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 email@example.com)
“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.