Today I want to share with you Part I of a II piece series I wrote in response to the following questions:
1. What makes World Concern different than other development organizations?
2. Is being a faith-based organization (FBO) more of a challenge or a strength?
My hope is that you find this both informative and thought provoking. I’d love to hear your responses/questions! (best to share these via commenting below or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
“Concern Worldwide, right?”
“No, World Concern…”
Initially, this common exchange led me to assume that in East Africa, World Concern is not well known.
As a medium-sized Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) based out of Seattle, Washington, World Concern tends to be less known in heavily aid-concentrated areas for one simple reason: This is not where they work. In addition, World Concern may not be your stereotypical Faith Based Organization (FBO) with proselytizing as the main goal, but rather compelled by their faith to be committed to long-term development and restoring human dignity, even if it means humbling and adapting with lessons learned along the way.
Let’s Take a Trip.
I have a pretty incredible job. I work for World Concern in a regional position covering South Sudan, Chad, Somalia and Kenya. Based out of Nairobi, I spend most of my waking time in the field getting to know World Concern’s projects and beneficiaries. Gathering thousands of photos and many an interview, I work with the beneficiaries to share their stories with the outside world.
Basically, I get the best of both worlds – life in ‘the field’ coupled with life in one of the world’s largest international development hubs.
Due to my line of work, the aforementioned conversation is one I’ve found myself repeating with multiple people in the east African expatriate community. Surprisingly (to me), these conversations tend to occur most frequently in Nairobi, or other cities with a high concentration of development organizations such as Gulu, Kampala, Kakuma, and Juba.
I’d like you to join me on a trip to rural, I mean rural, Chad. Specifically – let’s scoot on over to Goz Beida, located in the Sila Region of eastern Chad.
Now ask someone there if they know about the projects and village partnerships headed up by World Concern. Chances are you will hear a contrasting response.
As we continue on our way to Goz Beida, allow me to paint a picture of our journey leaving from Nairobi.
Many a time have I flown in a large plane, that takes me to a small United Nations (UN) plane, that then drops me in on a dirt runway next to a Land Rover, that then drives me on a 2-5 hour journey miles outside of an already rural town (Goz Beida) to an even more rural village. At this point, we’ve arrived at a World Concern project site; in our case Harako, Chad.
Half of the time in the field I am flabbergasted that: (a) The local staff have any clue where in the heck they are driving (it is safe to say that there is a 0.03% probability that our journey to the field will involve paved roads, or any roads at all) and (b) World Concern staff is conscious that these villages even exist, let alone have meaningful relationships with the local people.
Traveling to project sites, it is rare to see another NGO present. Though the jolting drives may be cause for future back problems, I’m encouraged that World Concern targets villages with off-the-map locations; those that tend to be few in population. For some, the latter is reason enough to throw in the towel and say, “The effort is not worth it.”
Call me dramatic, but I’ve never felt more at the ends of the earth than I do visiting World Concern’s partner villages, whether in Chad or elsewhere.
On assignment in South Sudan, laying alone in a tukul (a traditional hut) in a compound surrounded by a flimsy four-foot tall stick fence, I found myself thinking, “I have never felt further from anything or anyone I know. This could be it.” This goes without mentioning that the ‘guard’ is equivalent to half my weight.
Strip away the romanticism of partnering with the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, and the sexy (yet false) idea that merely digging and building a gushing well equates to a better quality of life and a village transformed. Now you can see development work in remarkably remote locations for what it is – a constant uphill battle. (Cue timely ‘Amen’)
From what I have observed, this is an ongoing internal struggle for World Concern – an organization that implements projects such as wells and desires to celebrate their impact, but at the same time is aware that this is only a fragment of long-term transformation.
Working it Out in Chad
Let’s go back to Goz Beida, Chad.
From 2004 to 2011, Goz Beida was a hotspot for international NGOs. Refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP) were pouring into the area from every direction (some have flippantly referred to Chad as a large dumping pot for refugees, IDPs, and immigrants). The crisis was tangible and the aid money was flowing.
In 2011, the Chadian government announced “A Year of Return” for all IDPs – encouraging them to move back to their villages and for all NGOs to halt their operations within the camps.
In other words, the government declared the crisis over (naturally, it wasn’t).
Cut-off from large non-private funds, World Concern was left to work with an impossibly low budget. Still committed to their beneficiaries– they had to make a tough decision – remain and search for outside resources or move out with the rest. In a few brief months, nearly all compounds in Goz Beida were vacated, making World Concern one of the few remaining NGOs in a development ghost town.
Barely scraping by on private funding, World Concern fought for outside support in order to move out of giving relief and towards development. The people of Chad clearly needed more than handouts – and World Concern was learning to see the bigger picture. Their beneficiaries needed a way to save themselves from a repeat disaster.
“On average, almost two disasters of significant proportions are recorded every week in sub-Saharan Africa since 2000. Few of these ever hit the global headlines but they silently erode the capacities of Africans to survive or prosper,” states the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). “In order for development activities to be sustainable they must also reduce disaster risk.”
“Investing in the cost of reducing disasters can be 10 times (some say 40 times) more effective than helping people recover afterwards,” explains Chris Sheach, World Concern’s Deputy Director of Disaster Response.
Despite its immense importance, it seems that obtaining private donor funding for disaster risk reduction (DRR) is surprisingly arduous.
Creating an appeal and encouraging donors to give money during a disaster? Attractive. Fundraising for the purpose of long-term development, with the goal of preventing future disasters and reducing risk? Not so attractive.
“The long-term, low-cost investment in sustainable community development and DRR is much more effective and efficient than just ‘helping people’,” continues Sheach. “Effective in that it leads to bigger and better things, and reduces losses. Efficient in that it’s a better use of money.”
Yet, DRR is still less dazzling than handouts and quick-response aid. The sad but simple truth is that long term development just isn’t sexy.
It doesn’t produce instantaneous results, and it sure can’t be packaged in a pretty box. It is complex and its process is often difficult to fully comprehend unless you have either been to the field or worked in development. And even then, the answers may still evade those of us working in development – and the complexities definitely still exist.
The longer I spend working in the field of development, the more I am exposed to harmful practices – I have seen the effects of organizations whose work instills more harm than it does help.
Does this make me disheartened and, unfortunately, overly-critical (as is a common characteristic of many development workers)? At times, definitely yes.
Has this made me more understanding of where World Concern has come from and their vision for where they are working to go? Again, definitely yes.
Stay tuned for “World Concern: Going To The End Of The Road And Staying There. // Part II”, which will focus more on the question:
Is being a faith-based organization (FBO) more of a challenge or a strength?
Anok Awer squints her eyes as she speaks. It’s as if she is blinded by the glare of her neon yellow t-shirt – rather than the brutal South Sudanese sun beating directly onto her face; a year-round sensation that goes without complaint.
With a wrinkled forehead, as if matter of fact, she explains, “We now face a shortage of food. Currently we are dealing with the drought from last year.”
Positioned between a semi-seasonal river and a dry-season garden, Anok fidgets, clearly uncomfortable with the heat and subject matter. Visible beads of sweat roll down her weathered face, “It is very difficult to get money. The only way is to make wine out of dura.”
As far back as history reveals, the people of South Sudan have been agro-pastoral. This means they are both farmers and keepers of livestock.
Prior to Sudan’s 20 year horrendous civil war that rocked, and ultimately split the country, seasons of hunger was a scarcely identified issue. The Sudanese people had naturally adapted their methods of farming to survive the heat and lack of rain. Because life was generally peaceful, committing to farming one’s land was easily sustainable.
The war in Sudan killed roughly 2 million people and displaced more than 4 million. It depleted the country of a shared nationhood and any sort of infrastructure.
Amid the chaos of the war, the Sudanese ability to successfully farm year round was tragically lost.
Hiding in the bush, fleeing outside of the country, and living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, the war left the people of southern Sudan no opportunity to practice long-term cultivation. Rather than relying on natural self-sufficiency, most were forced into a life of dependency.
Unfortunately, the dependency mentality remains present in Anok and her dry-season farming group.
During, and post, the war, food and water were provided in the form of handouts and aid. Survival was determined by the work and assistance of someone else. Over time relying on relief, as it was often the only option, transformed into a pattern of life. Most tragically, it became deeply engraved in the Sudanese cultural mentality.
Living with her husband and five children in Mading Akot, a very rural village outside of Lietnhom, located miles away from clean water and any sign of infrastructure, Anok laments her failing farm.
“We work with World Concern in this farm but we face so many challenges. The pests and cows are destroying our fence and crops.”
Currently, one of World Concern’s most prominent projects in South Sudan entails training, equipping, and empowering families in the area of dry season farming. In order to promote building and learning in community, the training occurs in small groups on a shared plot of land. These groups learn to cultivate and harvest a medley of produce, including tomatoes and kudera (a hearty leafy-green vegetable), that can survive the drastic heat and lack of copious hydration.
According to Anok, “World Concern teaches us that if we really do this farm, it will eradicate poverty in our community. It will help us get money for our village and children.”
Just a 20 minute walk down the road from Mading Akot, another World Concern farming group can be found digging and watering their bounteous, healthy crops. Though the group has received a replica training and tools to that of Anok’s, their fence remains standing and their harvest is plentiful enough to take home, store, and sell in the local market.
Though, even with quality training, farming during the dry-season is no easy task, there’s another reason for Anok’s group’s failure: lack of ownership.
When asked why her land was not producing, Anok slowly lowers her chin, requesting more seeds and tools, and showing no interest in fixing what has already been broken. Her relationship to the farm, and her group, is evidently surface level – she shows few signs personal responsibility.
Though ownership is a complex concept to teach – particularly to those who have spent the majority of their lives in IDP camps, dependent and surviving on handouts- ownership is an absolutely necessary component of holistic transformation. It is the winning factor in the debate over empowering versus enabling.
World Concern believes in empowering.
And though administering relief is invaluable in times of crisis, in a case like Mading Akot, a handout would inevitably give way to another reason for the people to avoid doing work themselves.
In order for Anok’s farm to be as successful as her neighbor’s down the road, she must first believe in herself; she must take ownership of the fact that, ultimately, she is the one who can improve and transform her life, her family, and her community.
All of this is not to say that Anok is less capable than anyone else – it is to say that a shift in mindset will make or break the quality of a harvest – no matter how incredible World Concern’s tools and trainings. And this can be said of mindsets worldwide.
World Concern hasn’t given up on Anok, and we have no intentions of doing so. In fact, we are thankful for Anok’s story because it is a reminder that transformation requires more than a simple formula, a straightforward five-step program involving manicured handouts and quick lessons.
Transformation requires commitment, both from our staff as well as the beneficiaries involved. And, most importantly, it requires that every individual involved recognizes that he or she is both capable and empowered.