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New Look! New Year!

Perspectives has a new look for the New Year.

Join the conversation on how our faith fits into the 21st Century and how we fit into the world around us.  Sure, it’s a world of Facebook, smartphones and e-book Bibles.  But it’s also a world of faith, hope and love.   I hope to explore the new ways we can express our faith and meet some interesting people who are showing us how to make a difference in this world.  And along the way, I’ll give you some insight on speeding through this new world on my retro motorcycle.

Illegally Harvesting Madagascar’s Rosewood Trees

Illegal harvesting of Madagascar’s rosewood trees is occurring unchecked because the government is in turmoil according to a report in the New York Times. I’ve walked in these forests and the report offers one more disappointing example of the consequences of bad governance, poverty and avarice in Africa.

The island nation off East Africa is an ecological treasure perhaps unsurpassed in the world. Animals, insects, flora and fauna flourish unlike anywhere else. Civil instability has led to a failure of governance. No one controls the reins of government and, therefore, no regulatory agency can halt the illegal harvesting of Madagascar’s ecologically unique forests and make the order stick.

Poverty makes the valuable trees easy picking for local people who profit little from the cutting, but in the absence of anything better their share is enough incentive to destroy the forests. Unprincipled buyers of the illegally harvested wood add to the problem. For several years cutting of exotic woods has been monitored and its traffic controlled. This has made more end-users sensitive to the problem of endangered forests but it hasn’t resulted in stewardship of Madagascar’s rosewood.

Saving a forest is not as emotionally compelling as saving endangered animals and preserving Madagascar’s forests  hasn’t been given the same degree of attention as the Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests. It’s a smaller, relatively isolated land area. But the devastation is no less important or permanent.

If its forests are destroyed, the ecological chain that makes Madagascar such a unique and rich trove of natural treasure will be damaged perhaps beyond recovery. Another casualty of Africa’s struggle with governance.

More on Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

In a previous post I referred to the phrase, “Think globally, act locally.” It’s become a bumper sticker cliché, yet it remains meaningful in our shrunken, globally interconnected world.

We are connected in ways unknown to earlier generations. From global economic policy to national governance. From local community organization to the education and training of individuals.

No single entry point is sufficient and no small scale effort independent of others is adequate. This goes against the grain of our desire to make a difference immediately, locally and personally, yet I believe it’s necessary to take this broader view in order to effect change at a level that affects the most people.

What the people in The United Methodist Church are doing in Imagine No Malaria is partnering to achieve scale while also rebuilding local infrastructure to support community health and social development. They are thinking globally, acting locally.

The fight to end deaths caused by malaria is a global fight and it will be won neighborhood by neighborhood, one family at a time. But individual children live in families and families live in communities and individuals are affected by the quality of life of communities.

Viewed in its totality, the effort to substantially reduce deaths caused by malaria is a huge undertaking. Only a couple of years ago it was considered an impossibility. But in the years since the people of the UMC have become involved, a global movement has developed that views this goal not merely as a vision but as a target.

When then-General Secretary Randy Day hung a bednet at a meeting of the Board of Global Ministries four years ago, he put the challenge to the church. Then he and Bishop Jao Machado of Mozambique spoke at a Summit on Global Health sponsored by TIME magazine. He held up a hand-crank radio and explained how it could be used to deliver information to help prevent malaria. Immediately following this, Dr. Day and I spoke to the Council of Bishops about the challenge to end malaria.

These fledgling efforts led to General Conference affirming Four Areas of Focus with the Global Health focus including a campaign for $75 million to provide bednets to combat the disease. In a mesmerizing speech, Bill Gates, Sr. called the church to join a global movement to end the tragic effects of this disease. And the delegates responded.

Two years later, the people of The United Methodist Church are taking the challenge into their own congregations, acting locally on this global problem. They have raised $10 million, the first goal set by the campaign plan. And they are moving forward.

Last week, a delegation of three bishops, guests and general agency staff participated in two launch events for Imagine No Malaria with the three bishops of the Democratic Republic of Congo in two cities there. The striking thing about this was the crowds that turned out to hear the blunt speeches and wonderful singing of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, a singer of continent-wide renown.

When she asked the thousands of people surrounding the stage in Kamina in central Congo if they wanted nets, they responded with a roar of affirmation. Only a few short months ago, many did not know what causes malaria and were not interested in bednets. The educational message has spread quickly and the response is immediate. These conditions–of awareness and desire for nets–are yet another important step forward.

However, small scale efforts cannot achieve the goal of continent-wide coverage. This requires multiple partners and geographic reach. In Kamina, for example, The United Methodist Church has already distributed 15,000 nets. This is important. These nets will protect thousands of children. But 450,000 people in the region remain without. This illustrates the challenge. It’s one of scale.

With partners, including the United Nations Foundation, the Global Fund to Combat HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of others, the UMC must scale up to cover the region and, when coupled with other important changes, the goal of reducing malaria deaths in Kamina and the whole of Africa can be achieved.

In Austin last Sunday people danced and celebrated World Malaria Day and the formal launch of the campaign Imagine No Malaria. It was a glorious afternoon of celebration. We celebrated surpassing the first fundraising goal of $10 million. We are a part of a global movement that is making history by thinking globally and acting locally.

Crying Out for Bednets in Kamina, DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen its most basic infrastructure destroyed by ten years of civil war. Roads, schools, hospitals and clinics, nearly every basic piece of infrastructure necessary for life is lacking, compromised, or doesn’t exist.

We discovered this in Lumbumbashi when we experienced roads within the city that in the developed world would be considered impassable. And we rediscovered it when we drove from the airbase in rural Kamina into the small town. A strip of asphalt in the center, not wide enough for a vehicle, was all that remained of a paved road that once connected the dilapidated base to the town.

But this lack of essential service doesn’t necessarily mean lack of community, nor lack of enthusiasm for improvement. Perhaps the most dangerous result of resource deprivation is the risk that people begin to believe they don’t matter, or deserve better, because they adapt to living without. It’s the risk to human dignity that comes with lack of economic resources.

But we experienced a surge of community-wide expressiveness that I’ve never witnessed before in Africa. As she did in Lumbumbashi, Yvonne Chaka Chaka called people to come forward to the stage as she sang and danced. And a sea of humanity surged forward. Sitting on the stage I could not see the end of the mass of people who had come to hear her and to learn about malaria.

But it became clear they already know malaria’s toll. They wanted nets. Now. One man held up money to demonstrate that he would pay for a net at that moment.

What this said to me is that the education about malaria has been successful. People in Kamina understand what causes it and they want help to prevent their children and loved ones from contracting it. And it says that people want action. They want change.

Unlike the children in Lumbumbashi, this crowd was insistent and assertive. I began to be concerned about the mood of the celebratory event. It wasn’t menacing in the least, but we had thousands of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder calling for nets, and we had no nets. An earlier distribution had already been carried out here. This was a launch event for more.

Yvonne managed them well, changed the mood to celebration and hope, and offerred words of education about what can be done even without nets to reduce the risk.

And the community has done significant work already. A canal 15 kilometers long has been dug to drain a large areas of standing water to reduce the breeding ground for mosquitos. Nets have been distributed, not nearly enough for the entire city, but a small fraction at least. And community health workers are accessible. The local hospital is functioning and agriculture development is producing food and generating income.

These are no small accomplishments. And yet blazed into my memory of Kamina is thousands of people crying out for nets. Crying out for the chance to live a better, healthier life.

Where Faith is Confirmed

It was already an emotional day for me. The past two years have pointed toward the launch of the campaign by The United Methodist Church called Imagine No Malaria. It’s been a long, sometimes frustrating journey. And this day symbolized for me the first milestone after General Conference initiated this effort to end the preventable death and suffering that results from malaria.

The stage was set in what was a day earlier a filthy trash dump surrounded by pools of fetid water. I could not have imagined workers could clean up this place so quickly and so completely. It was testimony to the high value placed on the net distribution that would take place here. But first we were holding a public celebration to emphasize the importance of sleeping under the nets, keeping the environment clean, draining standing water and recognizing the symptoms of malaria when they appear.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka, an African singer of continent-wide renown and adoration, was the celebrity attraction. And when she called the children to come forward toward the stage there was a rush of tiny limbs and legs the likes of which I’ve never seen before. They screamed and reached out to her, they danced and created a dust storm, they smiled and the day seemed to come alive in a new way.

And I lost it. I think the tears were my own expression of thanksgiving, joy and hope. This is what we are working for. It’s about these little children having a fair chance to live full, long, productive lives. To experience the words that Jesus spoke, “I am come that you may have life, and live it abundantly.” And it’s clear in their innocence with their bright smiles and dancing feet, these little faces deserve that chance. They deserve to have a future in which life is more than a struggle to survive each day. They deserve to have the opportunity to grow and develop into the full, productive people God has created all of us to be.

In my thirty years of communicating about faith and the abundant life this day will stand out as one of the most meaningful and moving. Through the movement to end malaria deaths, the people of The United Methodist Church have truly joined in the work of establishing the kingdom of God in the most forgotten places among the most overlooked people. Here is where we will find God and here is where our faith will be confirmed.

A Surplus of Community Health Workers In Congo

As we stepped into the classroom at a mission school in Bongonga, a neighborhood in Lumbumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, I was surprised at how many mostly young adults listened intently to the instructor. He explained how to speak to residents of the poor neighborhood about the use of bednets.

A list of points were written on a blackboard. He spoke each in a single sentence and asked a volunteer to repeat. Then he asked the entire group.

What struck me was that this has never happened before in this resource-deprived community. And I was taken aback by how many community health workers had volunteered for this duty. And those in the room aren’t the full complement. More than 150 have volunteered to take bednets into homes and teach how to use them. From none to a small complement in a matter of only a few months.

For the demonstration project only six workers were needed. It was unique—to have more volunteers than needed. However, after the celebration that would follow and the demonstration for dignitaries this small group will be taxed to deliver and train residents in the community to use the nets properly. They have their job cut out for them because nets have never been available to people here.

In fact, barely any services to sustain and enhance life are here. Not clean water. Not proper sanitation. Not paved streets. Not anything but rudimentary health services.

But perhaps these enthusiastic young people reveal at least the start of an essential asset that can provoke change. They are here, they are willing and they want to learn and act. This alone is worth celebrating.

Making Global and Local Work Together–Part 5

I believe local and global support for poverty reduction can work together. I believe in scale and community-based local development.

Recently I experienced a conversation in Congo that reinforced this belief. It also stimulated thoughts about scale. Here’s how. If the resources of a major denomination such as The United Methodist Church were focused, coordinated and applied to community-based development and public policy, they would be potentially transformative.

I heard local interfaith clergy, UMC bishops and hospital administrators from across Africa call for assistance for education, communication, health and economic development. It occurred to me if in-country expertise at the grassroots, volunteer mission teams from outside, the skills of general agencies and financial resources from various contributors were coordinated in a focused effort to reduce poverty and improve health, it would bring a wealth of experience, expertise and financing together in an unprecedented way.

If an integrated educational effort were conducted in which volunteers were informed about policies that would further poverty eradication and provided with action steps to support them, it would create a platform for citizen accountability for humanitarian assistance among experienced, informed people.

And if the church had a global trade specialist in its General Board of Church and Society tracking humanitarian assistance and monitoring it to influence policy-makers and keeping this citizen constituency informed and actively supporting policies for good governance and accountable use of humanitarian assistance, it would complete the connection between local and global.

There’s no lack of critique about the failure of humanitarian aid and piecemeal, siloed application of development assistance. From William Easterly to Paul Farmer , Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDun to Paul Collier the experts have spoken. A consistent, integrated approach connected from the grassroots to global policy combining skills and commitment at every level could be a powerful force for change.

Millennium Development Villages and Social Change

Even as it demonstrates success , a Millennium Development Village model project draws criticism. Sauri, Kenya is improving health care, creating income, saving lives, educating children and achieving other positive outcomes. But critics contend it isn’t scalable and isn’t measuring outcomes effectively. Apparently, it’s just working.

The program tests the idea that focusing multiple development inputs on a specific village can lift people out of poverty and improve their lives quickly. It appears to be accomplishing that result.

But critics say it doesn’t address scalability—the idea that methods can be replicated nationally or regionally across a broad area and applied to many other villages. It doesn’t address corrupt governance at the national level. And it doesn’t establish “control” villages without inputs so that changes in Sauri can be measured against them. Therefore, its successes are minimized and the methodology is being critiqued.

In fact, it may be exactly what is needed and replicable. It may also demonstrate that traditional measurement practices need updating as well.

I think the success of Sauri and the criticism reveal something more helpful about development and change than the critics recognize. And I think the criticism itself turns the spotlight on development practices and change measurement that we can learn from.

In the next few posts I’ll comment on these thoughts and ask what you think.

BBC Claims Ethiopia Famine Aid Misused

The BBC is reporting that 90% of money raised in 1985 to alleviate famine in Ethiopia went to Tigrayan rebels to buy arms in the struggle for independence. Musician Bob Geldof, founder of Band Aid, which raised $100 million is demanding the BBC provide evidence of abuse of funds.

The claims are made by two individuals who were part of the rebel movement and who are opponents of the current president of Ethiopia with whom they were once affiliated. He stands for re-election in the spring. The report also says the CIA alleged some money was misused.

In an effort the magnitude of the famine response in Ethiopia there is a risk that food or funds will be misdirected. But not at the scale alleged in this report.

The claims sound preposterous. The two say rebels posing as businessmen sold bags of sand to aid agencies rather than grain. And they claim that most of the funds went to purchase arms.

Aid agencies operating in Ethiopia at that time were not newcomers. Many had long experience in the country. They were there long before the famine and were among those who attempted for several months to make the world aware of the suffering that was underway. They struggled to gain attention.

The ecumenical agency in Ethiopia responsible for distributing some of the food was headed by an Irish priest who had lived in Ethiopia for many years and was well-known across the country. It’s unlikely he was misled by imposters selling sand. That experienced aid agencies were fooled in this way is difficult to believe.

It’s also difficult to believe misappropriation could have occurred at the level alleged under the control of a heavy-handed military dictatorship that was hardly likely to allow diversion of resources to the same rebels it was fighting. The Ethiopian government was led by a Marxist military junta heavy on control.

I traveled extensively in Ethiopia during the famine and afterward and witnessed distribution of food and medical care under extreme hardship. While I wouldn’t argue that the effort was flawless, nor that some leakage of funds is possible, the response abated the worst effects of the famine and saved millions of lives. The war continued long after and, in fact, aid agencies resisted the use of aid for military advantage by either side in the struggle.

The BBC must produce the evidence Geldof is calling for. Otherwise, reasonable people should reserve judgment about the accuracy of the report.

Community-based Development in Congo

In Lumbumbashi, Congo last week I sat outside in the late afternoon before an impressive stand of bamboo listening to a conversation about community-based development.

CORESA MeetingActually, the conversation was about how this interfaith group of clergy and physicians would provide bednets to two of the most most resource-deprived neighborhoods in the city. They were devising a bold plan, giving thought to other partners, how to distribute nets, train residents in utilization, recruit volunteers and get media coverage.

They will recruit 150 volunteers, survey the neighborhoods, conduct community meetings and organize in-home distribution.

It is a grassroots group organizing to tackle a common enemy that knows no boundaries and affects everyone regardless of faith, gender, age or location–malaria. They are confident and practical in laying out their plans.

They had met earlier in the day with the regional minister of health to begin the process of establishing a relationship with this essential government partner. In the late afternoon the UN Special envoy for malaria met with them as well.

Peering at open sewageThe neighborhoods they serve have never had a bednet distribution. When we visited them the following day it was clear they lack virtually every basic service from clean water to paved streets to sewers to trash pickup. Fetid, rotting garbage lined drainage ditches flowing with sewage and rain water. Children walked barefoot and played in the pockmarked dirt road amidst standing water and garbage. No wonder outbreaks of diseases are common here.

The clergy and physicians know the problems firsthand. They live or work here. They discussed how community residents might react to the bednet distribution and how to train them to use the nets properly. They know the people, their fears and capacity. This is the value of community-based organization. It is organically connected to the realities on the ground.

I came away from Congo more optimistic than I was going in. I had a media-created image, accurate but  incomplete. The meetings under the bamboo gave me a bigger picture, and a belief that solutions to seemingly intractable problems are possible.

Walking along dirt roadI left thinking new thoughts about community-based development and hopeful that as this small group of committed leaders continue their work they will experience a success and in due time move from net distribution to other activities that empower them and their communities, and make life better for the kids walking barefoot through the fetid trash and foul water.

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