Facing the challenge of survival in Somalia

A nomadic family in Somalia.
A nomadic herder and his family move to find water in Somalia.

World Concern’s mission of reaching the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world means we work in some of the most challenging places on earth. A report I just received from our Somalia staff brought this reality to light afresh for me. It summarized the results of a survey of families in two areas where we’ve recently started working in Somaliland (northern Somalia). The figures indicate such dramatic need – it’s hard to fathom what these families face every day just to survive.

Here are a few of the most astonishing ones:

  • 92% of the families do not use latrines
  • 54% of people observed had noticeable eye infections
  • 59.6% have never attended any school
  • Only 13% have attended secondary school
  • 54.6% travel 1-2 hours a day to reach a water source with the largest percentage going three times a day
  • 83.3% are drinking water that is not safe for human consumption
  • A main source of income is livestock, yet only 10% of the animals in households are producing milk

It’s impossible to dig wells in some of these areas because the water, even below the surface, is salty. Rainwater and groundwater runoff collected in berkads (underground reservoirs) are the only source of clean water.  One of our projects is building more berkads in these areas.

Planting sack gardens in Somalia.
Teaching people to grow vegetables in sack gardens offers hope.

The soil is so dry and lifeless, nothing can grow here. People eat mostly bread, rice they buy from others. Even vegetable gardens wither. We’re teaching people to grow sack gardens, which hold moisture so things can grow.

Droughts are becoming more frequent and herds are shrinking. Their only hope for healthier herds may be to improve the land with rock lines that will direct rainwater into the soil. One goal is to improve livelihoods so families don’t have to be constantly moving in search of water.

In spite of the inhospitable environment, we know there are solutions: Collecting rainwater, growing food in sack gardens, sustaining herds.  Even in Somalia, we see hope.

Join us in bringing hope to this dry and weary land.

Garden = better test scores and more in rural Kenya

School children in Kenya.
Students hard at work at Naado Primary School in Kenya.

Kathryn Sciba is visiting some of our programs in Kenya this week. The following excerpt is from her blog about her trip.

We began our eventful journey to a primary school near Narok. This is the kind of land where safari animals roam wild. The children and teachers at this school blew my mind with how well they welcomed us. The people here are Maasai, nomadic herdsmen. This school has changed their lives since World Concern started working with them in 2008.

The school has a 28-acre garden that World Concern built a fence around so the elephants wouldn’t destroy it. The lack of farming means the families have had to follow the herds and lack a balanced diet.

In the past three years World Concern has not only built a solar powered electric fence around the school’s garden but they’ve also trained the community about farming. Now the families can stay put if they want to. Now the community has wheat and corn fields. The school produces more than enough food for their enrollment and is able to sell the rest. They grow passion fruit, mango, bananas, and vegetables, including basics like beans, corn and wheat.

They do have a water catchment system, which catches rain from the roof and carries it through pipes to the garden, but they need rain to sustain it. Please pray for a great rainy season which was supposed to begin this month but has been lousy so far.

Students in Kenya.
About 800 students receive education and nutritious meals at Naado Primary School in Narok, Kenya.

The garden has provided essential nutrition and that’s helped the student’s test schools improve dramatically. In 2007, 191 children graduated with a Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (a national standardized test required to pass primary school). In 2008, 216 students graduated and in 2009 the number was 261.

Enrollment has been increasing because the community is sending their children there to be well fed and educated instead of having them roam with the herds. The school provides boarding to 150 girls who would otherwise roam with their families. By having girls live at the school, their families may feel less urgency to marry them off at a young age in exchange for a 20 cow dowry.

There are currently about 400 boys and 400 girls enrolled in the school.



The freedom to make a living

Sitting at my desk on this International Women’s Day, I’m reminded of the opportunities I’ve been given to be educated and earn an income to support my family. I don’t take this for granted, especially when I read stories like that of Rashida Begum, who grew up in the overcrowded slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She never went to school and was forced into marriage at just 13 years old. By the time she was 18, she had five children.

Rashida working.
Rashida has a thriving business making and selling beaded and embroidered fabric.

Despite the odds against her, today, Rashida has a thriving business. She’s able to use the talents she learned as a child – embroidery and bead work – and has gained self-confidence from the growing list of customer orders she receives. Even though she’s illiterate and living in a male-dominated, oppressive society, Rashida is able to support her family with her income.

It all began with a small business loan, which she desperately needed. Unfortunately, in many countries, skill and incentive aren’t enough. The loan enabled her to buy materials and start selling things. It’s amazing to think how different her life is, simply because she’s able to work. She’s also able to pay for her kids to go to school, which means the benefits of her business will carry into the next generation.

Microlending is a simple concept that leads to independence for so many women around the world. In honor of International Women’s Day, take a minute to learn more about it. For a small investment, you could change a life in a developing country.

Young girl knows the “right thing” to do

We get excited here at World Concern when a large donation comes in because we envision the difference that money will make in the lives of those we serve. Dollar signs translate into construction materials for homes in a disaster area, or containers filled with deworming medication for children in need.

We get just as excited when a smaller donation arrives, knowing the person’s wish is the same no matter the amount of their check – they want to help someone who is suffering.

Autumn's letter
Autumn sent this letter with her $10 donation.

Just today we received a $10,000 check, and moments later, opened an envelope with $10 inside from a young girl named Autumn. Her hand written Christmas card and drawings brought grins to the faces of our staff members. Here’s what she wrote:

Dear World Concern,

I want to give money to you because I think it is the right thing to do. My mamma gave me ten dollars and told me to pick a charity and I picked World Concern. Please help people with this money.

Happy holidays!

Your friend,


We feel an incredible responsibility to honor Autumn’s wish to help people with her money. And we will do just that.

Thank you Autumn, and all of you who have trusted us to use your donations to reach people with help and hope in the most challenging places on Earth.

Happy holidays to you too!

P.S. If you’d like to make a donation of any size before the end of the year, please click here. Or click here to shop the Global Gift Guide.

How one family brings more meaning to gift giving

Sarah Carpenter’s nephew Stephen is 19 years old and in college, but he still enjoys receiving Christmas gifts from his aunt, knowing they will fill a vital need for someone living in poverty.

Ever since they were young, Sarah has given her niece and nephews, as well as other family members, gifts from World Concern’s Global Gift Guide. Over the years, she has discovered creative ways to match gifts to individual interests or even family holiday themes.

Sarah and her nephew.
Sarah and her nephew Stephen.

“When they were little, I loved giving the kids the privilege of picking something themselves,” said Sarah. “I told them I will provide the money and you pick the gift.”

One year, Stephen saw a picture of people fishing with a net in the Global Gift Guide. He related to that because he was learning to fish himself. So Sarah stocked a fish pond in Bangladesh in honor of her nephew for his gift that year and gave him a photo of a man fishing with a net in a pond World Concern had helped him stock. “He posted it on a bulletin board by his desk and kept it there all year,” recalled Sarah.

As an adult, Stephen has continued to help others and make a difference in the world. He worked in a South American village, serving the poor, and spent a summer at Oxford studying the conflicts in the Congo.

“He’s grown into a lovely person,” said Sarah, who hopes her Global Gift Guide Christmas presents were some of the many influences in his life that gave him his passion for helping others.

Sarah has come up with other creative ways to honor family members with gifts from the guide, like the year their family orchard in Yakima became the theme of their celebration. Can you guess what her relatives received from her? A share of an orchard in a poor village. And for the teachers in her life, she’s chosen education related gifts, such as school uniforms and classroom supplies so students in rural areas can attend school.

“I’m conscious of how much all of us have to make our way through the piles of stuff we’ve accumulated,” said Sarah. “I think others are happy to receive gifts that don’t add to their clutter and that honor something they’re interested in.”

Shop the Global Gift Guide online at globalgiftguide.worldconcern.org.

Thank you letter from Kenya

This letter arrived from Kenya the day before Teriano Soit reported to classes at a university in Kenya. What makes Teriano so special is that she is the first girl from her entire village to attend college. World Concern paid half her high school fees for four years to help make this possible. But it is Teriano’s hard work and dedication to her education that brought her this far.

Students in Kenya.
Teriano Soit (front row, second from left) is the first girl ever from her village to attend college.

Like Teriano, most of the students supported by our Nehemiah Project come from remote pastoralist villages with limited opportunities for education. Their families cannot afford tuition, uniforms or school supplies. Plus, they are often more valuable, short-term, if they are working on the family’s land.

Teriano, along with 15 other students from her village, not only receive tuition, but are trained in important life skills. Teriano says she hopes to pursue a career that will enable her to give back to her community.

As a testament to the education she received, her letter required no editing!

Dear World Concern,

I am sincerely grateful for the financial support you have been offering me for the four years I have been in secondary school. I promise to give back to society what you’ve given me. Just like you enabled me to have a smooth learning in school, I’ll do the same to fellow students who have financial difficulties in any way I can.

May God bless you all for your golden hearts and for the time you devoted to facilitate the seminars you organized for us. It is my prayer that God will continue giving you the strength and selfless hearts to help improve the education status of the Maasai community, hence their living standards.

Thank you also for the inspirational books you gave us. They had such great lessons that no other source could give. I even think they had been purposed by God. Books are the greatest source of knowledge too. I’d therefore request that you continue giving them to your students and for sure they will benefit.

Last but not least, I wish you all success in your endeavors and prosperous lives.

Teriano Soit

Learn more about World Concern’s education programs.

Returning home to Bangladesh

World Concern Director of International Health Programs Dr. Paul Robinson began his new position with a trip to Bangladesh, his native country. He visited World Concern’s programs there and shares some of his experiences below.

Meet Doctor Ragib

A student in Bangladesh.
With World Concern's support, Rajib is on his way to fulfilling his dream to be a doctor.

At a World Concern sponsored elementary school in Bangladesh, I met a young boy named Rajib. I asked him what he hopes to become when he grows up. Rajib looked straight at me and matter-of-factly, with great confidence in his voice, told me without batting eye, “I will be a doctor.”

This short encounter reminded me of another young boy in Bangladesh, who some decades ago dreamt of becoming a doctor. He had very little chance on his own and his family had no resources for his medical education. But only thru God’s grace and His provision that young school boy not only earned his medical degree in Bangladesh, but also became a seminary graduate, and a public health professional in the U.S.

I know this story of God’s miracle very well because I am that boy. And I know He can do the same for Ragib.

With World Concern support, Ragib is well on his way to becoming an accomplished physician as he continues to come to school every day with his dad giving him a ride on his bicycle.

Completing the circle

Her bright eyes, warm smile and gentle spirit connect this young teacher, Jhoomoor Roy, to her elementary students at a World Concern sponsored school in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A teacher in Bangladesh.
Jhoomoor Roy was once a student at this World Concern sponsored school. Now she's teaching children there and giving them the same opportunities she has had.

Watching her in the classroom, it was hard for me to believe that Jhoomoor used to sit on these same benches in this same school just a few years ago, herself a young, student whose education was sponsored by World Concern.

With stellar results, she passed her school and college finals. As she continues her studies at the university, Jhoomoor teaches at this school, completing a full circle from being a student here herself to helping children who, like her, are now being educated.

Donations to World Concern have not only brought blessings to one, but to successive generations as well.

Timely vote in Sudan is needed to keep peace

Vocational students in Sudan
Students are learning mechanics at a newly opened vocational school in Sudan. This is just one of the ways World Concern is helping improves lives in southern Sudan.

Media coverage of Sudan’s upcoming referendum scheduled for a vote in January 2011 has increased recently as the date draws closer and President Obama spoke on the issue at the UN General Assembly last week. World Concern works in southern Sudan, and the relative peace in that region over the past five years has allowed us to make great progress in extremely poor communities.

As a humanitarian agency, we limit our involvement in the political processes of the countries where we serve. We know, though, that violence hinders our work – and we expect violence if the vote is delayed. Therefore, we hope and pray for a peaceful outcome to the process this January.

Dave Eller, World Concern’s president, shares some thoughts below. He visited Sudan in June and saw firsthand the struggles people face there to overcome decades of war and violence – many of whom lost everything in a conflict they didn’t support.

“On a recent trip to southern Sudan I overheard many conversations about the referendum that is to take place in January. The people of southern Sudan are very anxious to have this vote take place as scheduled. They seem to believe that if the vote does not happen as scheduled it will be postponed indefinitely and may not happen. There is fear that if the referendum is not held there would be a return to violence.

The peace accords that were signed attest to the fact that is it is possible to end fighting. Turning back from the decisions made five years ago would seem to be a significant step backwards. While I am not an expert on Sudanese politics, it is easy to see the benefits that peace has brought.

In this time of relative peace since 2005 significant progress has been made in the development of the South. The people have had the opportunity to start rebuilding their lives. In World Concern’s work we have seen schools reestablished, businesses started, food provided equitably, and community health programs get underway. A return to violence would put the progress that has been made at risk.

The remains of a burned house in Sudan
This is all that remains of a house that was burned during violence in Sudan, which has ceased since a peace agreement between the north and south of that country was reached in 2005.

The referendum needs to be more than just timely. The voting needs to be free and fair.  The voices of the people need to be heard in this very important decision-making process. The people of Sudan desire to have a voice in their future. They have shared with me their heart to see a future lived out in peace and not conflict. The answers may or may not be found in this referendum, but clearly if it does not take place, or if it is not free and fair, it would be a step backwards.

It is my prayer that the leaders of north and south Sudan would find resolution to the remaining issues so that the people of Sudan might live in peace. Sudanese parents I spoke with desire to raise their children free from the threat of violence and war. This is what every parent would want. As international communities we should continue to hold all of the leaders to that standard, and recognize that the solutions must be found to keep from plunging the country back into civil war.

This is a critical time in the history of Sudan. It is a critical time in the lives of millions of people. Let us remember our brothers and sisters throughout the country of Sudan in our prayers.”

Obama’s Cairo Speech & Islam: Should the poor rejoice?

CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4: U.S. President Barack Obama makes his key Middle East speech at Cairo University June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. In his speech, President Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims", declaring that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end". (Photo by Getty Images)

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.

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.


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.


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.