I met a 13-year-old girl in Haiti today who suffers from an upset stomach and digestion problems. Her name is Nadeje, and she has a bright smile and proclaims she likes French class. I saw Nadeje at a crowded private school, where World Concern was distributing memendezole pills. Nadeje was happy to take one of the little white pills – because she believes it will make her stomach feel better. More than likely, it will.
The little white pills kill intestinal worms, and she probably has some. About 40% of children do – often in poor countries. The worms not only sap energy, but cost girls like Nadeje much of the value of food.
Nadeje was one of a couple hundred Port-au-Prince schoolchildren in blue uniforms to receive the pills today. They clamored over each other to receive their tablets, which dissolve in their mouths.
World Concern humanitarians distribute about 6 million Tylenol-sized mebendezole deworming pills every year, handing them out in about a dozen poor countries. The pills kill parasites that enter through contaminated water, food – or even bare feet. Thedeworming medication is a simple and significant impact on the life and future of a child.
We call the pills the 44 cent cure because a year’s worth of mebendezole costs about 44 cents. It’s two pills, six months apart, with a vitamin A supplement and a lesson on personal hygiene.
After the distribution, I spoke with the principal of this elementary school. She expects the vast majority of students have had worms at some point, and believes the medicine is key to good health and the ability to learn.
Poor families in Haiti already struggle to afford basic food. When you add parasites into the equation, good nutrition becomes a bit ridiculous.
The 44 cent cure is not the whole answer, but help with that too – clean water, latrines, health education.
At the very least, the pills are a fantastic start.
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!
Take a look at some poverty photos. See how people live in poverty around the world.
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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 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.
Right now, World Concern’s Sri Lanka staff is helping many civilians injured during recent attacks. World Concern is one of only a few humanitarian relief agencies permitted by the government to help. We’re providing food, bedding, clothing and personal supplies to both the wounded and the weary aid workers.
It appears to be the last deadly throes of a long civil war. The ethnic minority that has been fighting for autonomy has been cornered. Regardless of your perspective, innocent families are paying with the lives of their loved ones because of this war.
Below is perspective on the crisis, written by World Concern Sri Lanka County Director Ian McInnes:
Sri Lanka’s three decade old conflict between the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lankan Government is at its fiercest. 70,000 have already lost their lives in a separatist struggle for control of ‘Eelam’, a self-designated homeland for Tamils by the LTTE. Having lost control of the East of the island in 2007 the LTTE now faces a fight for survival in an ever decreasing space in the North.
The safety of an estimated quarter of a million civilians trapped within this conflict zone is of grave concern to humanitarian organizations.
These Tamil families have been on the move now for months, continually retreating as air strikes, artillery fire and ground battles rage around them on three boarders to the North, West and South. Their retreat to the North Eastern corner of the Island has them pressed hard up against the Eastern coast with nowhere further to run.
Continual pleas by humanitarian agencies have resulted in the establishment of ‘safe zones’ within the war zone, but civilians face real danger trying to get into these zones, or indeed trying to flee the North for the Government controlled areas in the South of the Island. The LTTE have blocked their movement holding the population back for political legitimacy and as a recruitment pool as they lose fighters on the front lines.
Meanwhile the constricted fighting space is resulting in mounting civilian casualties. On 3rd February a crowded hospital was shelled three times killing 52 civilians and injuring many more according to ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). Both sides deny shelling the hospital. Sadly these tragedies are becoming all too frequent.
With a ground victory appearing imminent and geo-political conditions favoring the Sri Lankan government – India broadly support the defeat of the LTTE with Sonia Gandhi having lost her husband to an LTTE suicide bomber; the US under the Bush Administration offered technical support to the Sri Lankan security forces and was the first to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organization – the Government are eager to eliminate the LTTE.
However this war is costly both in economic terms at $1.6 billion annually and in lives with scores of government solders dying daily (an independent body count organization, the Foundation for Coexistence, puts the collective death toll in the north at 3,200 for December and January alone).
In order to maintain political support for the war the Government has suppressed its own casualty numbers and is eager to control the message both within Sri Lanka and abroad. Maintaining staunch nationalist support for the military has meant a steady erosion of free speech, credible reporting, and the suppression of discussion of any other solution to this conflict other than the current military one.
Dozens of reporters have been killed in the last year, including a bold assassination of a senior editor in broad daylight on 8th January. Sri Lanka ranks 141 out of 165 countries for press freedom by Reporters without Borders (http://www.rsf.org) having slipped from 51st place in 2002. To put that in perspective Sri Lanka now ranks just beneath Zimbabwe and Sudan and just above the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
This is making the work of Humanitarian agencies all the harder as it seeks a non-violent solution for those trapped by the fighting.
It is now simply a matter of time before civilians either flee en masse – around 100 a day are managing to escape now – or face a bloody battle in much closer quarters as the Government try to eliminate the remaining LTTE from their midst.
One of my responsibilities with World Concern is to make sure our programs are of the highest quality possible.
Sometimes this means helping our teams figure out the best way to do something. Sometimes it means training people. It surprises me that I really like teaching, but I really do, especially when it makes a difference. And I’m usually as much student as teacher.
Most of the people receiving disaster relief here in Chad are refugees or displaced people from the Darfur crisis. They have had absolutely no education and are not used to thinking in abstract ways, so sometimes it is hard to communicate even when language is not a barrier.
Our latest exercise was to find out people’s priorities beyond tomorrow. On the first day I sat with our key staff and trained them on a technique, and the next day we tried it out for real. We wanted to know what people value most in their communities so we can plan our programs accordingly.
Our first step was to sit down with small groups of only men or only women because women here won’t give their opinions in front of men.
In the US, people are so closed up in their homes that it takes actual scheduling to get a group of Americans together. Here though, my translator and I just wander through the disaster relief camp until we spot or hear a women, plunk down on a mat in some sliver of shade, and start talking. Curious neighbor women soon gather and we have our group.
For this exercise, we started with a simple concrete question, “If you had a salary of $40/month, what would you do with it?” As they listed things, I’d draw simple pictures of it on a big piece of paper, grouping similar thing, as we all laughed at my lack of artistic ability. If they were used to pens I would have let them draw the pictures themselves.
Finally, I draw circles around the groups of pictures to make categories – staple foods, other foods, clothes, kitchen utensils, debt, animals, education, housing… Then I pass out beans, explaining through the translator that each is worth 500 francs (a bit more than $1) and the paper is the market. To give them an idea, I go first, then collect up my beans.
By now, the women are really getting engaged, crowding around on the plastic mat, chattering with each other about what to buy, explaining the game to those who are slower in getting it. Babies are shifted out of laps to get at the paper. Now we’re laughing and teasing each other. Some of the wiser, older women quietly make their points and purchases. Young teen-age mothers are more timid, looking to others for approval of their choices.
One by one, the women naturally take turns, carefully placing their beans on their purchases with the thoughtfulness as if it was a real purchase. Rough, calloused fingers, thickened by years and decades of hard labor fumble and drop beans, quickly snatching them up again. Finally, all the beans are down and we count them. 48 beans for staple food, 20 beans for chickens, and so on. Then we talk about their choices as a group and why they chose what they did.
Now that they understand the game, I ask a harder question, “Make a picture in your head of your home village as you would like it to be. What do you see?” We go through the game with that question, then the final question, “If the war goes on and you are here for another 5-6 years, describe how you would like to see this community here in the camp.”
As they name the things I draw them out. Then again, they vote. Now the stakes are higher. The jokes, joshing and laughter continue, but now there is an element of seriousness.
They know that their answers may influence what programs we plan for disaster relief. This is exactly what we want. They are now a part of determining their own future.
Merry Fitzpatrick is World Concern’s director of technical support.
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.
Ayamba, our Congolese logistics officer surprised me today. He was the preacher of the day. He said he preaches at the local church about once every month or so and this was his third time preaching there.
About 6 months ago there was a general assembly meeting and the attendees were broken into groups for a debate. The topic was whether or not just giving the tithe is enough. He spoke for his group and the church leaders were so impressed that they asked him to be a regular guest speaker.
Ayamba and I have worked together off and on in disaster relief for over 10 years, yet he still manages to surprise me with stuff like this. He spoke very well, being funny without intending to.
Ayamba is a short, stocky fellow with very large, emphatic gestures. Many people, when they first meet him completely underestimate him and a ken perception hiding behind a very simple, unsophisticated, humble demeanor.
He really engaged the congregation, held their attention, and pointed out to them a real problem they have with the way they treat adultery.
As most of the congregation is married, but with their spouses far away in safer places, it was an important topic. Most sermons would have come across very heavy-handed, but he was able to get them to see how ridiculous they are being in pretending they aren’t doing what they are doing, as well as just considering it wrong on the woman’s part, not the man’s.
Today, I was pleased and proud that my friend should have given such a sermon as he did today, that this first time working outside of his own country, he should have landed so solidly on his feet.
Attending church in other countries is always an experience. You are an observer and an observed, but you are also an equal participant and become a part of the local life, if only for a couple of hours.
Goz Beida is in a Muslim region of Chad, but Chadians come here from Christian regions looking for work or with the government or army, often related to disaster relief. A church has sprung up here to serve these workers. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched the congregation grow from a small handful to more than 200. The original collapsing, melting mud and thatch building has been gradually replaced by a solid tin-roofed structure 3 times as big and with a cement floor. It is all very clean and tidy now.
On Sunday we squeeze butt-to-butt on simple wooden benches. Men on the left side of the room and women on the right. The choir, in blue and white robes, sits up from with their drums and such. Everyone has cleaned up and dressed up for the occasion, especially the women. The women wear an assortment of bright dresses and some unbelievably complicated head-dresses. All the women wear something on their heads while all the men go bare-headed.
We start off with about an hour of singing while the sanctuary gradually fills. Some songs are in French, some in local languages. The choir thumps away on gourds and drums. Some people clap and dance. A few women really get into it. Finally, we all settle down onto the benches. The sermon is in French and translated into local Arabic. Most of the elementary-age children are elsewhere. Little ones wander in and out at will. Babies nurse unabated. At a signal, a young man with a bucket of drinking water will bring you some water in the communal cup. important in such a hot, dry place.
After the sermon is the collection – a big deal. The treasurer places out two large bowls and lines them with a white cloth. Ushers indicate rows of people in turn to come forward and place their offering in the bowls. Singing accompanies the ceremony. And then, sometimes for some reason, a second round. More singing and dancing.
Finally, the announcements and introductions/travels. A Congolese man who’d gone home for a visit had run into a man from this church and carries his greetings. Another is in the military and has recently arrived. Others may also be part of disaster relief. And so it goes…
With the final hymn, people file out very orderly through a side door, each stopping in a line to shake hands with those that follow. So if you are half-way through the crowd going out, you shake the hands of those ahead of you in a sort of reception line, then take your place at the end of the lin to shake the hands of those who follow. Everyone ends up shaking everyone else’s hand.
Some people scatter quickly, but a surprising number clump into groups, standing in theshad of a tree to chat, as if to stretch out the precious weekly ceremony. Gradually, people wander off in colorful clumps, down hot sandy lanes in the glaring, baking sun as Muslim children stand and gawk, wondering what it is all about.
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.