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USAID and ZunZuneo

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.48.04 PMThe news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) surreptitiously sponsored a text messaging service in Cuba created a storm of criticism last week when the service stopped and the secret sponsor was revealed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It was also duplicitous and damaging, if not dangerous to others attempting to deliver humanitarian services.

Those who provide humanitarian aid, such as nongovernmental aid organizations – including those of religious groups – meticulously maintain a nonpartisan stance within the countries where they work. This is especially important where partisan conflict is rife and where governments are suspicious of such aid being used for partisan purposes. These agencies are compromised when they are viewed as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Humanitarian agencies cannot operate in a country without consent of the host government. Such duplicity adds to the perception that they are agents of external forces.

This cuts both ways, of course. Where governments are not popular and rule by coercion and force, the humanitarian organizations must also be seen as  functioning independently. It’s often a delicate dance.

This nonpartisan stance can be a matter of life and death. If  humanitarian workers in conflicted settings are viewed as agents of partisan agendas, their lives can be put at risk. Examples of kidnappings and murder of aid workers underscore this risk.

Beyond this life-and-death reality, the ZunZuneo texting service, as the Cuban SMS service was known, proved to be unsustainable. Sustainability is a key outcome of successful development, but perhaps ZunZuneo failed because development wasn’t the driving mission. The technology was implemented for other reasons.

In other difficult social situations, open-source texting services have been put to use in local contexts, and with adequate training and support, they have achieved much greater success at a much lower cost. These were implemented by small nonprofit organizations operating on shoestring budgets. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

USAID has been an effective partner for humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, including The United Methodist Church, in different parts of the world. Let’s hope this episode is an anomaly and that USAID will make the adjustments needed to ensure that its mission and work are not compromised again.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–In Summary

In the past four posts, I’ve pointed to how information communication technology and communications strategy have been employed to encourage transparency as we discuss how new media influence us and the practices of the church.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

We’ve seen how the power of social media can unleash giving and provide a way for us to contribute to changing the world.

And we’ve reviewed how strategic use of communication and various technologies can connect us and be used to express how Christians understand our global responsibilities.

Moving forward

I attempted to provide a theological framework for why communication can be viewed as an expression of the mission and ministry of the church in the post yesterday. I believe communication is more than a technical support function and when we fail to see it in this more complete role, we reduce our capacity to communicate the Good News of God’s love for the world. Communication is ministry.

From the perspective of the practice of communication, the thread that ties these four posts together is that they are all about communicating with people using the media with which they are familiar (whether that is mobile technology, social media, low-wattage radio or other channels) in an environment in which they are comfortable.

We live in a communications environment that is shaping us and our unique cultures, no matter where we live in the world. For example, messages by global corporations are tailored to different contexts, but the use of media to deliver those messages and our response to the messages affects us in similar ways.

Shaped by technology and by messages

In this mediated process we are shaped by both the technology and the messages that are exchanged within the process.

More than ever, we in the church need to view communication as an integral part of the mission and ministry of the church. How we communicate–the technology we use and the conversations we engage–is extremely important.

Communication is more horizontal today than ever before. I’m not naive about who owns the transmission towers: large corporations do, and as Egypt proved, threatened governments can shut down these media when the government is under duress. As the NSA story has shown, these media can also be used to invade our privacy, so they come with a substantial downside as well as a positive upside.

But it’s clear that we can work within this corporate/government reality to interact with each other more easily and immediately than ever before. Therefore, we can be better informed and we can act globally with greater ease than at any time in human history. And we should.

The Absent Voice

We should tell our own stories and assist others to tell theirs. A significant change in mainline Christian communions in the U.S. in the past several decades has been their persistence in reducing their capacity to communicate by cutting communications budgets and staff. By abandoning the field, they have left it to others to tell their story.

And some storytellers have an agenda contrary to the well-being of the denomination, while others lack essential understanding and have been less enlightening.

This failure to be in the communications environment with adequate resources, creativity and consistent presence has left them marginalized. It is often said about my denomination, The United Methodist Church, that no one speaks for the church but an elected body that meets every four years. Thus, we have no “spokesperson.”

While that is true, it is also revealing. There are spokespersons by default. They are often detractors who speak about the church and whose critiques, inaccuracies and agendas go unchallenged.

The Default Position

Out of this default position, perceptions are formed and opinions about the church are expressed, but, too often, the voice of the church is absent because no one is sanctioned officially to speak for it. But those who are unabashedly willing to authorize themselves to speak, do so, often presenting a viewpoint that reflects a narrow slice of the church’s full teaching, or worse, bending the teaching to fit a particular agenda.

It has also meant that we have not given attention to communication as a legitimate field for doing theology. Thus, humane values and the ethical and moral witness of the church have been absent. I believe faith is formed in the interactions we have with each other in the world and out of this interaction we deepen our understanding of God at work in the world, and within us.

This is also where we come to terms with the sacredness of life and Creation. When we are disengaged from a significant part of the exchange that is taking place in the public conversation, and cultural and social interaction, we exclude a significant piece of the quilt that makes up the fabric of our lives.

While I’m not an academic theologian, I hazard to suggest we cannot do theology apart from the conditions in which people live, nor apart from the powerful influences that affect our lives through culture, commerce, governance and many other dynamics that shape life. This is the gritty stuff of life that the apostle Paul used to shape the earliest teachings about what it meant to follow The Way, as the earliest followers of Jesus were known.

The Demise of Vertical Communication

Paradoxically, the world has moved beyond the age of vertical communication in which edicts were issued, a receptive audience awaited them, and the edicts were received and followed. While this is much too simplistic, it’s a way of saying that more people are communicating more ideas in more ways than ever before, and top-down communication must compete with the noise and distraction of a media environment that is as participatory as it’s ever been. Several years ago, Jay Rosen made the point clearly when he said “the people formerly known as the audience” are no more.

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New media provide new ways to practice old spiritual disciplines such as Bible study on tablets with online connection for referencing additional content electronically. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

We’ve also seen how the gatekeepers of the old media are being challenged to adapt to the new environment and come up with new ways of delivering information and interacting with the users of the information.

This is the environment in which Christian values can be projected, and where those values can participate in shaping the culture and, hopefully, humanizing the conversation.

The ease with which we communicate today is deceptive. The communication environment is more complex and fraught with risk than it’s ever been. This is why mainline communions should give more attention to strategic communication, and not disengage from the field.

Communication is Ministry

More people are producing and sharing information, and in the process finding their voice. Sometimes this is for good, sometimes for ill. When the church enables communication in places where people are off the grid, it is engaging in an important mission. When the church introduces communication technology to provide spiritual development, education, health information, connection and empowerment, it is offering ministry. Access to information has become a human right and an expression of justice.

I hope that 2014 will bring the development of more communication networks, more use of social media tools to communicate more widely, and a continuing effort to add new technology as it becomes available to build on these efforts started in 2013. While I believe the technology and the messages shape us, I believe that communication rooted in Christian community is not just about tools and technology, but about reaching out to people with concern and compassion as an expression of our ministry.

As always, I invite your comments, insights, or corrections.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Connecting

UMAC 2012

Wayne Rhodes, General Board of Church and Society, leads a workshop titled, “What You Need To Know About the UM Connection” at the 2012 United Methodist Association of Communicators meeting. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

In this fourth post in the series, I reflect on how communications technologies make it possible to connect with people half a world away, and why that’s important.

Connecting continents

New mobile technologies make it possible to connect with others in ways that were not previously possible. In The United Methodist Church, in which I am ordained, we often speak of ourselves as a connection.

The term is not well understood. It comes from the organizational system in which clergy and laity can conduct ministry and service as part of a global system. It is not a congregational-based organization.

Congregations are connected with each other in a regional organization called a conference. The conference is led by a bishop who is elected from within a larger regional area made up of conferences, called a jurisdiction.

Connection as asset

I believe the connection is one of our greatest assets. It gives us scope and scale that allows us to carry out mission and ministry that is consequential, the kind that can make a difference because of its reach and depth. Often, it is said about some rural parts of the world that the church is in places that even government ministries don’t reach, for example.

By this, it is meant that a local faith community exists beyond the end of the road in places that are not likely to get much attention, places where isolation can lead to poverty, lack of health care, educational services, and basic services. These conditions create stress and suffering that discourage the flourishing life that I believe God intends for all persons.

It means that ideas and resources can be shared in ways that would not happen otherwise. And it means people who might not otherwise be able to do so, can share at a scope that has greater result. This is undergirded by religious values that reflect a commitment to human dignity and belief in the sacredness of all life under God.

Haiti 2013

Teacher Sylné Guerdy works with students in the computer lab at the Thomas Food Project in Thomas, Haiti. The program is part of a United Methodist Communications effort to use technology for development. UMNS photo/Mike DuBose

It is an outgrowth of our understanding of the meaning of discipleship, to follow the teachings of Jesus to care for the world and for each other because we believe we are connected by the love of God and are responsible to and for each other.

Connecting for the common good

In a world of global messaging and influence by governments and corporations, a globally connected world, the means for people of goodwill to carry out works of religious value is needed. When religion is humanizing and compassionate, it contributes to the common good, and a connectional system that can offer, through its communications capacity and through its organizational mission, a deeper understanding of our humanity, a way to reach out with compassion, and to advocate for justice, is a valuable asset.

As we grow in members around the world, we are having conversations about an emerging understanding of how we are connected globally.

At its best, this connection means that we can do more together than we can do independently of each other, as individuals or as single congregations. It  allows us to achieve scope and scale, as when we give to Imagine No Malaria, which results in the provision of medicines, bed nets and health training that can affect whole regions and nations.

It also enlarges our influence for the common good, which is a direct outcome of our commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus to heal the world and reach out to those who are sick and in prison, poor and neglected, no matter where they are.

Connecting through global mapping

About five years ago, Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Episcopal Area and I discussed his concern that there were local churches, as well schools and health clinics operated by the church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that could not be identified. Lacking a developed road system or effective communications, these facilities were unconnected.  The options available at that time to map those locations were both limited and expensive.

In the last 12 months, United Methodist Communications initiated a pilot project to map the geographic locations of churches outside the U.S. and add them to a global database available to everyone online. This effort began with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines, and will extend to other countries within Africa, the Philippines, eastern and central Europe and Scandanavia in 2014. (United Methodist Communications began to provide communications tools and training to connect these conferences several years ago. A network of communicators has been created and the networking of conferences is continuing.)

For the first time, people looking for United Methodist churches, schools and health care facilities in Africa, Europe and the Philippines will be able to find them online and learn more about their ministries. This information is being gathered through the use of technologies that reside on mobile phones and take advantage of GPS and software called Ushahidi, an open source project that allows crowd source emergency information to be sent by mobile phones.

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Sam Perales configures link in Tacloban, Philippines to enable communication for humanitarian agencies while UMCOM representative April Mercado, and Randy Baido looks on. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

Ushahidi has never been used like this, so it’s innovation to the max. It’s also easy and cost free.

It’s important to understand where local churches and other facilities are located as we continue to grow into an understanding of ourselves as a global church. It will allow for more careful and informed planning, as well as better opportunities for sharing information, training, resources and personnel.

Global mapping is in its initial stages as I write, but as it progresses, we will have for the first time a visual database that offers a view of the geographic position of the mission and ministry of the global United Methodist Church.

Global connection is essential

There is real value in the phrase “think globally, act locally,” especially for Christians who inherit a theology spread by a global evangelist named Paul and the teachings of Jesus, who broke down regional and cultural barriers  through his actions and preaching.

Christian teaching calls us to open ourselves to our place in the world as well as our relationship to God and to each other. We are called to take responsibility for the whole of Creation. To be a follower of Jesus is to be connected through relationship with others and with God. We are called to consider the health of the entire planet and those with whom we share it, and to take action in our own communities and cities as well.

When we use information and communication technologies to connect us, they can serve as tools for ministry, and the outcomes, when they bring positive, transformational change, are ministry. I believe building an understanding of our global connection is important to the work of doing theology in the connected world of the 21st century.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Communication is Aid

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Training to re-establish communications system in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, sponsored by United Methodist Communications. UMNS photo

On the threshold of a new year, information and communication technology plays a more critical role in shaping life than we have experienced before. This is especially true in nations with emerging economies, many of which have leap-frogged over hard-wired communications infrastructure and moved into  wireless infrastructure.

When Typhoon Yolanda, as it was known in the Philippines, devastated the central Philippines, one of the first calls for assistance from the government was for help to re-establish communications infrastructure. Without it, emergency aid could not proceed at the scale necessary to meet the widespread needs of the people.

In the second part of this series on how communication and technology are shaping the church today, I explain why I believe that in such crises communication is aid.

Communication Is Critical Aid

Communication is a form of aid when the need to communicate is critical to saving lives. This was boldly underlined by the Philippines government’s call for assistance to reconstruct the communication system following the typhoon. Communications had to be re-established to control aircraft that were delivering humanitarian aid, rescue and military personnel, and to tell people where they could receive food and medicine.

Without the ability to communicate, people were isolated and at greater risk of disease, lack of medical care, hunger and exposure. Communication in the aftermath of a disaster is as important as food, water, shelter and medicine, according to a project supported by the BBC called “infoasaid.”

Information is necessary to life-saving efforts, while inaccurate information can be costly in terms of human life.

Following the typhoon, United Methodist Communications worked with technology partner Inveneo to do a site assessment of church communications needs to help people recover from the devastating damage, including mobile and satellite phones, WiFi, and low power radio.

Along with other partners, United Methodist Communications provided communications training, software and hardware to assist in the humanitarian effort, as well as assessment of the  long-term communications needs of The United Methodist Church in the region.

Solar cellphone chargers and combination solar lamps and chargers were distributed to local clergy in the affected area. Mobile phones and satellite phones were provided to United Methodist staff  and 50 tablets donated by Google were equipped with apps and maps in order to help 25 non-governmental organizations distribute aid and relief more effectively.

Tablets loaded with apple and maps were provided to  organizations providing humanitarian aid.

Tablets loaded with applications and maps were provided to organizations providing humanitarian aid.

United Methodist Communications also worked with NetHope, a collaboration of 41 leading international humanitarian organizations providing the best information communication technology and best practices, to coordinate a training event for the non-governmental organizations on the ground, including NetHope, Americares, CARE, Concern Worldwide, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, International Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Oxfam Great Britain, Plan International, Relief International, Save the Children, SOS, Children’s Villages, World Vision International, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and United Methodist Communications field staff.

Plans have been made to follow up with training participants to document how the tablets are being used to enhance recovery, looking particularly at emphasizing getting aid to areas that were ignored because they were “off the map,” or unable to communicate with the outside world.

The goal is to transition from assisting in the emergency to creating a sustainable communications system that will serve the church into the future.

Information has become essential to achieve a meaningful, productive life. United Methodist Communications is providing training and communications tools in areas where people have been left out of the communications revolution. Under the banner of information and communications technology for development (ICT4D), people are being trained to utilize sustainable communications tools that can be used education, health, agriculture and spiritual development.

In the 21st century, communication is aid.

In South Sudan An Urgent Need for Change

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Wikimedia / Steve Evans. Creative Commons.

As I watched a video news story online this morning about the flight to safety of displaced people in southern Sudan I was struck by a paradox that seems irreconcilable.

The paradox is that the world is changing rapidly for some and for others it seems to never change.

As I watched the Sudan video, I could place myself on the land where the people were gathered, bone dry, dusty, littered with the remnants of plastic bags, the sunburned grass and weeds brown as a cardboard box and even more brittle.

Children sit on blankets on the ground, huddle over wood fires, and women cook in old dented, beat up pots perched on rocks, conditions  I’ve seen before. It seems little has changed despite the birth of a new nation and the opportunity to make great change.

A woman whose meager possessions include a plastic chair and a blue gallon bucket maneuvers in a large boat preparing to cross the river to relative safety. A little girl around nine or ten years of age watches the scene with a baby brother or sister perched on her hip. Women arrive carrying bundles on their heads.

The scene could as easily be Ethiopia in the 1980s, or Somalia, Liberia, Mozambique, or numerous other places across the continent over past decades. The faces, the stories and the conditions are the same.

In south Sudan, people barely surviving in their villages, many of them partisans of neither side, are caught between the guns. They are burned out, shot down, the women raped, and the children, babies and old folks lost in the chaos of an attack.

In the frenzy, the fearful flee into the bush and the vulnerable are left behind to fend for themselves, if they’re not murdered to make a grisly point–if there is a point to such mayhem–that the militia are all-powerful.

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Wikimedia / Steve Evans. Creative Commons.

I wonder how many times this depravity will be repeated, and why such evil seems to pass from one generation to the next and travel from one region to another with depressing consistency? And of course there is no easy answer.

I know that the hard, cold reality is that only Africans can change Africa. Sudanese religious leaders have spoken out against the tribal violence and called for international help.

Their plea is a call for change, and for those of us far removed by geography to be agents of change.

We can assist those who are  easing the plight of those affected, we can press governments and international agencies to seek justice for those left behind, vulnerable, abused, and exploited. We can act to bring change.

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18 NRSV)

Insidious Corruption Destroys Trust

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Government officials and business operators have extracted millions from government coffers in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations. This money could have gone into roads, education and health care, but instead it went into private wallets of the privileged and well-connected.

According to a recent report, the re-election of reform-minded President Joyce Banda is in peril because she has been willing to clean up government corruption. Sixty-eight people, some officials in her own government, have been arrested in a scandal known as Cashgate.

Often it is argued that this money circulates through the economy, as if graft is merely another way of keeping an economy running, but it isn’t. A hospital administrator reports that medicines and medical supplies are in dangerously short supply.  She tells of a young woman who died for lack of supplies to administer a blood transfusion after childbirth.

In fact, corruption is not harmless, it’s lethal when it drains funds for health and welfare, education and infrastructure. It undercuts effective, efficient governance. It adds to the cost of doing business. 

Corruption is insidious. It works its way through a society and becomes so seamless that it can seem to be the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. Too often, it’s accepted as the way things work.

It tarnishes the institutions of society, institutions that are designed to enhance quality of life–education, health, government, religion. When the leaders of these institutions accept corruption as inevitable, they work against their own mission of uplifting and empowering people, and they contribute to the on-going injustice and oppression that keeps people down.

Transparency International says “corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.”

Recently, traveling from Blantyre to Lilongwe our vehicle was stopped at an intersection by a smiling, friendly uniformed policeman who asked, “Do you have a small gift for me?” He was smooth as butter, his smile bright and toothy.

We resisted giving him money. After a few minutes, he agreed to another gift, a book. A prayerbook.

Our response was inadequate. It still pricks at my conscience. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been shaken down in Africa. I have more than 30 years of experience with it.

Perhaps that’s why I’m impatient and frustrated. Corruption seems intransigent. And corruption keeps people in poverty. It breeds the diseases of poverty and illiteracy.

The one institution I can influence to avoid corruption is the church. I’ve seen how the church working in partnership with other organizations committed to transparency and ethical behavior can make a difference.

It’s not easy. I know it’s a difficult challenge to confront corruption, sometimes it’s dangerous, especially when corruption has become embedded in the fabric of the society.

But so long as corruption is tolerated, Africa will struggle and people will die, and that should weigh heavily on every person who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus.

The Astounding Impact of Innovative Technology in the Developing World

Nathan Myhrvold’s TEDTalk,”Could this laser zap malaria?” is an eye-opening look at how computer science and technology can help address an ancient and persistent disease that is responsible for 655,000 deaths each year. To think that it’s possible for a laser to not only kill mosquitoes in mid-flight, but determine from their wing beat frequency whether they are females (which potentially carry malaria) or males (which do not bite) is downright astonishing.

Yet even technology that’s far more accessible than what Myhrvold describes is changing the game in Africa — not only aiding in the fight against malaria, but opening a whole new world. Mobile technologies make it possible to have access to information that is transformative, whether it’s tracking disease outbreaks or educating children.

Once I was in a remote village in northern Senegal where there were no telephones or even electricity, disconnected from the rest of the world. Back home in the U.S., my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife, Sharon, was purposefully trying to get a message to me.

It took her an entire day to find someone who would agree to go to the village to locate me. It took a another day for that person to reach me by car — then yet another day for the two of us to navigate the poor roads to the nearest town with a post office that had phone service. Once there, I had to make an appointment to come back to use the phone the following day. By the time I was finally able to speak to her, my son was already recuperating.

Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

That’s what life was like in rural Africa before cell phones and satellites. Today, cell phone usage in Africa is commonplace, with more than 10.7 million mobile phones in Senegal alone. Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

Improving – and saving – lives

Pierre Omadjela, director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, is using FrontlineSMS to share health information and increase awareness about malaria prevention (a major focus for The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative). FrontlineSMS is free, open-source software that can be used to send text messages to groups of people without an Internet connection that is being used in a variety of ways to improve people’s lives.

Using automated messages to mobile phones, Omadjela says they have already realized a 5 percent decrease from the work they are doing teaching people in the Democratic Republic of Congo ways to prevent malaria.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Blantyre, Malawi, for a meeting of The United Methodist Church of Malawi. During a workshop on Transformative Communication, which included presentations from leaders at Inveneo and Medic Mobile, one workshop leader asked the group of 85 participants how many owned and use mobile phones. Virtually every hand in the place was raised.

Later, at another training conducted in Madisi, Malawi, on how to use FrontlineSMS to communicate with key groups of people, local church personnel and caseworkers who work for ZOE Ministry, a program that helps empower orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, were in attendance. As one woman sent her first FrontlineSMS text message, she shrieked with wonder. “It worked!” she marveled.

While 75 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone, smartphones make up only 15 percent of the global market. biNu is a platform that allows those with feature phones to have a smartphone-like experience through cloud-based apps and services, providing them with immediate access to email, news, books, health information and social features.

That means the world’s information library is available through not only smartphones, but also conventional mobile phones. Children are able to read books they could not afford and have access to educational information they otherwise would not.

‘All about potential’

Access to information is also giving people the means to have more control over their circumstances. In Kenya, I watched as two women used a teacup-sized satellite receiver plugged into a boom box get audio digital information that was then translated into text, allowing them to check the market price of beans so they could negotiate a fair price for their own crop. No longer must they rely solely on the price quoted by a distributor.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Remarkable new information technologies are unlocking the potential of developing countries in ways that are not only empowering, but revolutionary. As new innovations and new possibilities continue to be presented, the digital future is becoming the digital present. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

As World Malaria Day Approaches, HBO Movie Raises Needed Awareness

This weekend, I watched the HBO premiere of “Mary and Martha,” a compelling story of two women of different ages from different countries who are drawn  together by the common experience of having their sons die from a threat they never expected: malaria.

As the pair struggle to come to grips with the untimely loss of their sons, Mary (played by Hilary Swank) and Martha (Brenda Blethyn) forge a deep friendship and become advocates in the fight against a deadly disease that kills 655,000 people every year, most of them children.

As I watched the drama unfold, I couldn’t help but hope that the movie’s message reaches people who are currently unaware that children are dying from a preventable disease at an unconscionable rate. I hope that it moves them to action.

Hassan Sesay and his wife Amindalo Sesay sit with their children Falmota, Marianne and Alice, in front of the new mosquito net they received as part of the Imagine No Malaria campaign at their home in the Gbo Chiefdom outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Hassan Sesay and his wife, Amindalo Sesay, sit with their children in front of the mosquito net they received through Imagine No Malaria at their home outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in 2011. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Like Mary and Martha, too many people are simply not cognizant of the impact of this killer illness.

My own connection to malaria runs deep. I’ve had it twice, first in the 1980s, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when I walked in ankle high grass around a killing field while doing work on a film about Cambodia shortly after Pol Pot. I had another bout with the disease in Gondar, Ethiopia, a year or two later.

In both cases, I was fortunate enough to be able to get to a doctor and receive medication as soon as I began to feel symptoms—chills, fever, and listlessness.

I’ve also seen dozens of children die from malaria, and I’ve seen the grief etched on the faces of parents who have lost their children.

I recall a young mother in Honduras who brought her semi-conscious infant to a clinic, after walking miles from a small village in the rural mountains. By the time she arrived, the baby – only a few months old – was in serious danger, and the clinic lacked the medicines for an infusion for the child. As the mother sat before the nurse who attempted to treat her child, the baby died.

In a tent clinic in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where dozens of people staggered in after a severe famine, I saw a grandmother carrying a comatose baby. Breathing heavily, the baby clearly was in desperate condition. A doctor started an infusion of medication through an IV, but it was too late.

These images are emblazoned in my memory. I cannot forget them.

Those were only two children, and those scenes are repeated in similar fashion every single day. In Africa, malaria takes the life of a child every 60 seconds.

Our children, our responsibility

In the movie, Martha stays to help for a while at the orphanage in Mozambique where her son, Ben, was a teacher. When she decides to leave, the children give her a collage that says, “We are all your children,” as a parting gift.

“We are all your children.” That’s a striking statement. The children of the world are our children. Imagine what we could accomplish if everyone made a commitment to take some responsibility toward providing a healthy life for all of God’s children.

INM_WebBanner_300x2501Programs like The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative and its partner organizations are making a difference, producing life-saving results. Malaria’s impact has been cut in half in just a few short years, but the battle is still far from over.

Millions of nets have been distributed, but millions more are needed before we are able to cover every child in every village at the end of every road.  And nets are not enough. More lasting solutions are required. More health workers must be trained to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease. More health clinics are needed. More mothers and fathers need to know what they can do to prevent it.

This week on April 25, we will observe World Malaria Day. There’s no better time to join a movement that is saving lives. My prayer is that one day, there will be no malaria. My hope is that day will come soon.

For more information, visit ImagineNoMalaria.org.

An Overlooked Issue in the Boy Scouts Debate

Boy Scouts LogoThe debate about allowing gay leaders and scouts in the Boy Scouts has under-played a critical issue. I’ve been told that in some troops upwards of half the scouts are from single parent families, the vast majority of those headed by mothers. And these young people are from the neighborhoods in which local churches exist. They often walk to the building for troop meetings.

My colleague, Gil Hanke, General Secretary of United Methodist Men, which relates to Boy Scouts of America on behalf of The United Methodist Church, tells me “in a typical scouting program, 25% are from the sponsoring church, 25% are from other churches, 50% are from un-churched families.”

Scouting offers these boys interaction with a male figure, provides them with opportunities for learning and for skills that they likely would not have otherwise. Scouting is about values education, the development of a sense of personal responsibility and service to others. And, it brings young people inside the church building on a regular basis.

In my experience as a scout, this range of activities, contacts and values are exactly what I needed growing up in a family that was, at best, dysfunctional. As we moved about following oilrig locations in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming one of the constants in my life was Scouting. Scout troops were always located in a Methodist church in the small, dusty towns where we temporarily settled.

We moved every six months until I was thirteen and chose to go another way. This nomadic existence was simply a way of life for itinerant oilfield workers and their families, and for me, Scouting was part of the glue that held this transient life together.

It was also a window on the world through which I could peer and see a wider field of opportunities and a future beyond the hard labor of the oilfields. I went on camping trips, floated down rivers, worked on merit badges, and even went to the state capitol and met the governor. These activities expanded my life in significant ways.

Without Scouting it would have been a more difficult, less hopeful existence. I interacted with adults in a different way than in my family setting, which was not altogether positive and certainly not constructive.

A place of haven

When I hear local church leaders, especially pastors, say they will drop Scouting for the modest change that is proposed to allow gay men and scouts to participate at the will of the congregation, I’m perplexed. The church should be a place of haven for youth who are struggling with their identities. They should have the opportunity to come to know they are loved by God and by others. They should be provided the support necessary to see new horizons, have meaningful experiences and envision a newer, brighter future. Scouting provided this support for me.

Moreover, given the fact that Mainline denominations are in decline, it’s ironic that congregations would turn away from a program that serves needs of families within walking distance of their buildings; families experiencing hardship; families with young people in need of positive interactions with adults. Scouting is not designed to be a tool for evangelism, but it introduces young persons to values-oriented civic responsibility that is complementary to the teachings of the church, and it invites young people into the church building. Referring to Gil Hanke’s data begs the question: What church would not want to host a meeting each week in which half the folks present do not have a church home?

While attention is focused on churches that might leave Scouting if the ban is lifted, it’s also possible that churches that have not sponsored troops because of the ban might reconsider and make Scouting even more inclusive.

A modest move

There are ways to monitor adult interactions, conduct due diligence when selecting adult leaders and safeguard children. These are issues for all congregations regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of adult leaders. They’re pertinent for Sunday School, youth groups, choirs and other activities involving youth. So it’s difficult to understand why a congregation would consider banishing children in scouting from the building when it’s the mission of the church to reach out to them, especially when it’s so explicit in the teachings of Jesus that we are called to bring the little children to him.

The decision the leaders of Boy Scouts of America are considering is not a radical leap forward. It’s a modest half-step toward inclusion. But it’s one that should be supported and affirmed, for the sake of the children, boys and young men for whom Scouting is a helpful guide to a better adulthood.

Continuing the Fight Against Malaria

Training Community Health Workers to install bed nets. UMNS photo by Mike DuboseA World Health Organization report raises concern that lack of money will weaken efforts to combat malaria. This is disheartening news. Great progress has been made against this disease and it has produced life-saving results.

Last year more than one million children were saved as increased funding made it possible to provide more bednets, diagnostic kits and medicines. However, distribution of nets dropped sharply according to the WHO from 145 million two years ago to 66 million last year. As more children are born and existing bednets wear out, this drop will result in an increasing number of children left unprotected. The result will be more deaths and debilitating illness.

This is bad enough, but a hidden result concerns me even more. In the past, when the world cut back on funding malaria treatment and prevention, the malaria parasite spread rapidly and developed greater resistance to existing drugs. An even stronger parasite evolved making it more difficult to contain and control.

A particularly strong parasite has been identified in parts of southeast Asia in the past decade and some malaria specialists believe it could spread to Africa with devastating results.

The WHO estimates the disease could be contained with an expenditure of $5 billion per year globally. The cost of the war in Afghanistan to the U.S. is $3.6 billion a month. Tackling malaria is not beyond the capacity of the world’s governments and non-governmental organizations.

The fight against the diseases of poverty–HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and polio among the many–is a longterm fight. They all deserve funding and a comprehensive approach to global health is within the world’s capacity.

The tendency of politicians and others to focus on a disease for a season, or with a short-term view is inadequate and dangerous. It provides opportunistic diseases the time to develop into more virulent strains which makes the task of combatting them more difficult. The result in the loss of life and debilitating, costly health problems for more people. NPR is providing a comprehensive overview of malaria in a series called Malaria: Pushing Back.

The effort to contain and significantly reduce malaria is a longterm struggle. If the world reduces the funding to support this struggle, the result will a stronger foe in the future, and a more costly one.

Our short attention span can be deadly. Over 100 global health advocates from The United Methodist Church last month delivered the message to their representatives that we want to continue funding the fight against malaria, for the sake of children who deserve the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

In addition,United Methodists and members of the ELCA continue to raise funds to combat malaria. The United Methodist effort is Imagine No Malaria. It’s necessary to take a long view toward this life-saving struggle as the Rotary Club International has done in its fight to end polio. Today, the disease is limited to regions of India and Pakistan. It has taken twenty five years, and Rotarians have been consistent and committed for the long haul, an admirable commitment in light of the difficulty the effort faces as it approaches its successful end. Let’s hope this commitment under hardship inspires governments and non-governmental organizations as well.

The risk of failure is too great. And too many lives are at stake to pull back now.

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