Glimpses of hope in Haiti

UN member countries contribute police forces to help stabilize Haiti's security.
Ever see one of these near your home? UN member countries contribute police forces to help stabilize Haiti's security.

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.

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, piles of trash line many streets, sometimes set on fire.
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, piles of trash line many streets, sometimes set on fire.
Does this look like Haiti? It is a beautiful beach, near Les Cayes, on the southern coast.
Does this look like Haiti? It is a beautiful beach, near Les Cayes, on Haiti's southern coast.

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.

Haiti Humanitarians – Great Gawky Goats!

Goats are a prized commodity in Haiti. Poor families can raise and sell kids to pay school tuition.
Goats are a prized commodity in Haiti. Poor families can raise and sell kids to pay school tuition.

Goats makes me chuckle. Their crazy grins and non-stop noisemaking are a source of amusement for me. But I’ve seen first-hand in Haiti that these silly, awkward-looking animals provide a tremendous value to the very poor. They mean food. Income for medical expenses. Often, a single goat can pay for a year of school tuition. It’s hope with hooves.

Humanitarians at World Concern gives goats to families. Moms and dads often trust the goats’ care to children. Kids with kids, as we say. As an American, I thought of a goat as an unusual pet, but these are no pets. Goats do important work.

Some families drink goats’ milk and make cheese. Goats produce quite a bit of milk every day, often enough for families to sell the surplus in the marketplace.

Other families strictly raise goats to have babies. Once grown, the kids are put up for sale. I thought they might bring around $25 in a village marketplace. But in Haiti, the price of food is high. People are starving in the Haiti food crisis. These goat-keepers are able to make about $50 a goat. In Haiti, that’s a good chunk of an entire month’s income. Very often, that money sends a child to school, giving them a better future.

We’ve heard some tremendous success stories, like the family of that has raised nearly 20 goats over the last decade, allowing the children in the family to go to school. They know how to raise the goats well, and have truly seized on the concept. So it’s no surprise that goats are a hot commodity.

I saw grandmas receiving goats in southern Haiti. This is a country with no social support structure, so when Hurricanes decimated the region last summer, people there have been struggling. The storms killed crops – and animals. These goats were the first livestock they were able to obtain after the storm. There have been some hungry months. The grannies were so happy. A goat may be just livestock to us. For them, it’s a safety net against starvation.

Here’s how you can buy a goat for $35. Or – check out our “Complete Goat Package!”

Watch a video on this page about how World Concern helps during the Haiti Food Crisis.

A goat provides an income for this grandmother in Haiti who has little other income.
A goat provides an income for this grandmother in Haiti who has little other income.

Haiti Humanitarians – Hurricane Relief Tree By Tree

World Concern humanitarians give a man in Haiti a fruit tree to help feed him after hurricanes.
World Concern humanitarians give a man in Haiti a fruit tree to help feed him after hurricanes.

This does not look like hurricane relief. No tarps. No emergency crates of water. But with some saplings, World Concern is providing relief that will last.

Jacmel, Haiti, has been through disaster many times, most recently enduring several hurricanes last summer.

This week, World Concern humanitarians identified families in great need in this coastal community and gave them small fruit trees to replant. Families with orchards lost their crop last year, as strong storms killed trees, plants and livestock.

Families have faced periods of hunger over the past half a year. These families don’t farm and raise livestock for fun. They do it to survive.

The tree distribution actually had some tension, as the families wanted to make sure they received trees. People wanted to know that they were going to be included in the project.

For many, it was their first time to get a chance to begin growing again. It’s a chance at trying to make it on their own – and not rely on ongoing humanitarian support.

And that’s what World Concern wants people to do. Take responsibility. We help them plant their hopes and guide them as they grow.

Haitian children wait for fruit trees, as World Concern helps feed families after 2008 hurricanes.
Haitian children wait for fruit trees, as World Concern helps feed families after 2008 hurricanes.

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 – Kill the worms for 44 cents

13-year-old Nadeje likely has intestinal worms. World Concern helped her today with a pill to kill them.
13-year-old Nadeje likely has intestinal worms. World Concern helped her today with a pill to kill them.

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. The deworming 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.

Learn more and donate.

Happiness in Haiti! The deworming medication easily dissolves on the tongue.
Happiness in Haiti! The deworming medication easily dissolves on the tongue.
Two pills and a vitamin A tablet. It's a year's treatment to cure a child - for just 44 cents.
Two pills and a vitamin A tablet. It's a year's treatment to cure a child - for just 44 cents.

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.