern’s humanitarian work face more significant problems with infrastructure. In Haiti, some roads in the city are in such disrepair, it is like they had never been leveled or paved. In fact, it was simply years of neglect – coupled with some storms. Dhaka generally has nicely paved streets, and many homes and businesses have power, outside of the frequent blackouts. In Kenya, access to clean water seemed like a greater need than here, though I have not yet seen conditions in the poorest homes made of scrap wood and sheet metal.
This is not to say Bangladesh does not have great need. I can see it in the man without legs who instead walks with his hands. I see it in the older gentlemen crouched on the hot sidewalk, without eyes, who was hoping that somewhere in the blackness, people would provide him with coins for a bowl of rice. The average income here: $4 a day.
Outside the wall of a World Concern-sponsored school that was in session, I see the need in the children without shoes or uniforms, who play marbles in the dirt instead of learning how to read in a classroom. Like in many places where we work, schooling here is not guaranteed. It is usually only a privilege for the wealthy, or for those benefiting from an organization like ours. We give 5,000 children an opportunity they may not have otherwise had.
I was not able to find a guidebook about Bangladesh prior to my trip here to document programs. It is the least Western country I have visited, with no familiar stores or advertisements, and very little English on signs outside of on the primary thoroughfares. From what I’ve seen so far, I suspect there are very few people from the West who visit Dhaka, which means less foreign investment, both financially, and in awareness of the country. Did you know Bangladesh is more populated than Mexico or Russia?
So far I have visited a medical clinic and a school, both packed with people and highly regarded in the community. Once again I am pleased to see World Concern working in areas of intense poverty. Though Christians amount to about one half of one percent of the population, I see the hands of Christ working through our humanitarians, both employees and volunteers. They touch the lives of those in desperate need of compassion.
When I exited the train at a Bangkok mall, people were running to the railing, shouting and looking down. I thought this couldn’t possibly be a “red shirt” anti-government protest. But as I joined others and saw the street below, it was clear that demonstrators had returned to the city in force.
Two government tanks sat in the middle of what is usually a busy street. On top of the tanks were dozens of men in red; all around them were hundreds more. Some protesters waved the flag of Thailand, others wearing red bandannas over their faces pumped their fists in the air. In spite of the prime minister issuing a state of emergency to help keep Bangkok and other areas secure, police and soldiers did not do much to stop the protesters, from what I could see.
As I was getting out my camera, a lady next to me shouted down at demonstrators, who quickly returned her remarks with hostile gestures. Presumably, the woman has a “yellow shirt” mindset, a supporter of the existing government.
Looking through my viewfinder with one eye and trying to maintain my focus on the activities around me, I noticed red shirts running up the stairs into the rail station. One man with a red bandanna stood next to me, waving with both hands at his friends below, encouraging them to to join him. Behind me, police began to drop the emergency gates to block out the protesters. I raced inside the now-secure station just in time.
The basic story is that “red shirt” protesters want the prime minister and other leaders to resign and want a once-popular prime minster (who was convicted of corruption and was ousted in a coup) to return to power.
Just yesterday, “red shirt” demonstrators had stormed a hotel in a town 90 miles south of Bangkok, disturbing a summit between Bangkok’s prime minister and the leaders of other Asian nations. The intended goal of the summit was to plan a coordinated response to the economic crisis. Instead, the leaders had to leave by helicopter.
One reason why I wanted to exit the train at the Siam Center stop was that it was a very “Western” area where I could probably get a hamburger. It’s regarded as a safe place. Signs in the Siam Pavilion shopping mall are in English. You might mistake it for any luxury mall in America.
I still don’t think the area is unsafe, in spite of the rowdy protest. But other areas of Bangkok saw even more action, including an attack on what protesters believed was the prime minister’s car. The next few days will be telling. If the government decides to act with more force, I worry how “red shirt” demonstrators will respond. For now, the “red shirts” have considerable power.
Some say that the polarization in Thailand is growing, calling the country “ungovernable.” That causes me some distress, as the interests of the poor and marginalized are at the forefront of my mind. With an ongoing power struggle, it may be increasingly difficult to improve the plight of those with the greatest need.
I am not sure what to expect with this trip across SE Asia. Six countries in almost as many weeks. And I’m visiting countries with strict restrictions. Who knows, I may be stranded in Bangkok instead of visiting projects! My goal: to try and relax and make the most out of each day.
I’m documenting World Concern’s humanitarian activities with video and photos, finding stories to help prove the value of our work. I’ll also be conducting some educational communication seminars to help the local staff.
I’ll be in some far flung places. Jungle villages with no electricity. Cyclone disaster zones. The leader of World Concern Asia said that if I am ever offered bugs by villagers, I should eat them and be gracious. I couldn’t resist bringing a bag of Clif bars, though.
The journey should last for 40 days. Sounds Biblical. Like the rain before the flood. I think God used that figure because it sounds like a long time, but not too long to where you’d go bonkers. I don’t know, though. I just left a beautiful wife and three-month-old daughter in Seattle. I already miss my baby hugging my neck.
The video monitor here on the seatback of this Boeing 777 shows that we are approaching the Sea of Okhotsk. Another few hours before Tokyo, then a connection to Bangkok. In the morning, I’ll be off to obtain a Myanmar visa. Later in the trip, I will document our child protection programs in Cambodia. I’ve been thinking a lot about human trafficking recently. I look forward to seeing what we are actually doing to stop it.
So join me over the next month or so. I look forward to showing you why World Concern makes it its mission to reach those who might otherwise be forgotten.
Haiti is a country of contrasts. Some roads in downtown Port-au-Prince look like a rocky river bed, with jagged rocks and certainly no indication of recent maintenance. I was amazed to see piles of trash dumped in city streets or sidewalks, the mounds rotting or smoldering.
The country’s government is a fragile entity. When World Concern staff travels to Haiti, we carefully evaluate the security in the country to minimize risk. You might see some Haitian police forces, but at least as often, you will notice UN security forces. Sometimes they will be working on foot. Other times, they will be in full armor, travelling in an armored personnel carrier, which looks very much like a tank. The poverty is so widespread, I was wondering when I looked at some poor families selling their fruit or other wares – if they could really find a better life.
There is another Haiti, though. It’s the Haiti that once was, and a Haiti that may one day return. I saw this in the white sand beaches that could be any Carribean paradise. If only tourists felt safe getting to the beaches, they would come. They could walk under beautiful canopies of trees, with coconuts and bananas growing in villages. Actually, as I understand it from locals, some cruise ships do now dock on an isolated area of the northern coast, allowing passengers to enjoy a secured beach. The locals tell me that cruise ship operators don’t make it clear that they are in Haiti. They say the city name instead. Maybe one day there won’t be the stigma. Haiti once did enjoy tourism.
I can also see this potential with the Haitians who are able to educate their children and who value the rights of women. I am proud to see how World Concern humanitarians are helping Haitians who share our sustainable vision. Once-hungry families are now able to feed themselves.
There is a movement in this often desperate country to break out of the despair. In situations where it’s easy to focus on the enormous challenges, it is refreshing to see hints of a better life for the good people of Haiti.
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.
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 Somaliafor 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?
We would have to immediately cease our activities without any planning or preparation.
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.
It would negatively impact the work and reputation of our the local partners we work with on the ground.
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.
The very fragile local economy would shrink even further because of lack of employment and reduced commerce.
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.
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.
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.
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!