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Africa Land Grab

Some are calling it an African land grab. It’s led by outside investors with plans for food production, not for Africa but for their own populations. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says acquisition of African land by outside investment groups has stepped up in the last twelve months.

The UN report questions whether it’s a land grab or development opportunity. However, it also says rural people are being displaced or denied access to land for their own food production. Unfortunately, Africans have seen this before.

The rush to Africa by European powers over a century ago resulted in extractive agricultural products that required fertile land and forests. Among other well-documented results from colonialism, it also contributed to ecological damage and left Africans to subsist on marginal land.

Today the Guardian notes some of the world’s richest countries are buying or leasing land in some of the poorest to satisfy insatiable appetites for food and fuel. Food security, changing diets and a demand for biofuels is driving the land acquisition.

An interesting side note; China is not among the largest investors, contrary to popular conception. India, South Korea, some Arab states and Americans are more heavily invested than the Chinese, according to the UN research.

The report says large tracts of land are being purchased or leased for industrial scale export farming. Some African governments agree to rent-free leases while others provide tax incentives based on perceived benefits such as jobs and infrastructure development.

The issues are amazingly complex. A mix of private ownership, government management and traditional community practices affect land management.

The UN report suggests local communities and citizens groups need a voice in land use because they will be affected directly and significantly by leasing arrangements.

Because they have supported small scale agriculture for local food production, non-governmental development organizations including groups such as Church World Service,  Oxfam and UMCOR have a direct stake in how land use policies are implemented. Many religious denominations, especially United Methodists, have heavy presence in rural areas where subsistence agriculture is the sole means of support for  the people. They have invested heavily in agricultural coops, women’s groups and other community organization efforts. Therefore, land management policies and large scale export agriculture could directly affect their congregants and their communities.

These communities are already disadvantaged, lacking voice, power and money. But the organized groups can provide a platform for them to raise their concerns about land management and access for the people. If development is indeed an outcome of the agricultural leases it should accommodate local input. If not, the community voices ought to be heard to advocate for community interest.

Local congregations and other church organizations that partner with Africans have incentive to learn more about these land leases as well, and to include land concerns in their partnership. To do less is to risk the undoing of much of the work they have been about, in many cases for years. This is a case of policy intersecting with religious concerns in a very specific way.

The Coup in Honduras

Expressing concern for fractures in Honduran society between the poor and the powerful, a group of faith leaders in the U.S. condemned the coup that deposed President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales and called for a return to constitutional law.

The President, still in his pajamas, was forced from his home and transported to Costa Rica by military officers in a move to prevent a non-binding referendum to repeal a constitutional term limit for the presidency. Honduran presidents are allowed only one four year term.

The faith leaders’ letter says U.S. law requires a suspension of military aid in the event of a coup and they call on the Obama Administration to halt such aid until constitutional rule has been restored.

A resolution passed today by the UN General Assembly called on world leaders to recognize only Zelaya. The World Bank paused lending to the country and said it is working with the Organization of American States as it seeks to restore Honduras’ "democratic charter."

The coup was a shock to modern governance in Central America because it hearkens back to an era when military takeovers were engineered by political elites, corporate executives in the U.S. and elements of the U.S. government. The phrase "banana republic," coined by the novelist O. Henry, came to describe governments such as Honduras and Guatemala, ruled by  a military junta under the influence of a small power elite dependent on agricultural exports such as bananas.

Despite gains under modern democratic government, Honduras remains a society of extreme wealth and grave poverty. President Zelaya has gained popular support by appealing to  activists and advocates for the poor.

The faith leaders say they are concerned about "the safety of social and political activists, including trade union leaders, heads of organizations of small farmers and the rural poor, indigenous leaders, opposition politicians, and others.  Many leaders, fearing arrest, are in hiding.  Many media outlets were shuttered yesterday.  We call on Honduran security forces to respect human rights and basic freedoms for all citizens."

While pentecostalism has been growing rapidly across the southern hemisphere, so too, has a United Methodist community. The United Methodists have addressed the need for housing, education and social development in addition to traditional expressions of a faith community such as worship and pastoral care.

Faith and Religious War in Somalia

Quran student As if fractured Somalia were not divided enough, a report this week says Islamic groups are realigning for renewed fighting. Somalia disintegrated 15 years ago when a corrupt government fell. Clan fighting plunged the country into anarchy and it’s remained there.

Jeffrey Gettleman writes in the New York Times that Sufi moderates are joining the fight against the Islamic Shabab insurgents. The Shabab teach an extreme form of Islam and have destroyed Sufi mosques. It’s a new and dangerous turn. Gettleman says Western nations hope the Sufis taking up arms will give moderates the upper hand.

More likely, however, it’s a sign of an intractable situation and a desperate hope for change. Trading clan for sectarian warfare is a dangerous exchange. In a society riven by division, it’s yet another deadly divide. The idea that changing the configuration of violence as a path to civic stability indicates the hopelessness of any other path and it takes more than a leap of faith to believe it will work.

It requires ignoring the potential for wider regional instability and rationalizing away the cultural and religious tensions that have long simmered in Ethiopia, disregarding the religious cleavage that is a major factor in the genocide in Darfur, minimizing destabilizing border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea and long-standing rivalry between Somalis and Ethiopia.

If the Sufis resist the insurgents and establish a working government with support across Somalia, it will reverse a decade and a half of bloody fighting that has taken a horrible toll on the Somali people and has made the region a tinder box. But the long term solution is to address the poverty, disease, land disputes and the need for justice. In Somalia’s anarchic state these have not been at the top of the list of policymakers. But the risk of Somalia becoming a base of operations for terrorist training and international lawlessness is clear.

Somali pirates have reminded the world of the danger of this failed state, once considered so remote and insignificant it was virtually forgotten. We now understand that’s an inaccurate perception.

It’s a long shot that a moderate government can take control. If it does, however, it will need more than moral support. It will need development assistance, infrastructure reconstruction and technical assistance. The last thing the Somalis need is more bloodshed and the last thing the world needs is a prolonged religious war in the Horn of Africa.

Are Institutions Obsolete?

Institutions. We don’t like them or trust them. Sometimes we want to bring them down a notch or two. They’re cumbersome, territorial, political and dysfunctional. They’re always behind the times. It’s easy to dislike them.

Writing in the 19th Century about governing institutions the sociologist Thorsten Veblen said, “Whatever is, is wrong.” He was observing the rise of institutions for a newly affluent “leisure class” in the Industrial Revolution.

Veblen said we form institutions out of our social experiences. But circumstances that cause us to create organizations have already passed by the time we get organized to deal with them. Therefore, institutions are always behind the times. It’s a social paradox.

I just sat through three weeks of non-stop meetings of an institutional church. Thinking about the institution is top of mind right now.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this institution must change. It’s organized around human experiences of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The need to change is urgent. Not merely for financial reasons. That focuses attention, but the change was needed long before the global economy fell off the cliff.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, told the Connectional Table and General Council on Finance and Administration this week that the church is not structured for life in the digital age. “Life happens,” he said, “off-cycle of the General Conferences of The United Methodist Church. And we’re not structured to make certain movements that might need to be made in a world, in a digital age that is changing everyday.” The General Conference is the legislative and governing body of the church.

Bishop Palmer repeated his call for a realignment of the church to allow for faster response to its mission.

I think he’s right on target. When the last general conference met barely one year ago Twitter wasn’t even known to the delegates. Most had probably heard of Facebook but weren’t using it. That’s changed. Today young adults and youth are moving from Facebook as older adults are flocking to it. Twitter is the current most popular tool for social media and many others are also out there. And we’re still learning how to use it.

These tools have affected how people relate to each other and form communities. They obviously affect how we communicate with each other. Community is a central part of the life of the church–worshiping, learning, supportive community. But community enhanced by digital tools is something the institution hasn’t known before. And we’re not organized to adapt to it quickly enough. Veblen was as right for our day as for his.

The institutional church isn’t obsolete, but it must change. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to know precisely what the change should look like. But I’m also in agreement with Bishop Palmer that the need for change has arrived, if not passed, and we must get on with it. We’ll probably stumble and make a mistake or two along the way. But that’s OK with me because we are trying to find new ways of being the church and making its teachings relevant in a whole new social context, one unlike the human race has ever known. A bit of humility and a lot of forgiveness seem necessary prerequisites as we journey to find a new way. But we must make the journey and it’s already begun.

The Institution as Connection

Institutions are necessary, desirable and, for all their faults and foibles, valuable. Here’s why. They can mobilize and when they do they achieve scale. They enhance capacity. They empower. In the case of religious institutions, they are expressions of missional theology.

Mobilization isn’t their most important function, but I’ll start here. When the people of The United Methodist Church in the Texas Annual Conference came together to raise $1 million for bednets they partnered with United Methodists in Cote d’Ivoire. That partnership and that million, small as it sounds, got the attention of the Ministry of Health and other civil society groups including international donors.

It was combined with other funds. Volunteers from Texas went to Cote d’Ivoire and participated in a national distribution that included vaccinations, de-worming and instructions for mothers on child care.

In Texas people talked about health needs elsewhere. They learned about the connection between diseases and poverty. Equally important, in Cote d’Ivoire a national grassroots community was energized, trained and empowered. This led to a more focused discussion about health care nationwide. A national conversation followed. Cote d’Ivoire captured this experience and put it to work. A plan was submitted to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for a wide-ranging attack on these killer diseases. Their plan was approved in round eight for $34 million dollars! (The United Methodist investment was multiplied thirty-fold.)

I would not presume the only catalyst was the participation of United Methodists, but I do contend their participation was important. It signaled the church, which is present in many places that others are not, was concerned and would walk the walk with officials and local people. And it revealed external allies from across the globe. This authenticity, scale and reach contributed to a growing belief that the challenge of eradicating malaria could be met. Resources could be brought to bear. Together, we can make a difference. All of us together. Scale.

But for those of us in the United Methodist faith community there is a deeper point. We are taught by scripture, and we re-state every Sunday, that we are connected to the whole human family, to the Creation and to God. This bond is transcendent, sacred and immutable. In The United Methodist Church we call this “the connection.” We define it in organizational terms. Lately, we’ve diminished it. We criticize it and act as if it’s a punching bag. Some are even considering how to dismantle it.

The connection is about more than scale, but it incorporates scale. It’s about more than organizational structure but it incorporates ecclesiology, how we describe ourselves in the language of theology. It’s about understanding our bonds to the Creator, the web of life and each other. It’s about how together we can influence the circumstances that affect quality of life globally and how together we support each other, relate to God and express our beliefs in the holy.

Empowerment, scale, influence. Mission, engagement and faithfulness. Transcendence, holiness and the sacred web of Creation. That’s the connection, and faithfully engaged it could transform the world.

For Better Health: More Schools or Hospitals?

To improve health would you build more schools or hospitals? Truth to tell, I’ve never thought of it as either/or. Most likely I would choose more hospitals. But I’d be wrong.

Christine Gorman at Global Health Report blog summarizes findings from health surveys that demonstrate "education, social support and early childhood development play a more important role in overall health in a country than the condition of its hospitals and other health services."

Advocates of community-based health programs know the value of social support, education and early intervention in maternal child health. But their concern is simply to get effective, rudimentary care to people lacking even basic services. Generally it’s not about building schools or hospitals.

Ultimately that’s not the choice anyway. It’s about measuring effective intervention. I’m taking Christine’s post in a different direction. It made me think about a couple of questions: What improves the quality of health? Could rudimentary but effective intervention be as valuable to improve community health as hospitals or clinics?

Stated differently, community involvement in health through good information, communication and support can produce positive results. My hunch is this research is confirming that grassroots connections in the community carry significant weight in both health education and practices.

And if this is true, it means community-based, participatory health programs can make a big contribution to good health, even when hospitals and health systems are lacking. That’s no excuse for neglecting national health care systems that are already deficient. But, it is a reason to make note of the potential benefit of less expensive and complex health interventions. And these are strengths of many non-profit and faith organizations’ health efforts.

They also point to the value of maternal child intervention. The Measles Project has been effective because it incorporates training, information, vaccinations and multiple additional inputs including providing mothers with bednets to prevent malaria. Vaccinations are community events where mothers receive instructions about using nets and identifying the disease’s symptoms.

Finally, the issue isn’t about choosing between schools or hospitals. Both are needed. But community-based efforts combined with on-going support are also valuable. With the right kind of support the capacity and resources of poor communities can be mobilized for better health.

More schools or hospitals? For better health the probable answer is both, and more.

My Earth Day Backyard Odyssey

Venus and Earth's Moon My Earth Day started breathlessly in the backyard with wet feet. I got up to the glorious juxtaposition of Venus with the waning crescent moon low in the east. These things excite me!

The birds were singing riotously in the gathering dawn. Two hoot owls were somewhere very close looking for prey and calling to each other. Wonderful!

I grabbed my camera and tripod and put on my Minnetonka moccasins and literally ran into the backyard to get a good view. It was still dark. The moon and planet were obscured by trees on the horizon. I ran around the yard. Then I noticed. My pants were sticking to my ankles. I’ve got water inside my Minnetonkas. I’m wet as sop. It’s cold out here. And there’s no good location to capture this glorious sight.

So I ran back to the deck, set up the tripod and realized in the darkness the camera is set on manual. I couldn’t see through the fog in my glasses to re-set it. So I rushed inside and made the changes.

Back outside. Re-attach the camera to the tripod and focus. Nothing happens. A message says the card is full. Why don’t I take care of these things at the end of a shoot instead of waiting until the start of the next one? No time for this rumination.

Back inside. Replace the card. Back outside. Re-focus. Grab a shot before the sunlight invades the scene. To borrow a line from a Waylon Jennings song, I don’t think Ansel Adams done it this-away, no I don’t think Ansel done it this-away.

Have wonderful, meaningful Earth Day!


The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers…
Psalm 24: 1,2

Bono’s Search for the Soul

Rock Singer and humanitarian activist Bono asks about the state of our souls in this time of great change.

In a Sunday op-ed he recounts Easter worship on an unnamed island and discusses the need for new beginnings. He writes affectingly about his search in scripture and religion to discern the state of his soul and shares ever so briefly his need to experience redemption at the death of his father. He raises questions about capitalism and globalization and affirms the value of the debt forgiveness policy known as Jubilee.

But what piqued my curiousity most is his closing comment. He recalls the benevolence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jr., both of whom he assumes are agnostic, and Nelson Mandela who doesn’t describe himself as religious. Recognizing their contributions to social good, Bono says not all soul music comes from the church.

His comments are perfect illustrations of a post-modern, post-religious commentary. His narrative is ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted in many ways. It’s positive toward worship and religion. It reveals experiential understanding. But his closing remark can also be taken as a jibe at the church. I don’t think it is. I think it’s more theological than critical.

He’s correct that not all the music of the soul originates in the church. If the source of the music is the Creator, and the Creation is being renewed and healed with or without the church, then Bono’s line reflects solid theology. What those who are believers call God is bigger than the human containers we construct to describe God. God is not limited to our containers, no matter how fervently we promote them.

An important function of faith is apprehending where God is at work in the world, with or without us. I think that’s what Bono is saying. What do you think?

Producing Netbooks That Are “Just Good Enough”

Netbooks provide "good enough" computing.Oh really? And that’s good enough to market them?  In his Digital Domain column in the NY Times this morning, Randall Stross quotes an analyst who makes the case for netbooks in this way.

It confuses me. A great company like Hewlett Packard entering into a market niche and self-consciously diluting its brand with a product so cheap you wouldn’t mind if you lost it while traveling. Steve Jobs has said Apple won’t do it. Yet, it’s rumored Apple is working on a netbook. But there is a cottage industry in Apple rumors. It’s part of the mystique of the company.

That’s only one part of my confusion. The other is companies competing on a "just good enough" basis. It seems like a race to the bottom. An HP executive says they want to be present at a price point in a popular shift to netbooks. But surely stepping into this competition comes with a price. And I wonder if the price isn’t erosion of the brand, trust in the line of products across the board and a dilution of confidence. For what? To be present in a marketplace that is equivalent to the shelves of the "Nothing Over a Dollar Store."

No one is making a claim that netbooks are more than just good enough. That’s their selling point, along with price. Some bloggers have even said they will be given away as premiums when you buy a subscription to a digital service. That’s a real throwaway. Wasteful, unhealthy  for the environment and just good enough computing, all in one package. So, no one is being misled.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my values. I don’t know. I just don’t get anyone or any product aspiring to be just good enough.

Global Food Shortage Increases Prices

The BBC has a two-day series on global food price increases. The shortage of food has driven up prices by 70% for wheat and rice in some regions. Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, has called for $500 million to alleviate hunger but the response has been slow and short of the request.

On a more hopeful note, however, the BBC also reports more food is appearing on the shelves in Zimbabwe, however, the country is heavily dependent on U.N. food aid. Eighty percent of the people rely on it and not everyone has access to U.S. dollars or South African rands which have replaced the Zimbabwean currency.

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