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Friday, May 29, 2009

Bangladesh: A Song from Jhenidah’s Survivors

The children HOPE cares for in Jhenidah, Bangladesh, put on an impromptu concert for a visitor from our Canadian office two weeks ago.

This is the type of activity - a safe, playful, creative time together - that the children have found most rehabilitative. Coming, as all they do, from such wretchedly painful experiences, the freedom to play and sing is of great therapeutic value.

There is no poverty like that of parent-less children in developing world conditions - in this, the two axes of social and economic deterioration intersect. Theirs is a vulnerability so profound that they either grow thick skins of criminality or they are enslaved by stronger agents. Abuse or be abused.

As for these children, they are safe enough to sing. Their performance is all the more beautiful if you are one of the many people who have made this safe place possible for them.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sustainability and the poor

We frequently hear about ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ being pitted against each other in a kind of zero-sum contest, never feeling very sure of what side it is in our best interest to root for. But in our work with the poorest families in the world, we often see this paradigm undone.

Where we work, the economy (or ‘means to eat, be housed, and be clothed’) and the environment (or ‘place from where you get that which you eat, wear, and live in’) are not really different things at all. Families in the Dominican Republic, for example, have an economy because they have the land and water to grow their crops. They can’t have one thing without the other. Because this concept is so elementary to them, ‘sustainable’ practices often come naturally. In fact, all over the world, HOPE International Development Agency families easily choose practices that protect their land as well as bolster their economies.

What is sustainability? It is nothing more than ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The reason a Dominican farmer uses techniques that nurture rather than deplete the land is not because he feels guilty about global warming, or because HOPE won’t help him unless he sacrifices some economic advantage in order to be ‘green’. The reason why the Dominican farmer chooses to be sustainable is because he is well aware that his children and grandchildren will have no future unless he keeps his land healthy and productive for them.

This brings us to the most important lesson the poor have taught us about sustainability. Sustainability comes from having a heightened sense of the welfare of your children. It means doing what you have to do to ensure that the things you have today can be passed down to the generations that follow you. Poor families, who might not say the word ‘sustainability’, understand and practice the concept instinctively.

A friend of ours, Daniel Schellenberg, is a champion of applying lessons learned from the poor about sustainable living. Having spent many years in Kenya, he now resides with his extended family on a beautiful homestead in East Texas. Their ‘Propagelle Project’ is an attempt to find a way of living which is most mindful of the generations to come. Daniel’s blog is well worth reading for its insights from a person who approaches the situation of the poor and the environment with a balanced, informed, and passionate advocacy.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Afghanistan: A school truly designed for the ‘poorest of the poor’

Afghanistan continues to be a place of stark need and clear opportunities for investment, especially as its young women are concerned.

The news agency IRIN tells us that ‘about two million state school students do not have access to safe drinking water and about 75 percent of these schools in Afghanistan do not have safe sanitation facilities’. In this same article, UNICEF states this lack of adequate facilities is one prominent reason that girls stay away from school. Classrooms may exist, but they are unsuitable for female students unless there are latrines nearby.

As with their clinic, the high school that HOPE International Development Agency Afghanistan is building this year will serve the poorest of the poor in the country’s northwest. Who better exemplifies real poverty than a young girl from a family without opportunities, in a region the government all but ignores, in a nation struggling so profoundly with issues of gender? Because this school’s raison d’etre is addressing the needs of the very poorest people in Afghanistan, care is being taken to ensure that this is a comfortable, appropriate place for girls. In addition to its 12 classrooms and library, the school will be equipped with a clean water system and proper washroom facilities.

Again, as with the clinic, the standard of quality that this school will reflect all but guarantees that families living all over the region will make use of it. It is an ambitious project, but services for these families should be provided with care, completeness, and attention to detail. Going the extra mile for Afghanistan’s most vulnerable citizens - its young daughters - is a necessary investment.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sri Lanka: ‘This is our responsibility.’

‘I personally feel that this is our responsibility as people who are involved in development to support, at this crucial time, our local communities to make their lives less vulnerable by providing some food and other material assistance in this fragile situation.’

We received this entreaty last week from a colleague in Sri Lanka who is on the front line of what has become a truly atrocious humanitarian situation. Reflective of the dignified persistence that all our international staff have in common, this statement touches upon the severity of the crisis with gentle understatement.

‘Fragile’ it is. Over 100,000 people have been caught in the crossfire of savage fighting between Tamil Tigers and government forces. The former is likely on its last legs, shunted to a narrow strip of territory, while the latter refuses to halt their offensive for a moment, eager to finish off Sri Lanka’s rebel movement while they have the momentum. Meanwhile, refugee camps outside the conflict zone are receiving what has been described as a ‘human avalanche’ of traumatized, starving people.

HOPE International Development Agency is mounting up its response to the crisis. As always, men and women who we Canadian staff can trust and admire will manage the distribution of live-saving supplies to displaced families. Once again, the abstract ‘emergency’ that we grapple with only in our imaginations will for them be a very tangible, very difficult, sweaty, frightening, loud, confusing, and heart-breaking reality. Now, as with always, we must do all that we can to overcome our feeling of separateness from the suffering in order to answer our Sri Lankan colleague’s challenge with nothing less than love and affirmation.

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