We are the privileged. The poorest or sickest person amongst those reading this is doing better than, let’s say, the people of the Sahel. That biogeographic band runs below the Sahara and above the savannas, across the broadest part of Africa, from ocean to ocean. It has been struck with famine for the past two years, with temperatures in some parts reaching nearly 50 C. Crops can’t mature and die in the heat, soil erodes causing desertification, which leads to dehydration. Animals die and people die—first the most vulnerable.
There is drought, malnutrition and food shortages; nearly 18 million people are affected. People who are not lucky enough to be born in Canada.
If you close your eyes for a moment you can see the faces of starving children, the desperate mothers, the skeletal bodies and pained eyes. You can see devastated landscapes, can feel the unrelenting heat. You can see, feel, almost taste and touch all this because you have seen these images before, not necessarily from the Sahel, but from other parts of Africa and the rest of the world. You have seen these images for decades; the place names change, that’s all.
Presbyterian World Service and Development is in the Sahel. Not physically—there is no office there, or workers—yet the aid and development arm of the Presbyterian Church in Canada is there, along with many other organizations, providing relief.
PWS&D is also in Malawi to the south of the Sahel, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan and India; also in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti and other countries.
In some of these places PWS&D is the lead organization running a project, in others it works in partnership, in others yet it contributes financially only. Through its networks this modest organization within this small denomination can be anywhere globally, often within hours of a natural disaster. It is a remarkable story.
Twelve days into 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the vulnerable Haiti near the capital Port-au-Prince. Three million people were affected, 316,000 killed, another 300,000 injured; 315,000 homes were destroyed leaving a million people homeless.
PWS&D had a presence on the ground in Haiti within days through its partners, assessing the damage and working on responses. Canadian Presbyterians provided $1.6 million towards relief, which paid for potable water, food and other immediate needs.
Over subsequent months, PWS&D and its partners assisted 600,000 people; they distributed 39,300 hygiene kits, 8,600 blankets, eight million water purification tablets and a quarter of a million oral rehydration salts. Forty schools were planned and 60 were built.
Nearly three years later, PWS&D has not left Haiti.
A year ago Rev. Derek Macleod of Glenview, Toronto, visited on behalf of the agency. In his January report he wrote: “Efforts were made by many, including PWS&D, to join with those struggling to rebuild and recover. Empty fields once covered in tents are now filled with local children playing football as many homes had been repaired and rebuilt. There were many vendors on the roadside selling produce and commercial goods—signs of a society functioning again.
“When I asked one family if I could take their photo with them standing in front of their new home, the owner said, ‘Oh please do. My old home was so modest. This is a palace!’ Such gratitude and appreciation is as humbling as it is inspiring.”
Those Presbyterian dollars have gone a long way.
“We can respond almost anywhere in the world through two primary bodies,” says Ken Kim, executive director of PWS&D. “One is the ACT Alliance, which is based out of Geneva. Churches recognize that as part of our mission, we are called to serve the world in times of need and to respond to human need. So we’ve set up this network. … Churches which do not have either an office or personnel [in the area where relief and development is needed] can partner with local offices. So, if the partners are linked in to our networks, then … we’re almost in immediate contact with them.”
The second major partner is the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a group of churches working together to provide food aid by combining their purchasing power. “At the bank, 15 members each have an account,” says Kim “It’s like a co-op … and so it’s Presbyterian equity that’s required to initiate a project. And then that can be matched.
“I would like to emphasize … that it’s because of the generosity of Presbyterians,” says Kim. “Because if we don’t start with that Presbyterian dollar, we can’t get the other dollars. So that’s an essential piece.”
The same goes for government money. “When people make a donation to PWS&D,” says Guy Smagghe, senior program co-ordinator, “we enter negotiations with the Canadian International Development Agency to see if we can get multi-year programming. When we secure a program of that nature then we have to put in one quarter of the funds and CIDA puts up three quarters. We have a three-to-one match that happens in that context. That’s, we feel, very good value and it allows us to program at a level which is way, way higher than we could do on our own.”
That initial dollar multiplies and multiplies. It’s a loaves and fishes story.
Immediate and long-term responses
The challenge for any agency like PWS&D is that donations tend to follow disasters. The immediate takes precedence over the long term.
This is much discussed amongst non-governmental agencies like PWS&D. It is the subject of many papers and conferences. In the end, it should not be surprising. A natural disaster evokes our own sense of vulnerability. We are all just a bad day away from a hurricane, a storm, an earthquake. But we can’t sustain that emotion; it’s too powerful and much too numbing.
But while relief is important (to be on the ground immediately providing aid) and dramatic (to find a baby under the rubble) it is often the smallest part of the job.
In the spring of 2007, I travelled with Guy Smagghe to northern Pakistan and to Afghanistan. (See the October 2007 issue.) Pakistan had been hit by an earthquake in October 2005 and Afghanistan had experienced a series of traumas—from wars to famines—over the previous three decades.
Given the particular circumstances in those two countries—the corruption, the unreliable governments, the lack of infrastructure, plus the remoteness of the locations—relief was not possible. In both countries PWS&D has been involved with—and led—fascinating development programs designed to encourage education and empowerment.
In Afghanistan, for example, I followed a schoolteacher around for a day, over the dusty paths around Bamiyan. She was seeking students, particularly girls, by knocking on doors. The effects of her efforts may not be seen in Afghanistan for years, perhaps decades.
PWS&D is involved in similar programs across the country and my heart was lifted when, in January, I read in its newsletter the story of Jamila, a teen who has been giving school updates to the all-male community council. For a woman, let alone a girl, to get an education, and then further to give reports to the shura, is a remarkable development in a rural tradition-bound environment.
“Part of the process is dialogue with the local leaders so that they’re on board with programs and so that there’s greater community ownership,” says Ken Kim.
“They will protect it from other elements that could destroy, like the rebels, or other antagonistic elements,” adds Guy Smagghe. “The elders are completely behind the project, so they won’t let these other people come in. And the community, they’ll protect their own assets.”
Economic programs in both countries have also had dramatic effects. Livestock are loaned to mostly women, who are taught to care for, milk, shear and breed the animals. After a year or two, the original loan of a goat, for example, is returned to the pool and loaned to others. Given the tight circle of poverty into which many widowed mothers exist, a single goat can provide enough milk and money to survive and get ahead financially. It’s a simple idea, doesn’t cost a lot, and makes a huge difference.
Similar programs, led by PWS&D, can be found in other countries—Malawi (which this year represents nearly a third of all programming; Afghanistan is another third), Tanzania, India, Guatemala and Nicaragua. This focus allows the agency to maximize its efforts, doing what it does best in some of the neediest areas of the world.
In a program analysis report prepared earlier this year the agency states: “Most countries of the world define poverty by income. Yet poor people themselves define their poverty much more broadly, to include lack of access to education, health, housing, empowerment, employment, personal security and more. No one indicator, such as income, is uniquely able to capture the multiple aspects that contribute to poverty.”
Poverty—that’s the challenge. Behind it are many symptoms including access to water, education and nutrition. There are reams of documents listing contributing factors and theorizing on solutions. But the general consensus is that giving women control of their own bodies and livelihoods and providing education for all will break the cycle. It might take decades, but goats and schools will make a difference.
And it will take decades; change is slow and faith is required. For example, in 2005 Afghanistan had the highest maternal mortality rate in the world at 1,800 deaths per 100,000 live births. Through the efforts of the international community, that rate dropped to around 500 five years later, according to the World Health Organization. Dramatic, certainly, but compared to Canada’s rate of 7.8 (in 2008) there is still a lot of work to be done.
So in Afghanistan, the agency’s programs target the things that indicate poverty—economic development, food security, education and hygiene. Focus is put on girls and women. There’s also agricultural training, providing seeds and irrigation.
“I think we can take pride in being focused in the poorest of the world,” Smagghe says, “and that’s where most of the money that we program in development goes. We have long-term partnerships and we try to generate sustainable change … At the community level, we experience dramatic transformation.”
The best way to invest your relief and development dollar is to give it to Presbyterian World Service and Development. And as you do, think about what portion of that dollar you want to give to relief and what to development. There will be another horrific earthquake someplace and another devastating storm. Millions will be affected, thousands will die. Your heart will be stirred by their suffering and you will open your wallet.
But… shortly after the Haiti earthquake there was an aerial photograph of Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. The western side of the island was bare and flattened; the eastern side was verdant. The photograph told an interesting story: While Haiti has suffered for decades an endless series of political traumas, the D.R. has been relatively stable and has grown
prosperous. When the earth shook, it was the country with poor infrastructure that suffered the most. One could argue that the after-effects of the earthquake were actually human-made.
And so it is true elsewhere, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the Sahel as well. Corruption, dictatorships, wars, power struggles, and yes, in part, also imperialism, both political and economic, are the real contributing factors behind what insurance policies call “acts of God.” The 1989 earthquake that shook the San Francisco Bay area was slightly stronger than the one in Haiti. It killed 63 people and left about 10,000 people homeless.
It is not the earthquake, then, but the infrastructure, that causes the real damage. And that is where our denomination’s relief and development agency is focused. On steady solutions to deep and wide problems. And it has been doing that, in different ways, for 65 years.
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