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.

Getting Outside the Bubble

In “They Like Jesus But Not the Church,” conservative author Dan Kimball contends that some of his colleagues live in a bubble of Christian subculture. As a result, they use insider language and presume that values they share within their faith communities are more broadly accepted in the wider culture than they truly are.

Kimball says emerging generations know little of the religious values that shaped older generations. In fact, some have no understanding of organized religion and those who do are often skeptical or reject it outright.

Studies by the Barna Group confirm the bad reputation of organized religion among emerging generations.

As bad as this is, Kimball says the reality is even worse. Because they live in the subculture bubble, these church leaders are unaware of negative perceptions about them, and they don’t hear the many conversations about organized religion occurring outside the bubble.

I suspect we are all subject to living in bubbles and I’m not rushing to judgment. I doubt it’s unique to the conservative leaders Kimball is addressing.

Important conversations about religion and spirituality are occurring in various places relevant to local congregations and mainline faith communities that we aren’t aware of because we can’t keep up with all of them, and we’re not present in some of the media where emerging generations are living their lives.

This is one reason I think being a pastor of a local congregation today is among the most difficult vocations in the church. Managing multiple expectations about values, priorities, perceptions and judgments about what it means to be a person of faith in the fragmented and polarized dawn of the 21st century is an extraordinary challenge.

It’s a daily, ongoing feature of our media-driven lives. It occurs at the intersection of faith and culture. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of that intersection I feel caught between irreconcilable differences, and occasionally I’m lambasted by one critic and then another, and they hold opposing views! In a two-sided debate I’m wrong on both counts!

And I’m not charged with delivering a word of hope every Sunday in front of a flock with such disparate expectations. To do so is an act of courage I deeply respect.

Communicating isn’t easy

Going beyond the bubble is a challenge we are trying to meet at United Methodist Communications.

The past few days have reminded me that we live in an unfettered environment of judgment and critique, affirmation and agreement. We’ve had some invigorating theological discussions at United Methodist Communications as we’ve considered how to partner with local churches in public media to communicate about the church and faith.

We’re considering messages to be delivered through external media such as television, print publications and the Internet. We contend with issues of language and values that push the edges of institutional constraints and traditional religious language.

This isn’t merely because we want to test limits, but because communicating today is no easy task. Simple phrases like “organized religion” carry negative connotation among those in the United States who’ve been burned by experiences with a church in the past or who only know organized religion by what they see on television or read in news stories.

In a media-saturated environment, religious perceptions are shaped by televangelists and the religious right. But people who don’t know us lump us into the same category.

And that’s only part of the challenge. Some congregations are more willing and able to push the edges of language and messaging than others.

Then there’s the absence of mainline voices in mainstream media. Lack of significant presence in media-digital and other forms-only adds to the misperception of irrelevance, or worse, unconcern. It leaves the presentation of values from the Christian tradition to celebrity megachurch pastors and other media-savvy religious entrepreneurs who are not representative of the whole diverse community of faithful Christians.

Add to this generational, cultural, racial and ethnic considerations, and communicating with those who don’t know the language of the church becomes even more complex.

Seizing opportunities

Stepping outside the U.S. bubble, we at United Methodist Communications don’t assume that what works in the United States will apply to Europe, Asia or Africa, and we consult with persons in various global contexts to gain perspective about communication in their unique circumstances.

We learn a lot from local churches around the world. They help us to break through our own bubbles, and we hope we partner in a helpful way in a reciprocal learning process.

After writing about these challenges, I must also say there could hardly be a more exciting time to be a communicator in a faith community. The tools and the opportunities have never been greater.

At United Methodist Communications:

  • We’ve expanded our global engagement with people through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
  • We offer online training in various skills relevant to local church ministry.
  • We produce a weekly webinar on using technologies to get outside the bubble.
  • In non-church media, we invite people unfamiliar with The United Methodist Church to come to 10thousanddoors.org to learn more about the church.
  • We’re frequently updating the front page of UMC.org to keep it fresh.
  • We publish a digital edition of Interpreter magazine.
  • We’re using more videos and blogs on several Web sites.
  • Increasingly, we’re publishing in nine languages and striving for consistent global coverage of church stories.

We’ve seen conversations grow and take flight. We’ve seen visitors to the Web sites increase, and more pages opened and read. We’re continuously monitoring what people are interested in and how long they stay on various sites, and we adjust content to attract them.

And it will come as no surprise that we’ve received accolades and taken criticism.

God’s love: Too big to contain

We may not have broken the bubble yet, but we’re working hard to expand it. We work from a premise that The United Methodist Church is concerned about the conversations occurring around it, especially about spiritual concerns and organized religion, and that we as a church can be more expansive in our outreach and sensitive to those with whom we want to communicate.

We work from the conviction that the teachings of Jesus about the love of God cannot be contained in any bubble. God’s love breaks through our isolation, fragmentation and division, and embraces all who seek it.

And we follow the lead of John Wesley, who said more than 200 years ago, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

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.

Internet Access A Fundamental Right?

A survey of several thousand people in 26 countries says Internet access should be a fundamental human right.

Pakistan, Taliban and Jobs

In an intriguing BBC report on Taliban tunnels in Pakistan the point is made that people in the Bajaur region need jobs. If not, the deposed Taliban could return and re-capture control of the region.

It’s a persistent theme in the region. The breeding grounds for the seeds of Taliban terror are fertilized by poverty and its related branches, unemployment, lack of health care and education and desperation exploited by Taliban organizers.

This points to the fact that military actions are not sufficient. After successful military intervention even more important steps must be taken to create effective, sustainable development, provide children quality education and create effective, reliable governance. These are easily stated but difficult to achieve.

It’s easier, apparently, to fund military activities than to fund these softer community development changes, yet security is equally dependent upon such functions.

I note that Church World Service is carrying out  long term development in Pakistan, not necessarily in the Bajaur region, but in places with similar need. Security and social instability are directly related to poverty. The work of community development may be the most significant action the world can take to stem terrorism and recruitment of young people to carry out acts of terror.

Community-Based Development in Congo


A boy in Lumbumbashi looks at contaminated water that is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Photo by the Rev. Larry Hollon.

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Lumbumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo to participate in planning for a World Malaria Day event that will feature a distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets.

The infection rate from malaria is high in Lumbumbashi. Standing water, open sewers, a contaminated water table and scarcely any economic infrastructure for jobs or businesses makes this place one of the poorest suburbs in the world.

While there, I sat outside in the late afternoon before an impressive stand of bamboo listening to a conversation about community-based development.

Actually, the conversation was about how this interfaith group of clergy and physicians would provide bed nets to two of the 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. The people of The United Methodist Church will be one of the partners.

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.

The neighborhoods they serve have never had a bed net 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 bed net 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.

I 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.

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.

Kristof: Congo Ignored

Having just flown out of Congo this morning I read Nicholas Kristof’s column Congo Ignored in the NY Times while sitting in an airport lounge in Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes that the raping and death in eastern Congo is one of the most ignored humanitarian crises in the world today. He says it’s a horrific war zone where barbarism has been inflicted on people for several months. He hopes the world will give Congo the same compassion it is currently bringing to Haiti.

He’s correct, Congo’s suffering is ignored by the world community and the bodies just keep piling up. However, I’d go him one further. It’s not only the war zone that needs immediate, urgent attention. The whole of the Congo needs it. Certainly eastern Congo needs it most of all, and most urgently. But this country is in a frustrating long-term fix. Someone with influence and power should address it. The E.E.C., U.S. and China are the most likely outside powers who could bring influence to bear.

Mining extraction and economic trade have not worked to the advantage of the people, but they are enriching elites. This is a the long-term reality, dating as far back as Belgian colonialism two hundred years ago.

Only yesterday I walked with a group of aid specialists through a suburb of Lumbumbashi with twenty thousand residents. The infection rate from malaria is high. Standing water, open sewers, a contaminated water table and scarcely any economic infrastructure for jobs or businesses makes this place one of the poorest suburbs in the world.

The only way out is for the people to be empowered through community organization to create better conditions for themselves. This will take support from outside because their resources are limited–their own hands and hopes. Powerful as these are, they still need training in marketable skills. They need cash resources, education, materials for better housing and shops, clean water, improved roads and sanitation.

This won’t just happen, it will come with community organization. And that won’t happen unless the community leaders are empowered and trained. So long as people live in poverty conditions they assume they have no voice and they live as if they have no power. No one listens to them and no one pays them any attention. Congo ignored, as Kristof correctly writes.

Eastern Congo, central Congo and western Congo. Urgent as the deaths are in the east, and disgusting as the raping that is part of the strategy of intimidation and terror, death by malaria, malnutrition and infectious diseases such as malaria are no less significant.

With the smells of that suburb still in my nostrils and the dust still on my shoes, I agree with Kristof that the world must pay attention, and more. It must stop the dying in the east and the west through enlightened policies, peacekeeping and community-based development. And it can be done.

I’ll write more about that next.

Save One Life, Save the World

I’m writing from Lumbumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo where this afternoon I sat in on a very remarkable conversation. A UN special envoy for malaria was addressing a group of religious leaders from several Protestant traditions and two imams. The meeting was held outdoors at the edge of a stand of towering bamboo at a Roman Catholic retreat center. It was late afternoon. All the participants had already put in a long day working on planning for a World Malaria Day event that will feature a distribution of insecticide-treated bednets.

The meeting was significant because Christians and Muslims have come together here to combat a common enemy, as one said today. The enemy is malaria.

Second, it’s notable that when the coalition is fully formed they hope to have additional members from other religious traditions. They’ve extended invitations.

One speaker explained the group’s mission by referring to past experiences which were more spiritual and less practical. He said they have come together for interfaith religious observances, for example. Tackling malaria is a move from the spiritual to the practical.

But the grand imam for the district said he differed with the statement. It sounded as the newly forming group was about to have its first disagreement.

That was not the case, however. The imam said, “The work we are about to begin is not less spiritual, but more deeply spiritual. The Quran says when you save one life, you save the world. What we are doing is not merely practical, it is more spiritual.”

The thought caused a hush of appreciation to fall over the meeting as the members reflected on his words. It was a statement that was not only interesting, it was an important moment of spiritual teaching. This did not escape the members of the group.

Another person spoke saying that, in fact, the three religions of Abraham all affirm a similar claim about the sanctity of human life. And the group seemed to be finding a deeper commitment to the fight against malaria by affirming life, which is, after all, good theology whether you find it in the Quran, the Talmud, or the Bible.

Where Two or Three Are Gathered…

This is also posted on a blog I write for United Methodist Communications.

Hearing the stories of the UMCOR and IMA executives trapped in the rubble of the Hotel Montana is to hear of conditions so horrifying they are unimaginable. Utter chaos. At times utter hopelessness. And always courage and more courage. Faith and more faith.

It is a profound gift that Jim Gulley and Sarla Chand give us when they tell this story, difficult as it is to hear. We need to know, to grieve and to hope. And they help us.

They help us to fill in the blanks. To understand the darkness and chaos. The silence. The pain. With their help, our heavy hearts can take solace in the strength of the human spirit and the power of faith. Through their words, we imagine the unimaginable – being trapped under tons of rubble in darkness.

Strangely, however, for me it’s harder to imagine singing. But sing they did. "I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got love like an ocean, I’ve got joy like a fountain, in my soul."

Such strength and faith.

They help us to piece together the fragments of life in the darkness and silence, to assimilate order out of the chaos. Our minds are still troubled and our hearts still heavy, but we find a measure of peace, like a river, in our souls.

They are helping us to shape a narrative for a community of faith. We stand with Jim Gulley, who tells us, like Job of old, he has no answers about why some live and some die, some suffer and others don’t. But some questions have no answer, and there are times when we need each other more than answers.

And these brothers and sisters in Christ comforted each other, told stories and sang. They created community out of chaos. They cared for one another. Offered comfort, encouragement and stories.

We also hear from others like Pam Carter, who was evacuated unharmed on the outside but her heart was torn by leaving a friend who chose to stay. Their separation under such conditions haunts her. But she is tirelessly advocating for Haiti now more than before.

Asked if they will return to the place of their great personal pain, all answer yes. The tasks that brought them together remain unfinished. The work of redressing the inequities of the people of Haiti has not run its course. The challenge of empowering the women, improving the quality of life of the children, partnering with the church in Haiti all lie before us and even more so now. The search for justice and the fruitful life God intends for all will bring them back, and perhaps take them to other places in God’s world as well.

This is the narrative they are helping us to understand. We share a faith of deep conviction about the abiding, loving presence of God in our midst, wherever we find ourselves. And this faith is expressed in practical action that changes the world as we believe God calls us to partner with God for change.

And, for me, most profound of all: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be also." Even under tons of rubble in the darkness and dust and blood, I am with you.

And if this be true, and I believe it is, then we must be with people wherever they find themselves seeking a fruitful life because that is where God is and that is who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.

God, what a story.