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Friday, January 30, 2009

Sri Lanka: In Peace or War, People Make Progress

It looks as though the interminable conflict between Sri Lanka’s government forces and the insurgent Tamil Tigers may be coming to a head. In recent weeks, the army has vanquished the Tigers in a series of engagements that have substantially shrunk the territory under the control of the latter.

Political history aside, any development that secures an end to the fighting that has claimed more than 70,000 lives in Sri Lanka is to be welcomed. It is safe to say that both sides have seriously abused the civilian population caught in their decades-long crossfire.

HOPE International Development Agency has worked in Sri Lanka steadily for decades, prior to 2004’s horrific tsunami and throughout these vacillations of war and peace. While at one level, Sri Lanka is a troubling national character, a bastion of bad news and gloomy outcomes, there is another Sri Lanka in which ordinary people live and work, and in this place, there is always reason to hope. No matter how chaotic their national condition seems to be, the poor continue to make the best of difficult situations whenever they are given the opportunity.

For example, stories like Gnanasiri Lokugallappatthi’s are not preempted by civil war. Before the tsumani destroyed the village market, 56 year-old Gnanasiri had the extremely strenuous and low-paying occupation of carrying bags of consumer goods on his head and shoulders to local vendors.

One year ago, HOPE loaned a little less than $100 to Gnanasiri to start his own business. He rented a stall at the rebuilt Devinuwara Public Market Complex and began selling rice. Before long, he earned a good name and reputation as a rice dealer. Nowadays, he makes a little over $100 profit each month, and has just about paid off his loan.

As with most families, the crown of success is education. Gnanasiri’s son is graduating from high school, and his daughter is being trained as a nurse. In very little time, this family has emerged from a situation of drudgery and tenuous survival, to one of prosperity and new choices.

Ordinary Sri Lankans keep striving to make their children’s lives happier and freer. Their efforts are fruitful regardless of what developments happen to be grabbing headlines. Let us just hope that many, many more stories like this can proceed unimpeded in a climate of greater peace.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Democratic Republic of Congo: ‘Our Hospital Is Back!’

Last week, a large donation of medical supplies that HOPE International Development Agency procured for people in the Democratic Republic of Congo arrived after an arduous journey over land, sea, and (most obstructive of all) national boundaries. This process of delivering critical supplies to deserving communities illustrated two things. First, it demonstrated just how intense the challenges are for Congolese men and women working for the good of their people. Secondly, it evidenced just how severe the need for this work is.

A list of the bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome in order to get live-saving supplies to villages in dire need does not make for entertaining prose. Suffice it to say, it is long, complex, and occasionally quite discouraging. But the outcome, once these hurdles are cleared, is pure joy.

HOPE’s representative Mossai Sanguma was present when the shipment arrived in the city of Karawa. He said that it was an amazing moment – people lined the streets as the cargo arrived. The whole city was energized. Many were exclaiming, “Our hospital is back!”

Their excitement was a reflection of their lack. For about a year there have been little or no medical resources available to medical staff in the hospitals and clinics of the northwestern Congo. In these conditions, people do not bother taking the time to visit their doctor. The care they might receive is not worth the walk. A medical system that might be serving people is rendered totally ineffectual—hospitals become little more than buildings. This donation is seen and felt as a bit of a revival, a blood transfusion for a weak and depleted system.

Some of the supplies will be used in the hospital at Karawa, where there is adequate storage and a pharmacy. Karawa is also a processing point, as the bulk of the HOPE donation is intended to be distributed to four health zones through out the northwestern district – to Loko, Watsolo, Dumba, and Bukada, and the approximate 100 rural clinics located in these zones.

The donation, in the end, filled two forty foot containers. This is a large gift, but in the grand scheme of things, it is touchingly finite, truly small-scale. The DRC, after all, has a population of 65 million. But even this humble modicum of assistance is linked to serious obstacles—and a spirit of gratitude that is even more sobering.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bangladesh: Nasty, Brutish, and Short - But Still a Child’s Life

Given the way homelessness affects people in North America, it’s difficult to imagine what the experience of street children in developing world countries could be like. In a place like Dhaka, Bangladesh, Hobbes’s vision of life as nasty, brutish, and short is still accurate.

These are pictures of children being sheltered, educated, doctored, and fed in a HOPE International Development Agency-supported center in the city. They are being taught reading, writing, and specific skills that will earn them a stable income and allow them to become self-reliant adults. As evidenced by the photographs, they are shockingly young. Despite this, the biggest challenge that Bengali HOPE workers encountered was in convincing the children to attend the center at all. They had, in their short lives, only encountered exploitation and abuse at the hands of any number of adults. The pimps, politicians, drug dealers have already reached these children before they come to HOPE.

Fortunately, the children have been making measurable gains since the programme was launched in December 2007. In this short time period, 60% of the formerly illiterate children have become capable of reading and 50% have learned basic accounting skills. All of the children are healthier. Many had never used toothpaste before coming to the center, and now all of them are regularly seeing dentists and doctors.

When asked, the children say that the greatest thing about the help they have been given is the opportunity to play games. In the recreation room and in the yard outside, they feel totally at home, safe and happy and at rest. A board game in a clean, warm room is a little bit of heaven on earth, a paradise they never thought would open up to them. Children are still children—even when they’ve seen things we wouldn’t want to imagine.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Myanmar: bridging past and future with HOPE

2008 was a challenging year for Westerners and the global poor alike. The rich have seen their stocks crash, and people in places like Myanmar have seen their homes, families, and entire environments wiped away by disaster. However, each New Year brings a promise of renewal, and we have recently been told many stories that validate that promise.

A HOPE International Development Agency worker in Myanmar shares this photograph and story:

This bridge was jointly built by the Christian and Buddhist communities which live on the respective sides of the stream at Kathabaung Village. The previous bridge was destroyed by the cyclone and they have been using a somewhat narrow single log since the cyclone. The bridge is both a symbolic and very practical way of keeping their community connected, in spite of their identity differences. With HOPE International Development Agency’s help, they decided to build a memorial bridge with substantial concrete posts so that it would be more resilient than the previous bridge. They dedicated it with a community-wide ceremony upon completion.

Let’s do as these Myanmarese villagers are doing and pour our energy and resources into building bridges. From one year to another, from setbacks to progress, from despair to hope.

Happy New Year!