Learning from MCC’s relief efforts after Hurricane Mitch


[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace. Committed to strengthening and supporting local churches and community-based organizations, MCC has focused since its inception on the importance of relationship-building in its relief responses, including fostering relationships of mutuality with local churches. That was true one hundred years ago as MCC responded to famine in the 1920s in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) and it was true 78 years later as MCC mobilized to accompany Central American churches and other organizations as they ministered to people whose lives had been upended by Hurricane Mitch. In this article I reflect on what MCC learned from the 1998 Hurricane Mitch response.

Hurricane Mitch was the strongest storm of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season, forming on October 22 and then becoming a category 5 hurricane. After being downgraded to a tropical storm, Mitch hit Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. According to United Nations data, these countries are among the most vulnerable in the world to floods and hurricanes. Mitch carved out a path of destruction in these three countries, tearing through entire communities. In Honduras, officials estimate that over 5,600 people died and 6,000 disappeared who were later declared dead. Economists, meanwhile, assess the hurricane’s monetary damage at around US$6 billion.

Before the hurricane, the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua were marred by socioeconomic conditions that increased the vulnerability of many in these countries to natural hazards like hurricanes: when Hurricane Mitch hit, the devastation it wreaked was exacerbated by these pre-existing vulnerabilities.

In reflecting back on MCC’s response to Hurricane Mitch, we can think about a before and an after. Before the hurricane, the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua were marked by socioeconomic conditions that increased the vulnerability of many in these countries to natural hazards like hurricanes: when Hurricane Mitch hit, the devastation it wreaked was exacerbated by these pre-existing vulnerabilities. For MCC and its partners, after the hurricane meant mobilizing communities to rebuild infrastructure, recover from trauma and discover new ways to live with the environment that decrease community vulnerability to natural hazards like hurricanes. Unfortunately, twenty-two years after Hurricane Mitch, many of the factors that make communities in Central American vulnerable to the destructive impact of hurricanes persist, including land tenure systems that disenfranchise small farmers. Young people under the age of 21 lack memories of Mitch: more broadly, one could argue that Central American societies have forgotten the unimaginable damage hurricanes like Mitch can do, failing to learn the lessons from Mitch.

MCC relief kits were distributed in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in late October 1998. Name of recipient is not available. (MCC photo/Marlisa Yoder-Bontrager)

When Hurricane Mitch made landfall, I was living at and working with SEMILLA, the Latin American Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala, codirecting the seminary’s CASAS language and cultural exchange program. We received little warning about the hurricane’s arrival, and people living in remote communities received even less, with no early warning system in place at that time for hurricanes. [One lesson from Mitch was the need to invest institutional and budgetary resources into early warning systems and disaster preparedness.] I heard about Mitch thanks to a relative attending a conference at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, who called me late one evening, asking if I could get him on a flight to Honduras, explaining that a powerful category 5 hurricane would soon descend on Honduras. Fortunately, my relative was able to fly into San Pedro Sula on one of the last flights allowed to land in Honduras. Once the hurricane’s rains arrived, the city’s airport was flooded, with water up to the second floor of the airport’s buildings. The hurricane’s swath of destruction was not limited to the airport: rains flooded practically the entire country, including communities with Mennonite churches, destroying much of the country’s infrastructure.

While I was based in Guatemala when Mitch made landfall, I had previously worked in Honduras, my home country. Specifically, I coordinated emergency relief responses for Proyecto MAMA of the Honduran Mennonite Church. In response to floods in Honduran regions such as Colonia 6 de Mayo, Chamelecon, Las Cuarenta, Guaimitas and Santa Rita, where Proyecto MAMA carried out educational initiatives in collaboration with numerous Mennonite churches, we supported congregations and communities in helping families displaced by these floods relocate to other communities, with Mennonite churches hosting displaced families and offering comfort and distributing food and non-food relief items donated by MCC. Given this previous relief work experience, I joined MCC’s Mitch emergency response in Guatemala, led by Scott and Rhoda Jantzi, MCC’s representatives in the country at the time. Our committee sought to discern how best to match the needs of marginalized Guatemalan communities with the outpouring of donations from Mennonites in Canada and the United States and the desire on the part of these churches to help in practical ways.

Since Hurricane Mitch, Anabaptist churches in Central America have greater commitment to developing proactive responses to emergencies and creating local emergency committees that prepare for such disasters.

Over the course of the coming months and years, MCC and its Guatemalan partners distributed food, blankets and water and offered medical care and emergency shelter. This first emergency stage then gave way to reconstruction, including building and rebuilding homes in Guatemala City and Chiuimila and discerning with communities what the rehabilitation of economic and community life would look like in the long term. MCC programs in Central America also welcomed work-and-learn teams from the U.S. and Canada, which joined local communities in reconstruction work: my wife, Lizette, and I joined one of these work-and-learn teams in the Sabillon Cruz community in Chamelecon, Honduras.

MCC’s Hurricane Mitch response included immediate and longer-term elements. In the immediate aftermath of Mitch, many families did not have food for many days due to the loss of their crops and food stores reserves and because of difficulty in accessing markets (and in food getting to markets). Over the ensuing weeks and months, illness spread across the hurricane-ravaged communities, thanks to water pollution and spoiled food. In the longer-term, families and communities were confronted with the need to rebuild their lives, even as they mourned the loss of loved ones and coped with post-traumatic stress symptoms that were not always diagnosed as such. MCC joined its partners in seeking to respond to these multi-faceted needs.

What did MCC and its partners, including Central American Mennonite churches, learn from the Hurricane Mitch response? Honduran Mennonite pastor Oscar Dueñas’ recollections point to some key lessons:

I was in my last year as a pastor in the Central Mennonite Church in San Pedro Sula, when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras. We immediately began to get involved in relief work, contacting and providing help to communities with Mennonite churches and to nearby communities to identify emergency needs and make plans for responding to them…

I was hired by CASM (Mennonite Social Action Commission) as the person in charge of organizing the distribution of the material aid CASM had received from MCC and of relief items that CASM had purchased using funds from MCC and other sources. We managed, planned and coordinated the distribution of humanitarian aid— first in response to immediate needs, and then as part of food-for-work projects in which recipients assisted with individual home reconstruction and with communal cleaning and rehabilitation initiatives. We learned from this response how important solidarity, planning and coordination with local communities are.

Throughout the response, we also felt the support of external organizations like MCC, support to respond to people’s priority needs. While we appreciated the donation of material aid and of money for local purchase of humanitarian aid, we even more welcomed work-and- learn teams not only from the U.S. and Canada but also from Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia: these work-and-learn teams that accompanied us in the reconstruction process showed us that we were not alone.

Delsia Florez received an MCC relief kit after Hurricane Mitch struck Nicaragua and Honduras in late October 1998. Florez is pictured at her home in San Jeronimo, Nicaragua in 1999, with her children (from left) Preling Enriques, Noremi Enriques and Felixito Enriques (standing). MCC distributed relief kits and food to hurricane victims. (MCC photo/TonySiemens)

MCC began with an emergency relief response in southern Russia in the early 1920s that worked with Mennonites there in meeting the basic needs not only of Mennonites, but also of others facing famine. Seventy-eight years later, MCC joined Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches and other partners in Central America in assisting victims of Hurricane Mitch, both members of Anabaptist churches and beyond—MCC’s partners included the Honduran Mennonite Church and its Proyecto MAMA project (today ACEM), CASM, Amor Viviente Choluteca, CADE, PRODEM, ADP and the Brethren in Christ church. MCC ended up sending over 50,000 relief buckets for distribution through these partners. Meanwhile, MCC organized more than 75 work-and-learn teams from Canada and the United States who went to Honduras and Nicaragua to accompany communities in the reconstruction effort.

As its work wound down, MCC commissioned an evaluation of its Hurricane Mitch response and highlighted multiple lessons.

First, MCC learned that Hurricane Mitch was not simply a “natural” disaster but was in fact a social and economic disaster. “The impact on people of this natural disaster depends much on the social and economic condition in which they lived,” the evaluation report observed, explaining that the conjunction of natural hazards and social and economic vulnerability compounded risks communities faced. MCC learned the importance of working with churches and community-based organizations in developing disaster preparedness plans.

Second, we learned that while MCC itself is not equipped to be a first-responder organization, churches and other local organizations can be well-positioned to provide immediate assistance, given their knowledge of local community contexts. Commitment to working through partnership, meanwhile, underscored the importance of supporting these local partners in developing disaster preparedness plans.

Finally, the Hurricane Mitch response highlighted a new role for churches in emergency response. “Now more than ever, the Church in general and specifically Christian base organizations are seen as actors of social change,” the evaluation report observed. Since Hurricane Mitch, Anabaptist churches in Central America have greater commitment to developing proactive responses to emergencies and creating local emergency committees that prepare for such disasters.

César Eduardo Flores Ventura is MCC Area Director for Central America and Haiti.

Barrios, Roberto E. Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

Ensor, Marisa O. The Legacy of Hurricane Mitch:Lessons from Post-Disaster Reconstruction in Honduras. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2009.

“Engaging in a peaceful and helpful activity”: MCC and Mennonite Disaster Service


[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers sisters Hilda and Selma Toews from Steinbach, Manitoba, work side by side to finish drywalling in Little Rock, Arkansas in this 2000 photo. Many MDS volunteers express the long-term benefits of volunteering. (MCC photo/Ted Houser)

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), the disaster-relief agency of Mennonite and other Anabaptist churches in the United States and Canada, began at a picnic in Kansas in 1950. As Sunday school members gathered in Hesston to share ideas and food, they expressed a common desire to “seek opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity . . . just where we find ourselves.” Through a series of “picnics in the park,” the “Mennonite Service Organization” emerged and began to define itself. Questions arose, widening the circle of interest. Who is available to help? What skills can we provide? Do we have carpenters? Cooks? Typists? Welders? Nurses? Airplane pilots? How quickly can we respond? These questions led to more questions, pushing the boundaries of the organization and enabling it to grow.

The first call for assistance came in May of 1951 when, during a period of heavy rains, the Little Arkansas River flooded and Wichita called for help. By 11 pm that night, 45 men with four trucks had arrived in Wichita to build sandbag dikes. A week later, volunteers were called to Great Bend, Kansas, mobilizing a response to yet another flood.

Mennonite Service Organization continued to grow, expanding out of the Midwest across the United States and Canada. The name changed to Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), more accurately reflecting the type of service carried out by volunteers. In 1955, MDS became a part of Mennonite Central Committee, an inter-Mennonite relief agency founded in 1920. MDS grew rapidly over the ensuing decade, establishing training schools for field directors, opening a mobile office in 1956, holding its first all-unit meeting in Chicago, producing a film about its work in 1958, training and assembling rescue teams in 1959 and adding radio equipment in 1960. By 1966, Red Cross officials expected MDS to show up at the scene when natural disasters occurred. Even as MDS expanded, the desire remained to “seek opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity… just where we find ourselves.”

Despite the rain and fog, Amish volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) worked at a farm in Casselman Valley, western Pennsylvania, where four tornadoes struck in May and June, 1998. In this photo, the volunteers are repairing and rebuilding the farm of David and Rebecca Hostetler, who are also Amish. (MCC photo/Pearl Sensenig)

My own personal involvement in the MCC-MDS world began early, showing me how people in both MCC and MDS sought to carry out “peaceful, helpful activity.” As the nephew of Paul and Doris Janzen Longacre, I regularly heard stories from their MCC travels in Vietnam and to points all around the world. My father, meanwhile, shared stories of driving busloads of Amish volunteers to clean up after a tornado somewhere in the U.S.

I began as a volunteer with MCC Brazil in 1981 at the young age of 23. After three months of language training, I eagerly moved to the country’s interior and set up my home, ready to engage in peaceful and helpful activities. My assignment was to help set up a farming cooperative. Sadly, the region was in a drought that lasted for seven years. My work changed to digging wells, building cisterns and constructing a large earthen dam. The dam was built by 94 families, mostly by hand. A cash-for-work program of US$20,000 was funded by the Canadian government. Soon I learned that the mayor told people that I was there as a communist. The local people thought I came to discover gold, while the Catholic priest from Holland said I came to take people out of his church to start my own church. I sometimes felt like the world was against me. I worked during the day, played futebol in the evenings and hunted armadillos at night with the farmers. On the weekends I taught the youth how to play volleyball and we made the Bible come alive with the parables of Jesus. They taught me Portuguese and I introduced drought resistant nitrogen-fixing trees, a better breed of goats for milk production and appropriate technology windmills and hand pumps.

The drought worsened to the point where we were burying children almost weekly due to a lack of clean drinking water and proper sanitation. In desperation, I sent a letter home to my small Mennonite church in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to please pray for rain. One night the heavens opened and it poured for days, breaking the drought. Months later, I found out it was the same day the church called a special meeting and literally got on their knees and prayed. God answered our prayers!

Lowell Detweiler and I viewed MCC and MDS efforts as complementary, with MDS and MCC then as now sharing much of the same constituency that seeks ‘opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity.’

In 1992, I began work as MCC’s material resources coordinator. My role consisted of overseeing MCC’s meat canner and coordinating the collection and shipments of relief aid overseas. Daily I dealt with international emergencies of war, famine and natural disasters. Working with our MCC team, we would always try to assess what the local resources were and what was needed to rebuild hope. I sat next to Lowell Detweiler, MDS executive coordinator, and observed his work domestically with MDS. Lowell and I viewed MCC and MDS efforts as complementary, with MDS and MCC, historically and currently, sharing much of the same constituency that seeks “opportunities to be engaged in peaceful, helpful activity.”

In 1993, MDS was incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, separate from MCC but in keeping with the same spirit of Christian response. This was a year that witnessed an extraordinary amount of disaster response activity as volunteers mobilized to assist the victims of Hurricane Andrew (1992) and the Midwest floods of 1993. Through the assistance and perseverance of the MDS network, the organization continued to grow and increase its disaster response capabilities. Thanks to a solid beginning within MCC, MDS is now a full-grown separate organization that collaborates with MCC as needed. MDS responds to disasters in the U.S. and Canada but will call on MCC for assistance with humanitarian resources such as canned meat and relief buckets, like in the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and for sharing personnel, as in the 2017 response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

MDS currently operates thanks to the involvement of more than 3,000 Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ churches and districts. The major contribution of Mennonite Disaster Service is supplying personnel for cleanup, repair and rebuilding operations. This activity becomes a means of touching lives and helping people regain faith and wholeness. MDS’s binational and regional offices are organized to assist its 50 local units in the United States and Canada in the effective operation of disaster programs. MDS has come a long way since people gathered seventy years ago in Hesston, Kansas, for a picnic to discern how they might be of service close to home. Yet the spirit of service and the commitment to be engaged in “peaceful and helpful activity” remains, standing as distinguishing marks of both MDS and MCC.

Kevin King is executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service.

Detweiler, Lowell. The Hammer Rings Hope. Scottdale, PA:Herald Press, 2000.

A ministry of sharing: shifts in MCC humanitarian aid programming over 100 years


[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Collecting humanitarian resources provides the opportunity for MCC supporters to actively and physically engage in the work of MCC, serving as a tool to connect diverse people around a common goal to demonstrate God’s love by sharing from our abundant resources.

In the summer of 1920, men from Mennonite relief organizations gathered in Elkhart, Indiana to hear of the urgent need for food, clothing and medicine among Mennonites in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine). Compelled to take unified action, they formed Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to collect and ship food and clothing from the United States to distribute to Mennonites in need. Nearly 100 years later, MCC now serves communities worldwide through relief, development and peace. Since 1920, MCC has shipped an estimated 1.5 million tons of humanitarian resources to over 100 different countries. Shipments have included items such as: new and used clothing and shoes (1920-2012); assorted food, including milk powder, dried fruit and canned chicken, pork and beef, as well as beans, corn, soybeans and wheat donated by farmers (and shipped via Canadian Foodgrains Bank); medical equipment and medicine; “Christmas Bundles” with toys, hygiene supplies, a New Testament and other items for children (1946-78); United States government surplus commodities, including powdered milk, butter and cheese (1954-68); bedding and blankets (1946-ongoing); infant care kits (1961-ongoing); “Leprosy Bundles” (1963-80); and school kits (1979-ongoing). MCC currently collects and ships canned meat, blankets, comforters, soap, hygiene kits, relief kits, infant care kits, sewing kits and school kits.

MCC’s humanitarian assistance program has evolved over the past century in response to the changing contexts of its U.S. and Canadian constituencies and changes in the international context. MCC’s program has also responded to developing perspectives and best practices within the broader humanitarian and development sector. A 1957 report produced by the Material Aid Study Committee stated that MCC had to “seek ways of becoming more effective in this ministry of sharing. As world needs change, we must constantly seek to adapt the resources of our people to meet these needs in the most effective and permanent way.” MCC has shifted toward providing cash grants to local organizations and now ships significantly fewer in-kind kits and blankets and less food from Canada and the U.S. MCC continues to reflect on how it can best deliver humanitarian assistance while at the same time engaging MCC’s constituency in a hands-on ministry.

Humanitarian aid as an appropriate response to human need

Photograph of a young boy on his grandmother’s lap holding a MCC-supplied can of meat taken in Germany in 1947-48. In 1947, forty-three workers were responsible for the distribution of 4,538 tons of food, clothing, and other supplies in Germany. In the summer of 1947, MCC was reaching approximately 80,000 people in feeding operations. (MCC photo/ Deutscher Zentralausschuss)

A key characteristic of MCC’s current humanitarian assistance program is that it is needs-driven rather than supply-driven, with requests from local partner organizations and a careful analysis of local needs informing MCC’s response. This approach grew from the recognition that in order to be most effective, the items MCC collects and distributes need to align with the priority needs of communities and the capacity of MCC staff and partners. For example, in 1946 MCC shipped more than three million pounds of food and fifty thousand pounds of clothing to France, completely overwhelming the need for these items and the capacity of the program to distribute them. In another example, as MCC increasingly distributed humanitarian aid outside of Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cold-climate styles of clothing collected from supporters were not appropriate for the mild climates of the Global South and efforts were made to send clothing more suitable to local needs and styles. Clothing collection and distribution gradually tapered off and were discontinued in 2012 because shipping used clothing was no longer in keeping with the best practice of providing quality assistance.

MCC first formalized the principle of needs-driven humanitarian programming in 1957, when a Material Aid Study Committee was appointed to find out what the actual need for humanitarian aid was in the world. Upon recommendation of the committee, MCC committed to adapting the collecting of resources to effectively meet the present need. Again in 1978, an internal report on the role of humanitarian aid concluded that “the nature of the need . . . must influence the response.” Continuing discussions that culminated in 1989 resulted in MCC adopting several principles to guide its humanitarian aid work, including the principle of local partner involvement in planning the distribution and use of humanitarian assistance to ensure that the items shipped met local needs and were an appropriate response within the local context. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, MCC moved to be more deliberate about the assessment, monitoring and evaluation of its disaster response programming, conducting assessments in Ethiopia, Mozambique, El Salvador and other countries to guide its work there. Since 2004, MCC has worked to strengthen project planning in all sectors, including the distribution of gifts-in-kind, to ensure programming is relevant, appropriate and an effective response to human need. As with all MCC relief and development programming, humanitarian aid shipments are carried out at the request of local partners and are based on a prior assessment of needs and priorities.

The role of humanitarian resources in MCC’s relief and development programming

Germany 1948, Lohfelden Camp. The children in a refugee camp at Lohfelden near Kassel, Germany pose with grain sacks from different international aid agencies. In addition to MCC, far right, are CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) and CRALOG (Council of Relief Agencies Licensed to Operate in Germany). (MCC photo)

Another source of significant discussion within MCC centered on the role of humanitarian resources gathered in Canada and the U.S. in relief and development programming. MCC increasingly saw the importance of pairing the distribution of humanitarian resources with development programming, such as vocational training or agricultural extension, to address long term needs. MCC was also concerned about creating dependency among communities on outside help and sought to increase self-reliance through a greater emphasis on development and disaster mitigation work. In the 1960s and 1970s, the role of humanitarian resource distributions shifted from entirely emergency response towards additionally supporting MCC development projects like sewing centers and food-for-work projects. Until the late 1980s, however, humanitarian resource distributions represented the primary mode of MCC’s emergency relief programming. Over the prior decades, internal conversations swirled within MCC about when shipping humanitarian resources from the U.S. and Canada was appropriate and when purchasing food and other items locally was a more effective and efficient emergency response.

Those in favour of continued significant humanitarian resource programming argued that humanitarian resources were a practical way to express care for people in need and build bridges between people and churches. Arguments for decreased emphasis on humanitarian resource shipments highlighted the need for longer-term solutions, stimulation of local economies through local purchase of emergency items and concern for creating dependency on outside aid.

During this time, MCC was gaining an awareness that poorly directed humanitarian resources were ineffective at best and harmful at worst. A key concern was the potential for large food imports to disrupt local markets and impact the livelihoods of small-scale producers. In response to this concern, MCC in 1978 defined a philosophy and strategy for the use of humanitarian resources collected in Canada and the U.S. The resulting guidelines helped MCC make decisions about what type of humanitarian aid to deliver in response to crises, considering factors such as the price of different items, MCC’s ability to gather and deliver those items, the timeliness of responding to emergency needs and the impact imported items would have on local markets. Substantial increases in the value of MCC’s humanitarian resource shipments in the 1980s, primarily due to increased food shipments from the newly formed Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), prompted ongoing internal discussion on the matter of local purchase versus import of goods from the U.S. and Canada. The discussion came to the forefront in 1988 during what was dubbed by MCC staff as “the Great Debate”—what was the value of MCC’s humanitarian resources program and what priority should it have in MCC’s programming in the coming decade?

Those in favour of continued significant shipments from the U.S. and Canada argued that these resources were a practical way to express care for people in need and build bridges between people and churches. Arguments for decreased emphasis on the shipping of humanitarian resources highlighted the need for longer-term solutions, stimulation of local economies through local purchase of emergency items and concern about creating dependency on outside aid. The reevaluation of the humanitarian resources and shipping program at this time led MCC to further define its vision for the humanitarian resources it collected and to adopt guidelines for when such programming was appropriate, with the acknowledgement that “there will continue to be situations where purchasing material resources locally is more appropriate than sending material resources.” This was a turning point for MCC’s relief programming, spurring a gradual shift throughout the 1990s and early 2000s towards locally purchased food and other relief items. In 1999, MCC shipped a record number 120 containers with a value of over US$10.5 million compared to 49 containers with a value of nearly US$5 million in fiscal year 2019.

A Japanese family received this MCC quilt sometime around 1950. MCC and 12 other church agencies joined to provide rehabilitation assistance in Japan through a consortium called LARA (Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia). LARA distributed about $400 million worth of relief supplies to 14 million people from November 1946 to June 1952. (Chinese newspaper photo)

Currently, MCC’s humanitarian assistance programming most frequently includes locally purchased items. Most significantly, the Canadian government completely untied food aid in 2009, meaning that MCC could now purchase all food locally for projects funded by CFGB and the Government of Canada. MCC’s food assistance program through CFGB represents the largest portion of MCC’s humanitarian assistance program, with MCC purchasing food locally while using vouchers and cash transfers to meet emergency food needs. Kits, blankets and canned meat shipped by MCC primarily support institutions (orphanages, hospitals, elderly care centers) and are distributed by local partners in times of disaster or crisis. MCC prioritizes shipments in cases where quality items are not easily available for local purchase at an affordable price. While the role of humanitarian resource shipments in relief and development programming has changed, these resources continue to play an important part in responding to crises, supporting longer-term development work and building bridges between MCC supporters and the communities in which MCC works.

Inset: A family in Moscow, Russia, opens a box of food shared with them by Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in Canada and the U.S. In March 1992, MCC shipped 9,000 food boxes to Moscow and St. Petersburg for distribution by an interdenominational relief committee. (Photo/Richard Lord)

Over nearly a century of striving to meet urgent human needs, MCC has continually reflected on how it carries out this work in order to use its resources effectively and efficiently. While the appropriateness and role of humanitarian resource shipments in the context of MCC’s work have been the subject of much discussion in decades past, MCC has consistently concluded that collecting, shipping and distributing such resources are vital to its mission and vision. These resources provide the opportunity for MCC supporters to actively and physically engage in the work of MCC, serving as a tool to connect diverse people around a common goal to demonstrate God’s love by sharing from our abundant resources.

Amy Martens is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator, based in Winnipeg. Tom Wenger is MCC’s material resources coordinator, based in Akron, Pennsylvania.

Fountain, Philip. “Development Things: A Case of Canned Meat.” Sites: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies and Mennonite Quarterly Review. 11 (2014): 39-73.

Hostetler, John. “Mennonite Central Committee Material Aid, 1941-1969.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 44/3 (July 1970): 318-323.

Reflections from Pax (1951-1976)


[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

“Being caught in East Berlin without passports, handing out Christmas bundles to the ‘less fortunate,’ living with and learning to know European Mennonite students, eating goat meat with an Arab Sheikh, and seeing the new year in with prayer under the light of Greek stars: this is Pax, this is your experience, this is mine.”
—Pax Newsletter, January 20, 1959

All workers who have spent two or more years working in an area of need and with a people in a different land and culture will not return the same as they went. To many of them, this is a school of ‘hard knocks.’ …Out of this school there cannot help but come some well-tempered and tried man whom the Church may look to for leadership in the future.

Harry Martens

Inaugurated in 1951, MCC’s Pax program provided varied service opportunities for hundreds of young men (and some young women) in many contexts around the world, including post-World War II relief and reconstruction projects in Europe, humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, the construction of a highway through Paraguay’s Chaco region and community development work in Greece, Bolivia and Congo. The last Pax workers concluded their service in 1976. For most Pax workers, participation in Pax fulfilled alternative service obligations through the United States’ I-W program. Yet MCC sought for the Pax program to be not only an alternative to military service, a program for “conscripted Christians,” but a proactive form of Christian peace witness staffed by “willing second-milers.” The excerpts from Pax reports, newsletters and conference proceedings below offer windows into the joys, challenges and motivations of the men and women who served with Pax. These excerpted reflections and reports show Pax workers assessing their efforts as Christian witness, as a proactive form of nonresistance, as an alternative form of service to the United States and as a contribution to anti-Communist efforts. Pax “matrons,” who made homes away from home for Pax “boys,” reflect on how their work of cooking, cleaning and mending clothes offered a Christian witness, even as these Pax women also pushed beyond gendered expectations of service. Finally, these reflections show Pax workers understanding their service as a form of transformative education, a “school of hard knocks” that opened up new understandings of and passions for Christian service.

Pax as Christian service

The Pax man “is a Christian pacifist worker for others in the name of Christ. …At his best, he forgets self, thinking only of others.… The Pax man does not build bridges of understanding and goodwill between peoples and communions by lecturing or preaching but through practical demonstration,through hard physical labor.”
—Peter Dyck, “Pax Bridge Builders,” Euro-Pax News, August 1959

“Our men, like St. Francis, are preaching many sermons as they ‘walk’ among the villagers, thereby winning their way into the hearts and confidence of the people. If we were competent in all the technical skills and in all the principles of community development, and failed to reach the Greeks as we have, we could not consider our program a success.”
—William Snyder, “Executive Evaluates Greece Program”

“Since being in Pax I feel that my growth and development as a Christian has been greatly increased, through fellowshipping with young fellows of the same faith and by discussing the Bible with them. Through these discussions we learn to know our Lord better. May the Lord bless us as each one of us labors in His vineyards.”
—Richard Lambright, “Activity Report,” Tsakones, Greece, March 7, 1956

“To me Pax was the ultimate in service. Of course, it meant sacrifice, in name at least, such as losing two years’ income, selling a sharp ’41 Ford, and leaving friends and family. But I knew it would be worth it. The opportunities for adventure, learning new languages and learning about peoples of other culture, and seeing the historic ‘Old World’ were privileges that even the leaders of the program recognized and granted us. So, why not go?… But there was still a deeper reason why I chose Pax, a very basic motive… This was the desire to return God’s love by doing something constructive for someone else. Pax provided just this opportunity.”
—David Burkholder, “Why a Man Goes Pax,” Youth’s Christian Companion, September 16, 1962

“PAX men should be impregnated with the truth that they are in the first place Voluntary Service people. They are not ‘drafted Christians’, but rather ‘willing second-milers.’ . . . . PAX should not be two years to get over with, but two years packed with opportunities and challenging work. The PAX fellow should grow inwardly and contribute positively during these two years.”
— “Pax Operation Suggestions”

Pax as alternative service to country

“To be a patriot means to contribute the best we can to the welfare of our nation, and this is our active peace position rather than taking up arms.” —Omar Lapp, Backnang, Germany, August 13, 1955

Pax man, LeFever, works at a housing project in Bielefeld, Germany in 1957. The MCC Pax program functioned primarily as an alternative service option for conscientious objectors drafted into U.S. military service from 1951 to 1975. A few men from Canada also participated, even though Canada had no draft. (MCC photo)

“[The Europeans] realize that we are here to help them have a better living, but at the same time realize that we are here instead of being in a branch of the armed forces. We might do well to ask ourselves whether we would be doing this type of service if it were not part of our requirement towards the United States government.”
—Robert Beyeler to Robert Good, “Activity Report,” May 28, 1960

“These small mountain villages [in Greece] have always been a breeding ground and a no-man’s land for factions participating in the civil war. Communist rebels found security in the mountains above the villages and continued to receive reinforcements from Communist sympathizers located across the border of Yugoslavia less than 10 miles away. The Communist ideology received followers from the ranks of the poor refugee farmers because of their low standard of living. The need for removing the causes of Communism is one of the greatest challenges confronting Christianity today. Removing the causes for war presents a great opportunity for our Peace witness.”
—Dwight Wiebe, “Status of Pax Greece 1955”

“I believe that this is the time for the Christian World to demonstrate the Love of God in contrast to Communist fear. This is a real opportunity for us as a Mennonite Church to help meet the needs of our fellowman physically, but minister also to his spiritual need by witnessing of the love of Christ.”
—Arthur Driedger at a home for Hungarian refugees in Klosterneuburg-Weidling, Austria

Pax as peace witness

“We speak glibly of the love of God. We print, ‘In God we trust’ on our coins. But we don’t trust God. We trust machine guns, ballistic missiles and H bombs. We trust in the $40 billion we give each year for defense. We believe that if it weren’t for our armies, evil forces would overtake major portions of the world. So we pay our taxes and hide behind the flimsy protection they can buy. . . . I am a Paxman because I believe that Christ was telling the truth when he proposed that loving your enemies and blessing them that curse you was the way of God. I believe that the love of Christ is practical. Not only can this love work miracles within the heart of an individual. It is the answer to suspicion, fear and mistrust which usually ends in violence.”
—Jim Juhnke, “A Paxer’s Testimony,” May 11, 1959

I am a Paxman because I believe that Christ was telling the truth when he proposed that loving your enemies and blessing them that curse you was the way of God. I believe that the love of Christ is practical. Not only can this love work miracles within the heart of an individual. It is the answer to suspicion, fear and mistrust which usually ends in violence.

—jim juhnke

“What is the Christian’s role and responsibility in this rather confusing business of peacemaking? One thing should be clear: to the Christian peacemaking is not a business but Christian living. It is not a movement but obedience, not a strategy but discipleship, not a position but a Person. Pax is not merely another movement or demonstration for peace. Pax men are living examples for peace, demonstrating the love of God in heart and life. A Christian service program such as Pax is a natural response to God’s love in the face of human need. We are peacemakers because we are His children.”
—Roy Kauffman, “Pax Men as Peacemakers”

“We are still thinking that it is a miracle that bridges are being built over our wreckage and ruins from one land to another, and that we can clasp hands. And these hands are not empty, but filled; the people are helping each other and the difficult and wicked past is being slowly forgotten. We are especially happy to find that the children, who have suffered more than the older people, are being given special consideration by the American friends—another token of a new and sincere human relationship.”
—Letter from the Mayor of Wedel, Germany, to the MCC office in Frankfurt/Main, January 4, 1955

Women in Pax

Breathes there a PAX man
with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
Matrons are made in Heaven!

"A tribute to Our Matrons," anonymous Pax man

“The boys like lots of variety in their meals and are surprisingly adventurous in their eating. They like a clean house, but also one that is livable… Realizing that the matron will never be able to fit into their mothers’ shoes they still want a home away from home. I hope that I was able to give them one.”
—Joyce Shutt, matron in Enkenbach, Germany, “Reflections of a PAX Matron”

Paxman J. Lester Yoder, of Belleville, Pennsylvania, is showing a hog to a Greek farmer in 1962. MCC’s agriculture program introduced purebred hogs to farmers in Greece in the late 1950s, and Pax workers provided training and guidance in hog husbandry. Program participants were required to construct a hog house and sturdy enclosure to qualify for the program. (MCC photo/V. Cross)

“At night I retire to my room and ponder over the day’s happenings. Yes, I have been busy. Not many minutes have been wasted. However, I do not feel satisfied and can’t help wondering: is there really a purpose to my being here? True enough, the fellows like to come in for a substantial meal after a day of hard work. But is making meals and scrubbing floors my sole purpose for being here? I like to think not. Should such be the case, these two years would be wasted time and effort. Then my thoughts turn away from my day’s work and I begin to the think of the fellows They are here because they believe the wrong in this world can never be made right by force and bloodshed. They are here not merely because they don’t believe in war, but because they believe in peace. They are here because they know a Savior who teaches us to love all men and do good unto them. Then I ask myself ask: What is my purpose for being here? My thoughts become more settled and I begin to see and understand the purpose. I am here because I believe as the fellows do. Then if I can do anything to strengthen that belief, to make their stay more pleasant, to help them in their effort to build a bit of the kingdom of heaven here on earth, I shall feel that my time has been profitably spent.”
—Anne Driedger, Pax matron in Bechterdissen bei Bielefeld, “This is Not a Dream!” European Relief Notes, January 1956

“I must master the art of saying pleasant things, I must not expect too much from my fellowman, must make my work congenial and pleasant, I must help the miserable, sympathize with the sorrowful, and never forget that a kind word, a smile or a loving deed costs little but are treasures to others. It is not only my duty, but rather my privilege to be and do these things thereby revealing to others that non-resistance is meaningful to me and with God’s help I live it daily.”
—Tina Warkentin, “What Non-Resistance Means to Me,” February 10, 1959

MCC Voluntary Service in Korea involves “some glamour, some broadening of experience, some new learning, and a lot of dedication and hard work.” —Lydia Schlabach, nurse in Seoul, Korea, 1962

“Our fellows do wonderful work on construction of new houses, but haven’t you heard of the MCC girls who help village girls construct and mend their clothing? Pax farmers help village farmers mix feeds and make silos, while lady Paxers acquaint village housewives with new recipes. As men discuss personal problems with men, so women discuss personal concerns with the women.”
—Lois Martin, Pax matron in Greece, 1962

Pax as a transformative school

“It goes without saying that all workers who have spent two or more years working in an area of need and with a people in a different land and culture will not return the same as they went. To many of them this is a school of ‘hard knocks.’ They are away from comfortable homes, a land of plenty and now living under very modest circumstances and day after day see human need and despair. . . . Out of this school there cannot help but come some well-tempered and tried man whom the Church may look to for leadership in the future.”
—Harry Martens, “You Are My Witnesses”

“Mr. Paxman returns home with a hatred for materialism and a passion for peace and social action. He feels he has a gleam of truth that daren’t be lost, and he will try to put it across every chance he gets.”
—By the Editor, “Paxman Come Home,” Youth’s Christian Companion, September 16, 1962

Compiled by Alain Epp Weaver (director of MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department), together with Frank Peachey and Lori Wise (MCC U.S. Records manager and assistant, respectively).

Pax MCC. http://www.paxmcc.com/

Redekop, Calvin W. The European Mennonite Voluntary Service: Youth Idealism in Post-World War II Europe. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2010.

Redekop, Calvin. The Pax Story: Service in the Name of Christ, 1951-1976. Telford, PA: Pandora Press, 2001.

MCC in Russia: the first two months


[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The decision by Mennonite relief organizations representing diverse Mennonite churches to form a central committee in 1920 created a new approach to relief work among Mennonites. The material and physical devastation suffered by Mennonites during the Russian Civil War convinced existing relief organizations in the United States to pool their resources to help their co-religionists in Russia. The tragic situation of Mennonites in Russia dovetailed with a post-war commitment to relief aid within Mennonite communities. During the First World War, many young Mennonite men worked under the umbrella of the Red Cross and the Society of Friends to uphold the principle of nonresistance and to offer a proactive witness to peace during a time of suffering. After the war, a strong desire to establish a Mennonite-led international relief organization grew. The circumstances in Russia offered the opportunity for Mennonites to organize an independent relief effort on the international stage.

As many retellings of MCC’s origin story emphasize the famine relief of 1921-1922, after the Bolsheviks had established power, one can easily overlook that MCC started its work before the onset of famine conditions. The first two months of relief work in Russia demonstrate the challenges of MCC’s exploratory activities in a rapidly changing environment of civil war. When Orie O. Miller, Arthur Slagel and Clayton Kratz, the first group of MCC relief workers, arrived in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), chosen as the most accessible point from which to coordinate relief measures into Russia, they represented a very small organization seeking to access a territory with a complex political landscape.

During the First World War, many young Mennonite men worked under the umbrella of the Red Cross and the Society of Friends to uphold the principle of nonresistance and to offer a proactive witness to peace during a time of suffering. After the war, a strong desire to establish a Mennonite-led international relief organization grew.

Miller astutely navigated the political and bureaucratic conditions by connecting with American officials and relief organizations on the ground. Even though the group only arrived in Constantinople at the end of September 1920, by the beginning of October, Miller and Kratz were on their way into the Crimean Peninsula with four thousand dollars in their luggage on an American destroyer. As soon as they arrived, Miller reached out to Admiral Newton McCully, who was stationed in Sevastopol to gather intelligence for the United States. Using a letter of introduction procured during their short-stay in Constantinople, Miller received a warm welcome from the admiral, who promised help and support from American state officials, including an offer of moving small amounts of goods on American ships and the use of their radio system for sending messages. Most importantly, Miller obtained another letter of introduction, which helped him to connect with representatives of General Piotr Wrangel’s government. These contacts agreed to provide Miller and Kratz with free rail passes in territory controlled by Wrangel’s forces for themselves and their goods. They were also given a translator and letters of introduction for their journey. Travelling by train allowed them to arrive the next day in Melitopol, where they were greeted by local Mennonites and attended a service in the local Mennonite church. From there they would continue their journey, spending several days in Halbstadt before arriving in Aleksandrovsk (present-day Zaporizhzhia).

As Miller and Kratz surveyed the needs of the local population, they found that Mennonites still had access to food, at least for one more winter, but they had little of anything else. Miller reported to MCC officials in the United States that “the country is literally stripped of all that civilized people usually consider the necessities of life outside of food. There is no soap, no thread, no needles, no buttons, no shoes, no farming implements, no horses, etc.” Access to clothing constituted one of the direst needs. Most of their clothing had been stolen during the civil war and many people simply had the clothes on their backs. “Just think of wearing all your clothes all the time, probably washing them in the evening in cold water without soap, letting them dry during the night and then put[ting] them on again,” Miller wrote. To address these conditions, Miller and Slagel purchased 4,000 yards of flannelette, six Singer sewing machines, 50 cases of milk, 100 bars of soap and 1,000 yards of bed ticking. For their next trip into the region, Miller also proposed helping the local Mennonite hospitals and establishing an orphanage to help Mennonite children whose parents had died as a result of the civil war.

October 1922. American tractors arrived in Khortitsa, southern Russia, in October 1922. Photo shows the official opening of reconstruction work with government officials on the ground. MCC sent two shipments of 25 tractors to Mennonite settlements in southern Russia in 1922. As part of MCC’s rehabilitation work, Mennonites in southern Russia cultivated a considerable amount of rye and barley. (MCC photo)

These initial relief workers struggled to accurately assess the military situation. Before his first trip into Russia, Miller felt confident that General Wrangel, who commanded White Army forces against the Bolshevik Red Army, would maintain control of much of southern Russia (in present-day Ukraine). As Miller wrote to MCC’s executive secretary-treasurer, Levi Mumaw: “The Bolshevists probably have passed the high-water mark in their career and will never be able again to drive [General Wrangel] back, in which case lines to Halbstadt can be opened rather quickly with a little diplomacy.” This interpretation of the situation would prove to be wrong. Soon after Miller and Kratz arrived in Aleksandrovsk, the Bolsheviks pushed through the line, causing a harrowing evacuation from the city. In his diary, Miller described mortar shells exploding two hundred yards from their train car: “I still feel tingling nerves from the experience, not so much from fear for myself and my own body, as from what might have resulted to [my family] so far away, if bursting shrapnel would have severely wounded or killed me or should we have fallen into the hands of the Reds.” Miller managed to escape from Aleksandrovsk and return to Sevastopol, where he rented office space for their forthcoming relief work and left US$1,200 with the American Foreign Trade for Kratz, who had decided to remain behind and travel back to Halbstadt.

During Miller’s second trip to Crimea in mid-November, the entire operation quite suddenly became completely unfeasible. Although Wrangel’s troops had suffered defeats near the Mennonite colonies, no one had expected that the entire territory of the Crimea would fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks. As he arrived on the shores of Sevastopol, the evacuation of the city was fully underway. Miller had a mere five hours in the city to complete his tasks. Despite such setbacks, Miller showed a talent in reacting on the ground to rapidly changing circumstances. Instead of accepting the cessation of MCC’s work, Miller worked with a local Mennonite leader, Kornelius Hiebert, to devise a plan for work under Bolshevik rule. As Miller understood that it would take time to establish a new system by which MCC could move money and goods into the region, he proposed that Russian Mennonites should gather money among themselves and be issued promissory notes for these contributions which would be repaid once channels could be opened. This money would be used for the relief effort under the authority of Kratz. This idea, however, hinged on the appearance of Kratz. Since they parted ways in Aleksandrovsk, Miller had not heard from the 23-year-old. In fact, no one knew the location of Kratz after he was arrested by Bolshevik officials in Halbstadt. To this day, the fate of Kratz remains a mystery.

The victory of the Red Army forced MCC relief workers to devise a new approach for the region. Establishing a base in Crimea was no longer an option. Negotiations for access to the territory now had to be conducted in Moscow and in Kharkov, the capital of the new Ukrainian Socialist Republic, with Bolshevik officials. MCC humanitarian assistance to Mennonites and others in southern Russia would end up coming through the channels of the American Relief Administration led by Herbert Hoover.

Aileen Friesen is assistant professor of history at the University of Winnipeg.

Juhnke, James C. “Turning Points, Broken Ice, and Glaubensgenossen: What Happened at Prairie Street on July 27-28, 1920?” In A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity. Ed. Alain Epp Weaver, 66-83. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2010.

Miller, Orie O. The Orie O. Miller Diary, 1920-1921. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2018.

Sharp, John. My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015.

Toews, Paul, with Aileen Friesen. The Russian Mennonite Story:The Heritage Cruise Lectures. Winnipeg: Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies, 2018.



[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Russian Mennonite refugees, mother and child, circa 1929. Soviet moves to collectivize farming and religious intolerance coupled with widespread famine caused many ethnically German Mennonites, along with other minorities, to flee to Moscow in an attempt to leave Russia. MCC, who had been responding to the needs of the Mennonite communities in Russia, along with other Mennonite organizations, worked to try and resettle Mennonites outside of Russia. (MCC photo).

A feeding kitchen in a lumber mill represents one of the earliest relief responses of the fledgling MCC in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) in the early 1920s. Hunger stalked communities in southern Russia during these years. Mennonites and their neighbours were bent under the triple burdens of violent conflict, typhus and famine. To this day, thousands of descendants of the families that lived through these conditions a century ago recall how corn meal porridge served in these feeding kitchens symbolized both an outpouring of God’s love from distant sisters and brothers and the difference between life and death for their parents, grandparents and extended family.

In this special centennial issue of Intersections, authors explore ways that MCC has extended relief assistance in the name of Christ in scores of countries around the world over the past one hundred years. Articles cover the breadth of the MCC century: from this first and founding relief effort in southern Russia; to relief and reconstruction efforts undertaken by MCC Pax workers in post-World War II Europe; to partnership with Mennonite churches in Central America and Indonesia in the 1990s and the 2000s in responding to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the Indian Ocean tsunami of late 2004; to relief and reconstruction efforts in this past decade following earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015).

Sometimes MCC relief responses to dire emergencies have opened the door to longer-term development work for MCC and local partners. In a few cases, disaster responses have led to the creation of new organizations, such as Mennonite Disaster Service. And sometimes sharing physical, tangible gifts of love has contributed to building peace in communities divided by mistrust and conflict.

Handmade blankets, canned meat, relief buckets, school kits, dignity kits for menstruating girls and women: all play essential roles in the relief element of MCC’s long held commitment to offering “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.” These humanitarian aid items are made with loving hands, gathered and packed by volunteers across Canada, the United States and Europe seeking to share God’s love without discrimination with those in need. Meanwhile, MCC has expanded its humanitarian relief efforts over the past decades beyond the shipment of humanitarian aid from the U.S. and Canada to also include the distribution of locally purchased food and non-food items and the provision of cash and vouchers to displaced families. Through this work across the centuries, MCC has partnered with churches and community-based organization seeking to meet the needs of vulnerable people facing acute hunger and uprooted by war, earthquakes, hurricanes and more. As MCC enters its second century of feeding the hungry and reaching out to help displaced peoples, may it draw lessons and inspiration from its extensive experiences over the past one hundred years of providing relief in the name of Christ.

Rick Cober Bauman is executive director for MCC Canada.

Conflict and humanitarian assistance


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Alberto Mosquera, traveling by boat in this March 2018 photo, is a farmer in the Lower San Juan region of Choc, Colombia. Mosquera is a participant in a cacao project run by MCC partner Weaving Hope Agricultural Foundation (FAGROTES/Fundacin Agropecuaria Tejiendo Esperanza). Through the project, Mosquera received technical assistance in cultivating and processing cacao. MCC supports this sustainable cacao production project in Choc through Growing Hope Globally (formerly Foods Resource Bank). Participating farmers gain technical skills related to producing, processing and commercializing cacao. The project aims for sustainability, both in specific farming practices and as a long-term livelihood option. Growing Hope Globally photo/Alex Morse

Each year, MCC responds to dozens of disasters and crises around the world that displace tens of thousands of people. In many cases, those in need of assistance have been displaced by conflict. In its most recent global trends report on forced displacement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a record number of persons displaced from their homes at the end of 2018 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations, including 25.9 million refugees and 41.3 million internally displaced, with 37,000 new displacements each day. This context of violence informs not only the type of response that MCC supports, but also the way in which the response is undertaken.

MCC’s relief work adheres to the Core Humanitarian Standard (2014) on quality and accountability that seeks to keep communities and people affected by crisis at the center of any response. Based on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, the CHS sets out nine commitments that agencies carrying out humanitarian responses should follow to improve the assistance they provide:

  1. Communities and people affected by crisis receive assistance appropriate and relevant to their needs.
  2. Communities and people affected by crisis have access to the humanitarian assistance they need at the right time.
  3. Communities and people affected by crisis are not negatively affected and are more prepared, resilient and less at-risk as a result of humanitarian action.
  4. Communities and people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decisions that affect them.
  5. Communities and people affected by crisis have access to safe and responsive mechanisms to handle complaints.
  6. Communities and people affected by crisis receive coordinated, complementary assistance.
  7. Communities and people affected by crisis can expect delivery of improved assistance as organizations learn from experience and reflection.
  8. Communities and people affected by crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers.
  9. Communities and people affected by crisis can expect that the organizations assisting them are managing resources effectively, efficiently and ethically.

It is not enough simply to distribute sufficient food or ship the needed number of blankets. Authentic consultation with affected communities is essential to ensuring that humanitarian response is appropriate and relevant, effective and timely, strengthens local capacities and accounts for community feedback. MCC’s response in situations of conflict must consider the physical safety and security of participants and staff and access to affected populations. Projects not only respond to tangible needs such as food and shelter but also address the very real psychosocial needs that arise from the trauma of displacement, violence and destruction of homes and communities. Humanitarian assistance in these contexts requires good conflict analysis to ensure that the provision of assistance does not exacerbate conflict and cause more harm than good.

The articles in this issue of Intersections explore the ways in which MCC, together with its local partners, has been navigating these complexities in providing humanitarian assistance amid conflict in contexts as varied as Colombia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Lebanon and Syria. Each case examined in these articles contributes to MCC’s ongoing learning for the sake of improving its future work, offering lessons about maintaining the impartiality of humanitarian response, analyzing different types of diversion of humanitarian assistance, garnering support from men for humanitarian interventions aimed at women, integrating conflict sensitivity into humanitarian response, building on local capacities for peace and strengthening the sustainability of humanitarian assistance projects.

Stephanie Dyck is MCC Lebanon and Syria’s external grants program coordinator.

Core Humanitarian Standard: corehumanitarianstandard.org

Making humanitarian assistance sustainable: put women in charge


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

“I am not useless,” Mona relayed to the project coordinator (pseudonym used for security purposes). “I learned in this job that I can do many things for my children, and myself, without needing any help.” As the sole head of her household, Mona had few opportunities to support her family. After taking part in a sustainable humanitarian assistance project in Syria, Mona is now able to confidently provide for her children.

As the crisis in Syria continues into its ninth year, the MCC Lebanon and Syria team aims meet the high level of humanitarian need that continues to exist in the country in a sustainable way. Though active fighting has recently decreased in most areas of Syria, 11.7 million people remain in need. Food security continues to be a main concern, as the crisis has severely disrupted the economy and people’s economic well-being. As 6.5 million people remain food insecure, MCC identifies access to food as a significant concern.

Addressing access to food in a crisis setting can be approached from many angles. After evaluating a large food assistance project in Syria, MCC found that ensuring access to food frees income to be used for other basic services, such as medical needs and school uniforms. When families lack food, they are forced to resort to coping strategies such as restricting themselves to one daily meal. As access to basic services and goods decreases, the severity of coping strategies increases. Displaced families and female-headed households are most at risk of resorting to severe coping strategies, as they lack security and stability.

War has devastating effects on individuals, families, communities and nations. Men are often recruited to fight or forced to flee, while women are left to care for their families. The number of single female-headed households in Syria has greatly increased since the Syrian crisis began. This has caused young women to take on responsibilities and tasks vital for community survival, giving them power and responsibility that they did not previously possess. Targeting women in humanitarian assistance interventions targets entire families, enhancing Syrian society overall. That is why an MCC partner, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), created a project with these women in mind.

Women gained not only confidence and new skills, but an income that they can carry with them now that the project is over.

FDCD is a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Beirut, Lebanon, with a long history of countering violent extremism, interfaith dialogue, peacebuilding and emergency response. FDCD’s extensive network of partners and friends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region allows it to accomplish meaningful work. Volunteers are based throughout Lebanon and Syria: this network of volunteers allows FDCD to directly implement projects within Syria. MCC thus partnered with FDCD to create a pilot project aimed at serving households headed by single women, addressing a humanitarian need while paired with a long-term focus on sustainable humanitarian assistance. From this emerged a small five-month project to provide training in food processing and business skills for Syrian Women.

At the heart of this project was the question, “How do we make humanitarian assistance as sustainable as possible?” FDCD, with the help of MCC, restructured a previous food assistance-focused project to equip female-headed households with skills to produce something deeply needed in Syrian communities: food.

FDCD selected two locations for the project, with ten participants and one local coordinator per location. One trainer for both locations provided consistency in project implementation, traveling between the project sites to provide training in business skills. All project participants came from households led by single women, with children and other family members for whom they were solely responsible. When designing the project, the local coordinators spoke with women to determine an ideal start and end time for the work day, ensuring the project provided participants with the much-needed flexibility of working during the hours their children were at school. This project design eliminated the need for women to pay for childcare or force them to leave their children home alone.

The ten women gathered in their respective centers five days a week to attend classes in business skills and marketing, while also learning the art of mouneh. Mouneh is a process of canning food to last for a long period of time. The business training skills involved classes on everything from how to market one’s products, how to set prices and best sanitation practices. Women gained not only confidence and new skills, but an income that they could carry with them upon the project’s completion. Thus, the project was successful in making humanitarian assistance more sustainable, a success that can in turn inform future MCC programming.

When families lack food, they resort to coping strategies such as restricting themselves to one daily meal. As access to basic services and goods decreases, the severity of coping strategies increases. Displaced families and female-headed households are most at risk of resorting to severe coping strategies, as they lack security and stability.

Though the project centered solely on equipping women with livelihoods skills, three different outcomes emerged. The first outcome was that the twenty women in the project learned how to produce mouneh, thus equipping them with a concrete skill to support their families. At the conclusion of the project, 23% of the women even reported finding formal training or contracts. The second outcome was increased food security for 300 Syrian families during the harsh winter months, as once the women learned how to make mouneh, FDCD distributed four kilograms of mouneh products to 300 vulnerable families during the early winter months. Lastly, the project contributed to social cohesion in Syria, as all the women participating in the project were internally displaced people, coming from diverse backgrounds and regions in Syria. Project coordinators reported that, as women gathered daily to learn from and teach each other, the barriers between them slowly faded into the background. As the crisis in Syria continues, the MCC Lebanon and Syria team and our partners in Syria are looking for new ways to provide humanitarian assistance in a sustainable way. Project design does not need to be limited to one goal or outcome. Conflict settings are complex: addressing women’s livelihoods in those settings will inevitably also be complex and challenging. Meeting basic needs through humanitarian assistance in turn raises questions about how women leading households on their own might be equipped to meet more of their families’ needs. Going forward, MCC can build on lessons learned from this project as it seeks to expand its sustainable humanitarian efforts in Syria.

Hayley Schultz participated in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together program in 2018-2019 as the peace and disaster response assistant for a local partner, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue.

Stevenson, Wendell. “Remembrance of Tastes Past: Syria’s Disappearing Food Culture.” The Guardian. December 7, 2016. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/07/syria-refugees-disappearing-food-culture-kibbeh

Syrian Humanitarian Needs Overview. UNOCHA. https://hno-syria.org/

The Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue: http://www.fdcd.org/

Integrating protection into psychosocial support for Syrian refugee and vulnerable Lebanese women


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

For the past three years, the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training (LOST), in partnership with MCC, has been implementing one of its largest protection projects in the area of Baalbeck-Hermel. Entitled “She Matters,” this project aims at providing trauma and psychosocial support for Syrian refugee and vulnerable Lebanese women. LOST faced several challenges in introducing the project to the Baalbeck-Hermel area. In order to ensure the success of the project, LOST staff needed to address several protection-related concerns in order to ensure the safety of project staff and participants as well as gain the trust of the communities to which the participants belonged.

The security situation in Baalbeck-Hermel can be very tense, with tribal conflicts arising at any moment alongside ongoing internal conflicts emerging from political tensions. LOST therefore took the necessary steps to ensure the safety of participants and staff at project sites near conflict zones, adjusting the schedule of activities to safer times and including transportation for beneficiaries. Additionally, in some areas project participants faced the risk of arrest while going to and from project activities because they lacked proper registration in Lebanon. In this case, LOST contacted the Lebanese Security Forces in order to facilitate the movement of project participants, explaining the benefit of the project to the region as a whole and thus avoiding harm to project participants while also strengthening relationships with local authorities. LOST also created an organization-wide protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) policy that included confidential and private mechanisms by which project participants can raise concerns and submit complaints about the project and about the actions of LOST staff.

The more men have been involved, the more the women benefited from the trainings, as they use their new knowledge to improve the health and wellbeing of their families.

When LOST first introduced this psychosocial support project for Syrian refugee and vulnerable Lebanese women to the Baalbek-Hermel region, the husbands of potential project participants in most villages initially rejected the initiative. Men expressed strong discomfort with the idea of their spouses attending the sessions, fearing that the project would have a negative effect on their families. Based on the recommendations of female participants, LOST worked to include men in the project. In some cases, LOST provided incentives for participation, including integrating these men into other LOST projects, such as cash for work programs, food for training programs and other livelihood interventions. These proved to be beneficial to the men and they were then more accepting of their wives’ participation in the project activities. LOST mitigated the instances of men dropping out of activities in order to work by taking into consideration their schedules and conducting trainings on a day off or even after their return from day labor. LOST has also begun holding some awareness sessions for the spouses of female participants so that they also receive some of the same trauma and health awareness information as the women. The more men have been involved, the more the women have benefited from the trainings, as they use their new knowledge to improve the health and wellbeing of their families. Through several mitigation actions, LOST was successfully able to overcome all the challenges that arose while implementing the “She Matters” project in Baalbek-Hermel. The project has been able to empower women by building their capacity to have better, safer and more honorable and dignified lives through workshops about safe health and hygiene practices, family planning, first aid and childcare. Through its psychosocial support activities, the project has shown that trauma healing is essential for regaining the composure needed to move forward in life. The results have included resiliency for Syrian refugee and vulnerable Lebanese women through improved and strengthened relationships within their families and the broader community.

Rabih Allam is a design, monitoring and evaluation coordinator with the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training (LOST), an MCC partner.

Inter-Agency Standing Committee. “The Gender Handbook for Humanitarian Action.” IASC, 2017. Available at https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/system/files/2018-iasc_gender_handbook_for_humanitarian_action_eng_0.pdf

Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training: https://lostlb.org/

Supporting local humanitarian response in Syria


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Local partner staff assume significant security risks on top of working to mitigate the risks of those receiving assistance. The choice of distribution locations, whether to distribute cash or in-kind assistance, the specific needs of those with limited mobility, access to areas for monitoring visits—all need to be considered and managed by local staff and volunteers.

Access, local capacity, managing tensions with host communities and security—these are just a few of many areas to consider when operating in complex humanitarian environments. MCC’s local partnership approach to its work globally often provides a comparative advantage when responding to crises, particularly in cases such as Syria, where active conflict and issues of security and access make it difficult for other actors, such as international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) involved in direct implementation, from easily coordinating a response. The international community has also formally recognized the need to increase support by donor governments, the United Nations and INGOs to local organizations in an agreement known as the Grand Bargain, launched in 2016 as a commitment to improving the “effectiveness and efficiency” of humanitarian action. While many other INGOs scrambled to find local partners to work with to respond to the Syrian war, MCC already had long-established partnerships in place, some established more than 20 years before the start of the war. While this has enabled MCC to respond to the basic needs of many Syrian households and communities over the past nine years, this opportunity to respond has not been without its own learning and challenges.

Since its work began in Syria in 1991, MCC’s partners have been churches or church agencies whose primary work was in education, support for persons with disabilities and agricultural, social service and humanitarian relief initiatives. What changed with the beginning of the war was not their desire to respond to the needs of their communities, but the needs of those communities. A large part of MCC’s work with its partners in the initial period of the response was to build their capacity and provide training on how to distribute food parcels, non-food items and cash allowances according to international humanitarian principles and standards. For smaller local Syrian groups and organizations, the funds made available for humanitarian response by donor countries and organizations were new and carried with them expectations and accountability mechanisms with which they had no previous experience. With time, many MCC partners have been able to access new sources of donor funding since their response to the conflict began, thanks to having gained proficiency in programming and reporting on humanitarian assistance in a way that meets global best practice standards and donor expectations.

Working with existing partners also dictates, to a certain extent, the locations where MCC’s response will be focused, as MCC’s access is limited to the access partners already have or are able to acquire. This does not mean that the assistance is not targeted to the most vulnerable within a community. However, the fact that the project areas inside Syria during the war have been limited to where MCC’s church partners can operate freely has necessarily left some parts of the country outside of MCC’s ability to respond. This has included besieged areas where access has been difficult for all actors as well as areas under the control of groups with whom MCC and its partners cannot obtain guarantees for safe access. Despite these restrictions, the areas available to MCC partners have nevertheless included a majority of Syria’s governorates and many communities that host internally displaced households from all corners of the country. The depth of knowledge and trust that local partners have in these communities has allowed MCC-supported projects to bridge divides between people of different religious beliefs as well as between displaced and host community households.

International organizations also need to take seriously the security risks that are passed on to local partners in complex operating environments such as Syria. Local partner staff assume significant security risks on top of working to mitigate the risks to those receiving assistance. The choice of distribution locations, whether to distribute cash or in-kind assistance, the specific needs of those with limited mobility, access to areas for monitoring visits—all need to be considered and managed by local staff and volunteers. While international donors require that partners participate in and share information with official aid coordination structures, this can also carry risks when the provision of assistance might include households from areas previously outside of government control. MCC and the donor agencies from which it receives funds for the response in Syria must take seriously the duty of care that comes with working in a volatile context and be willing to allow for necessary exceptions to standard practices. MCC and donor agencies also need to fulfill their duty of care in helping partners build their capacity to manage risk and security effectively.

As MCC continues to respond to short- and longer-term humanitarian needs in Syria, these issues of access, capacity and security will remain and evolve. The lessons of the last nine years of supporting local partners in Syria will inform MCC’s ongoing response in the country. As MCC grows in its understanding of the interplay of access, local partner capacity and security, the experience of the Syria crisis will also help it to more effectively respond to future humanitarian crises in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Stephanie Dyck is external grants program coordinator for MCC Lebanon and Syria.

Inter-agency Standing Committee. “The Grand Bargain.” Available at https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/grand-bargain.

Pavanello, Sara with Larissa Fast and Eva Svoboda. “Fostering Local Partnerships in Remote Management and High-Threat Settings.” Report commissioned by the Humanitarian Policy Group. July 2018. Available at http://odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/12302.pdf.

MCC’s humanitarian response to conflict in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In its largest humanitarian response since World War II, MCC has programmed more than US$63.4 million to respond to conflict and displacement in Syria since 2012 and Iraq since 2014. MCC’s response programming spans four countries—both Syria and Iraq, along with neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, who host large refugee populations relative to their national size. In these countries, MCC works in close partnership with church relief organizations, Islamic charitable societies, national non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations.

Staff of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) unloaded a humanitarian aid shipment that was sent in October 2018 from the West Europe Mennonite Regional Conference and MCC to MECC’s warehouse in Dara’a, Syria. The materials will be distributed in Dara’a due to the 270,000 people that were displaced in the region in June 2018 (the largest single displacement in the area since the Syrian conflict began). Names not provided for security reasons. (Photo courtesy of Middle East Council of Churches)

Through these partnerships, MCC responds to urgent and ongoing humanitarian needs of refugees and internally displaced people, including food and cash assistance, shelter rehabilitation, rent support and provision of essential household and hygiene items. While most items are purchased locally, MCC also ships in-kind hygiene items, blankets and other humanitarian assistance from Canada, the U.S. and Europe to be distributed as part of its response. Over the past seven years, MCC has shipped humanitarian aid valued at over US$11 million.

Children, ages 3-5, enjoy the magician’s rabbit trick during a magic show at their school. This is one of the schools in southern Lebanon that MCC funds through partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD). MCC staff collaborated with school staff to invite the magician to perform at all the MCC-supported schools as an extension to MCC’s kindergarten education project which includes psychosocial training. PARD has worked many years in Palestinian areas in southern Lebanon and began including psychosocial activities to give Syrian and Palestinian refugees tools to address trauma and an opportunity to express themselves and grow in confidence. Names are withheld for security reasons. (Photo courtesy of PARD)

MCC and its partners also address the needs of people impacted by conflict beyond the provision of food and other humanitarian support. As displacement interrupts or limits access to education for children and youth, MCC provides support for formal and remedial education programs. MCC also promotes positive relationships between host and displaced communities and between different ethnic and religious groups in order to prevent intercommunal tension and to promote peace. In recognition of the immense trauma experienced by conflict-affected families, MCC programs provide trauma healing support and psychological care, along with building the skills of partners to respond to psychological needs. As the nature of the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the circumstances of affected people change, MCC adjusts its programming to better address the evolving needs and situations on the ground. Now as some displaced families begin returning to their homes, MCC explores ways to provide empowering and sustainable humanitarian assistance.

As evident from several of the articles within this issue of Intersections, large-scale and long-term humanitarian response to conflict in Syria and Iraq has challenged MCC and its partners to develop skills for effectively responding to the differing needs of women, children and men within difficult circumstances. Although the needs continue to be immense and resources are limited, MCC’s response in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon has reached hundreds of thousands of people impacted by conflict, political instability and displacement—all in the name of Christ.

Amy Martens is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator, based in Winnipeg.

Peacebuilding and social cohesion in humanitarian response in Nigeria


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC Nigeria and its partners, the Emergency Preparedness and Response Teams (EPRT) and the Ekklesiya Yan’uwa A Nijeriya (EYN, or the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), have found that integrating conflict sensitivity into humanitarian assistance initiatives is critical for the success of these projects and for promoting social cohesion within societies torn apart by violent conflict. Conducting a careful conflict analysis during the project design phase and then building on local capacities for peace during project implementation help the project avoid exacerbating tensions within the pluralistic Nigerian context in which intercommunal relationships have deteriorated and in which suspicion between groups allows mutual mistrust and even hatred and enmity to flourish, leading to violence.

In the last two decades, violent conflicts in and around Jos, Nigeria (where MCC Nigeria’s office is located), have increased, resulting in devastating losses of life and destruction of property. These conflicts primarily stem from battles for control of and access to resources, even as different identities (such as religious and ethnic identities) are mobilized to enflame these conflicts. Nearly two decades ago, MCC worked with Nigerian leaders in the Jos area to establish an organization, EPRT, committed to nonviolent conflict prevention. A network of Nigerian Muslim and Christian leaders in and around Jos, EPRT undertakes proactive action to mitigate conflicts amongst peoples of differing faiths and ethnic groups. EPRT also carries out humanitarian assistance in Jos’s religiously and ethnically mixed context. In carrying out these emergency humanitarian initiatives, EPRT has achieved success by incorporating numerous conflict sensitivity practices into its humanitarian initiatives, such as: interfaith and inter-agency collaboration, which creates a conducive environment for program delivery and which minimizes suspicion across religious lines; inclusion of women as part of emergency response teams, thus helping to ensure that women in affected communities speak into project design and that the needs of women and children are thus considered at all stages of the project cycle; and using community-based volunteers who represent different faiths. These strategies have decisively contributed to the success of EPRT’s work. 

In developing interventions in complex crisis situations, humanitarian actors must consider dividers (actions we want to stop or attitudes we want to change) and connectors (actions and attitudes we want to encourage). Humanitarian interventions in a conflictual context become part of that context, making it essential for humanitarian organizations to commit to a Do No Harm approach in their distribution of relief aid. In planning its humanitarian interventions, EPRT first analyzes dividers that drive intercommunal conflict and potential connectors that can help mitigate such conflict and then integrates that analysis in the design of its humanitarian responses so that they do not heighten interreligious or intergroup tension but rather create room for peaceful coexistence.

Humanitarian actors may have worthy goals and seek to meet basic human needs, but if they do not incorporate conflict sensitivity into project planning and implementation, serious harms can materialize for project participants.

EPRT collaborates with 11 Nigerian organizations, with a balance of Christian and Muslim organizations and of organizations led by women and men. This diverse network of program partnerships strengthens EPRT’s efforts to reduce violent emergencies in Nigeria’s Plateau State where Jos is located. EPRT’s activities include the establishment of peace clubs in schools, leading Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops, conducting needs assessments and environmental impact assessments, distributing humanitarian relief and maintaining an early warning system that mobilizes Nigerian religious leaders and peacebuilders to proactively respond early on in preventing intercommunal tensions from turning violent.

A recent relief distribution carried out by EPRT with MCC support in four informal camps for displaced Nigerians as well as in the surrounding host communities of Rawuru, Kworos, Barkin-Ladi and Kassa used participatory approaches during the design process, so that beneficiaries were involved in all aspects of the response. Beneficiaries actively joined in identifying family and community strengths and capacities, prioritizing household and community needs, securing logistical and planning support, implementing project activities (with implementation carried out by gender-balanced, interfaith teams) and monitoring the distribution of relief items. EPRT invests time and efforts to secure the support of various religious and community leaders, given the fact that these critical stakeholders have tremendous social power and capital that can be used to help or hinder humanitarian responses. By involving beneficiaries and local leaders in project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, EPRT enhances local ownership and acceptance of the project. This local ownership also means that EPRT receives timely and candid feedback from beneficiaries and local leaders about the strengths and weaknesses of its humanitarian responses. EPRT’s humanitarian interventions not only meet the needs of displaced persons and vulnerable members of host communities, but also seek to strengthen interreligious tolerance and build common ground by creating shared safe spaces for relationship-building across ethno-religious lines. Although the violent crises that had erupted in the Jos area were perceived by Nigerian Christians as being driven by Muslims, EPRT based its relief distributions on need, not on religion, creed or social status, recognizing that impartial aid distributions have the potential to build social cohesion in a context in which some actors seek to create and widen divisions along religious lines.

An experience of an attempted relief distribution in Gurku camp by a Muslim organization offers a second example of the importance of a conflict sensitivity approach in planning the distribution of relief items in an interfaith context. This Muslim group had planned to distribute relief assistance only to Muslims during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan within a formal camp setting that included Muslims and Christians. Given that the households in the camp were from different faith groups, the Muslim camp officials refused the relief items, insisting that until all IDPs in the camp benefited regardless of religious affiliation, the distribution could not take place. Camp leaders had participated in workshops organized by EYN on the Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) approach from Rwanda, which had emphasized the importance of considering conflict drivers and connectors when developing humanitarian responses and thus prepared community leaders to ask critical questions about humanitarian initiatives like this one proposed by a Muslim organization that would have had negative consequences in fracturing social cohesion.

Humanitarian actors may have worthy goals and seek to meet basic human needs, but if they do not incorporate conflict sensitivity into project planning and implementation, serious harms can materialize for project participants. Care must be taken to ensure that cultural norms and religious doctrines do not disrupt the distribution of humanitarian assistance and that the project does not create more conflict by ignoring cultural norms.

Issa Chung, a local Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT) member in the Bukuru community of Jos, Nigeria, presents at a meeting in March 2018. Local EPRT teams, a collaboration between MCC and JDPC (Justice Development and Peace CARITAS) seek to build and promote sustainable peace, resulting in the reduction of election violence, community conflict and emergencies/crises in Plateau State creating a culture of harmony and acceptance among secondary school age children throughout Plateau State. (MCC Photo/ Allan Reesor-McDowell)

For decades, MCC in Nigeria has worked alongside partners like EPRT and EYN to meet basic human needs, address injustices and rebuild communities that were previously segregated along religious lines. Through these efforts, MCC and its partners have discovered that integrating conflict sensitivity and peacebuilding into the heart of every project, promoting social cohesion across differences and building interreligious capacities for peace are essential for the success of humanitarian interventions.

Hyeladzira Balami is administrative and finance assistant for MCC Nigeria.

The Do No Harm Project. The “Do No Harm” Framework for Analyzing the Impact of Assistance on Conflict: A Handbook. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2004. Available at https://www.cdacollaborative.org/publication/the-do-no-harm-framework-for-analyzing-the-impact-of-assistance-on-conflict-a-handbook/.

Diversion and humanitarian assistance in South Sudan


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Cropped image
Nyang Jawu Nyanpiu is one of more than 1,000 households that received food items such as sorghum, beans, cooking oil and salt in South Sudan’s Rubkona, Pariang and Bentiu counties.

Nyanpiu, who is in her early 70s, lost her family members during conflict in her home village and fled to the Pariang camp IDPs where her only surviving son died of an unknown illness. (MCC Photo/Patrict Mulu)

The positive and negative impacts of humanitarian assistance can be viewed through two primary lenses: first, the direct impact from the transfer of aid in meeting basic human needs; and second, the ethical message conveyed in the provision of assistance. In this article, I examine a key factor that humanitarian agencies in conflict settings that plan food assistance interventions must consider, namely, diversion. My discussion of diversion builds on MCC’s experience in supporting food assistance projects implemented by a South Sudanese church relief organization among famine-affected internally displaced peoples in the part of South Sudan formerly known as Unity State (in 2015, the South Sudanese government divided Unity State into the three new states of Ruweng, Northern Liech and Southern Liech).

Diversion in humanitarian assistance refers to actions that, by altering the intended distribution of relief items, results in humanitarian assistance being reduced, not reaching or being delayed in reaching intended beneficiaries, or being used for something other than its intended purpose. One type of diversion involves actions by political officials or by armed groups (such as the police, the military or non-state actors) to intercept and divert humanitarian assistance away from the intended beneficiaries. Another type of diversion, however, happens when project participants themselves use humanitarian assistance they receive for something other than the planned-for purpose. Selling food assistance is a classic example of such diversion. Another type of diversion happens when beneficiaries share assistance they receive with family, friends and neighbors. My focus in this article will be on this latter type of diversion of humanitarian assistance by project participants.

A concrete example will help clarify the issues at stake in diversion. In December 2018, staff with the Episcopal Church for South Sudan-South Sudanese Development and Relief Agency (ECSS-SUDRA) conducted a survey of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in the former Unity State who had received food assistance through a project implemented by ECSS-SUDRA with support from MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). The survey revealed that the supported beneficiaries had shared, sold and diverted part of the food they had received through the project, rather than keeping all of it for their household food needs (the intended purpose).

When ECSS-SUDRA staff asked why this diversion had happened, beneficiaries gave multiple responses. For many, diverting food assistance they had received represented a way to help relatives and friends who had newly arrived and settled in the camp. Conflict often separates members of extended and even nuclear families from one another. In contrast, stability and food in times of need bring family members together. Food aid recipients therefore sought to share this assistance with their extended relatives who also experienced need. Not only that, but the ECSS-SUDRA survey found that some food aid recipients also shared a portion of their food aid with newly arrived IDPs, both with IDPs coming from their home communities and with returnees from distant internal displacement camps and refugee settlements.

Ubuntu is an ancient African worldview based on the primary values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion, values that help ensure happiness and well-being within family and community: within this worldview, sharing one’s resources with family, friends and neighbors is a cultural imperative.

Another cause of diversion by beneficiaries was that some items in the distributed food parcels were not readily usable in the form provided. So, for example, beneficiaries reported that they lacked money to have the sorghum that came in the food package ground into flour: they therefore sold the sorghum for cash. Recipients who sold items from the food package reported doing so in order to meet other priority needs, such as the purchase of soap or meat or for covering medical expenses.

Still other recipients viewed the food assistance as an opportunity to start a business. In some cases, recipients sold food assistance to access startup capital. Others who already had access to some capital used those funds to grind the sorghum they received into flour for baking bread that they then sold, increasing household income.

The types of diversions described above are common when humanitarian agencies distribute food assistance in conflict situations. Humanitarian agencies like MCC might sometimes unreflectively assume that food is the primary, or even sole, need of IDPs and other vulnerable groups, yet such peoples, who may have no regular sources of income, have other basic needs, including health, hygiene and education. Diversion in these instances represents a creative attempt by beneficiaries to meet multiple needs through food aid which had originally been intended to meet only basic nutritional and diet diversity needs.

When the number of people who end up benefiting from humanitarian assistance surpasses the originally planned scope of the project, one reasonably deduces that diversion by beneficiaries has occurred. So, for example, ECSS-SUDRA found through its survey that the household sizes reported at the end of the project varied from what was originally projected, resulting in the project reaching more households than anticipated in the initial plan. Households expanded as IDPs welcomed members of their extended families. Also, the number of overall beneficiaries of the project expanded as recipients shared and consumed food aid with their friends and relatives.

Humanitarian agencies like MCC and ECSS-SUDRA seek to ensure that the amount of food aid distributed is appropriate and effective for the size of the households receiving the assistance. Yet, in bantu contexts like the areas where ECSS-SUDRA operate, people hold strongly to the communal value of ubuntu. Ubuntu is an ancient African worldview based on the primary values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion, values that help ensure happiness and well-being within family and community: within this worldview, sharing one’s resources with family, friends and neighbors is a cultural imperative. Ubuntu calls on people to show basic respect and compassion for others, based on a recognition of how people are defined by communal relations: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” One’s neighbor’s survival is a precondition of one’s own survival: sharing the food one has, including food assistance one has received, is a duty. One is not separate from family members who have also had to run away from their homes and villages, nor is one separate from friends and neighbors, including new neighbors in an IDP camp. Ubuntu calls people to extend food and brotherly embrace. While humanitarian assistance project plans may give clear instructions about beneficiary selection, the communal value of ubuntu disrupts these plans through its spirit of sharing.

There are several steps that can be taken to minimize negative types of diversion in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. These include improved planning, needs assessments, regular monitoring, integration of priority needs into holistic assistance packages, provision of assistance that can have long-term benefits and empowerment of and coordination with local actors to prevent duplication of support. Yet, as the ECSS-SUDRA experience in South Sudan shows, not all forms of diversion by beneficiaries are harmful. Indeed, when recipients of food aid share those resources with extended families and social networks, they extend the benefit of food assistance and help foster social cohesion, even if these benefits were not part of the original project planning.

Amos Okello is MCC representative for South Sudan and Sudan.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, South Sudan.

Responding to natural hazards in a conflict zone: MCC’s experience in Colombia


[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Over the years, MCC Colombia has found that the most reliable way to respond to natural disasters in conflict zones is through respected local church groups with deep experience and a long-standing presence in conflicted regions.

For over 70 years, Mennonite Brethren communities have lived, worked and worshipped along the rivers of Colombia’s Chocó region, principally the San Juan, but also along smaller tributaries, and, more recently, the great Atrato. The Chocó region is the second-rainiest place in the world, and as the rain falls, the region’s rivers swell and slowly flow out into both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Chocó’s population is clustered along the rivers, which have long served as main transportation routes, sources of sustenance and the orienting social force. But they are also the source of frequent flooding, flooding exacerbated by climate change and changes in the riverbed brought on by industrial-scale dredge mining.

Especially in a region where the social fabric has been significantly frayed by the armed conflict, purchasing aid items from local merchants builds trust and relational collateral, rather than inviting suspicion by bringing in outside aid.

As the severity and frequency of flooding has increased, the Mennonite Brethren church has developed expertise in emergency response. MCC has supported the Colombian Mennonite Brethren church in Chocó in these efforts for three main reasons. First, since Mennonite Brethren communities in the region have often been affected by the flooding, they have become adept at conducting very accurate situation assessments. Secondly, the Colombian state has minimal presence in these communities, and any assistance arriving through international aid organizations or the state only reaches more urban areas and often gets corrupted by local politics. Finally, despite the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrillas, the armed conflict and presence of active armed groups remains an intractable reality in Chocó, making outside humanitarian relief efforts extremely difficult.

In this context, the Mennonite Brethren of Chocó have become experts at providing humanitarian relief in a conflict zone. Many of their strategies and practices mirror best practices for humanitarian relief operations more generally: the difference is simply that the stakes are raised in a conflict zone.

Through collaboration and cooperation with the Mennonite Brethren, MCC Colombia has found several practices to be crucial. First, it has been important to utilize local resources and supply chains, rather than bringing in goods from outside the region. By using local resources, the humanitarian response benefits the community in multiple ways, both by providing needed relief and by patronizing local merchants and vendors. This has helped to guarantee the cultural appropriateness of the aid being distributed, as well as to strengthen relational networks in the affected region. In a few cases, it was necessary to purchase the relief items in a larger urban area and transport them to the communities affected by the flooding, but the Mennonite Brethren have never brought in resources from outside the department or disconnected from the churches. Especially in a region where the social fabric has been significantly frayed by the armed conflict, purchasing aid items from local merchants builds trust and relational collateral, rather than inviting suspicion by bringing in outside aid.

A second strategy employed by the Mennonite Brethren has been to maintain clear communication with local municipal authorities, while simultaneously remaining independent of them in the distribution of aid. As is considered best practice, the Mennonite Brethren always clarify with municipal authorities which populations have received state aid and what further plans the municipality has for responding to the flooding. But rather than directly coordinating their response through the municipality, the Mennonite Brethren independently implement their emergency response. In this way, they have avoided having portions of their aid redirected along local patronage lines or used as a payout to different groups. This has been an especially important practice during election seasons. Because the Mennonite Brethren are committed to the region long-term and hold a distinct faith identity, they are extremely careful about associating their activities with any temporal political entity. This allows them to maintain a posture of non-collusion and independence that ultimately serves as a form of protection for both the church and its disaster response.

Third, in any conflict zone there will be long-term effects from the trauma experienced by the population, in addition to the trauma and stress generated by the natural disaster itself. The Mennonite Brethren recognize this dynamic and have tried to include psychosocial support and pastoral counseling as part of their disaster relief efforts. Traveling in Chocó, particularly in the rural regions, is both expensive and risky; it would be difficult to sustain a trauma support program that had the same geographic reach and scope as the humanitarian relief efforts have. By coupling trauma support with relief efforts, the church can address the emotional needs of far more communities than if they were to attempt a similar effort apart from a humanitarian response.

The Mennonite Brethren have consistently refused military escorts for their humanitarian missions, because then the illegal armed groups would no longer recognize them as a neutral, pacifist group.

Finally, and most crucially, emergency response in conflict zones cannot be done without clear communication and relationships with local community actors. This is true for both the situation assessment and implementation stages of humanitarian response. In the context of Chocó, main transportation routes are controlled and monitored by both the state and illegal armed groups. Moving large amounts of food and non-food aid along these routes requires that proper permission is obtained, that communities have approved the arrival of aid and that the local partner distributing the aid—in this case, the Mennonite Brethren Church—be respected and known by all local actors. In Chocó, for example, the Mennonite Brethren insist on clear communication, but in a way that emphasizes their neutrality as a religious, faith-based group. So, in order to transport fertilizer beyond a certain point, the church must have clearance from the government, because it is considered a monitored substance, due to its use in coca production. Other times, the church has had to register their boats with the government, along with the aid they transport, as a humanitarian mission. But the church has consistently refused military escorts for their humanitarian missions, because then they would no longer be seen as a neutral, pacifist group. Instead, they communicate directly with community leaders who can confirm when it would be safe to travel and deliver the humanitarian aid. If a community leader advises the Mennonite Brethren not travel at the proposed time, they will respect the recommendation and postpone their visit.

All of this is possible only because the Mennonite Brethren Church in Chocó has developed and nurtured an historic and consistent testimony in the region. By consistently presenting a peace witness, working for the benefit and well-being of the communities to which they belong and abstaining from open affiliations with armed groups, the military or local governments, the Mennonite Brethren adeptly and prudently respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises within their region. It has been an honor for MCC Colombia to learn from and work alongside them.

Elizabeth Miller is MCC Colombia representative and lives in Bogotá.

Insights from a tribal school in Odisha, India: communities, curriculum and ethos


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Schooling in Indigenous communities has the potential for great good and great damage, much of which will be realized and judged only in retrospect. It is therefore imperative that everyone involved in education for Indigenous children approach the task with sensitivity and respect, humility and openness, caution and confidence. In the case of schools for Indigenous children, one must ask: Whose school is it anyway? Where does the Indigenous community figure in the equation?

The role of the community in the governance and administration of a school is a much-debated question. This includes the designing, running, monitoring and evaluation of the curriculum and educational processes of a school. In this article, we share from our experience of initiating and running an Adivasi (Indigenous) community school for the last 20 years. We will do this by describing some aspects of the school and then reflecting on lessons learned.

The school where we work, Mitra Residential School, Kachapaju (MRSK), an MCC partner organization, is in many ways a living, evolving experiment, influenced and directed through constant discussion and debate. We do not live and work in a vacuum. We cannot pretend to live in a bubble, cut off from the world around us and the systems and structures of which we are inevitably a part. But within that matrix, there is space to be different, to choose to be true to the ethos and culture of the Indigenous community. We share here some of the determinants and variables that can influence the shape of a school vis-à-vis the community.

The genesis of the school: MRSK was born out of a community dreaming session in 1997 in a tribal village called Kachapaju. The Mitra Community Health team from the nearby Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack was seeking direction from the people. The youth dreamed of a day when their people could be government officials, teachers, doctors and engineers. The tribal elders cautioned them, saying this was an impossible dream, as the available schools hardly functioned, and those that did, destroyed the soul of the children. What emerged was a dream of a school of their own, where their language, culture and religion would be respected and nurtured and where children would grow up proud of their parents and community. What seemed like a pipe dream snowballed into reality, playing out on the platform of trust that exists between the people and Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack. The people of 16 hill tribe villages formed an association. Two families offered land. All the villages undertook manual labour to erect the first building. The school opened in July 1998. There was no doubt about the ownership. While for statutory purposes, the school would be registered as part of Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack, the heart, mind and soul of the school would be owned and governed by the people of 16 villages and their representatives.

Reflection: A lot of the trajectory of a school depends on how and why it started: who started it and to what purpose?  Who holds the reins? Does it pursue the dreams of the community and yet allow for management processes to stay within the statutory requirements of the government? On the other hand, if education or a specific school becomes a commercial venture or an ideological tool, the curriculum will follow suit.

Language: The people of the 16 tribal villages are predominantly from the Mal-Kondh community. Their language, Kuvi, does not have a script and has almost no written literature. Most schools in the region therefore use the medium of instruction to “mainstream” the children and make them “fit for employment,” using either the state language, Odiya, or English as the medium. MRSK chose to be a Kuvi-medium school, using the Odiya script. This was both a social statement and pragmatism at work. Education became multi-lingual, with Odiya, Hindi and English coming in as part of the curriculum over the five years of primary school, but the base being the Kuvi language. A conscious decision was made to celebrate and prioritise the Kuvi language, encouraging its use in informal and formal situations, composing songs and stories and printing books in the language written by children, teachers and community members. This has made the school unique and different, a symbol of the tribal community’s dignity and self-respect. The fact that the children also did well academically in professional courses allayed the doubts of those who feared reverse outcomes.

Reflection:  Languages get stacked into a hierarchy of socio-economic value. English is considered the top dog, aspired for by all, with Hindi and Odiya next and Kuvi relegated in common thinking as a backward language. A conscious decision to place the Indigenous language of the community on the top of the value chain in a school is a radical step. It gives the children and the community ownership of the school. It allows parents and community members to fully engage with the education processes without discomfort. Language is not just a medium of communication—it is the lifeblood of society.

Holidays: MRSK being a tribal school, it was decided that the school calendar should be based on the community calendar. Sundays are therefore working days at the school, while Tuesdays are holidays, as that is the day of the local weekly market. The academic week runs from Wednesday to Monday. School holidays are scheduled around tribal festivals, when children should be with their parents, participating in the village festival and learning their tribal heritage in a hands-on experience the school cannot provide. School stops, education continues. 

Reflection: In the dominant school culture, festivals are used to indoctrinate the children. Tribal children at dominant-culture schools return home with a new set of festivals alien to their parents. And these then gain ground in the villages, spread by the children trained in residential schools. Communities in India are very pluralistic, and the holidays and festivals of the dominant communities over-ride the celebrations of subaltern communities. 

Curriculum innovations: The MRSK team believes that education includes knowledge, skills and values and recognizes that these must be consciously promoted and evaluated. The government-prescribed curriculum is taken as the base, and subjects appropriate to the community such as agriculture, health, arts and crafts are added on. Education includes extra-curricular activities, including music, dance, drama and nature appreciation.

Reflection: While statutory mandates must be retained, there is a lot of space for tailoring the curriculum to the needs and sensitivities of the community. One must locate and sometimes create those spaces. Where statutory control is too tight for flexibility, one encourages the real education to spill into the community, during after-school hours and holidays, too. 

Teachers: The founder of the school’s parent institution, Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack, Lis Madsen of Denmark, stated in 1980 that change would come only when tribal teachers would teach tribal students. Her point was that it is not enough for the tribal community to aspire to be beneficiaries or recipients of largesse. They must become givers, leaders and teachers. This dream has come true in MRSK, where ten out of 12 staff are from the tribal community. It is important for children to know that their people are no less than anybody else, and that they are just as capable of creating standards and models. 

Reflection: This factor changes the way the school sees and is seen—by the children, the community and the government. The teachers therefore need to be carefully selected and nurtured, given that the first generation will necessarily have studied in “un-tribal” schools themselves. And most students become like their teachers. So conscious effort must be taken to help them break the mold and create a new model of teachers, a model that is rooted in the ethos of the community. 

Evaluation and guidance: Who should govern the school and evaluate its journey? At MRSK, representatives of the 16 villages who own the school meet about three times a year to review progress and correct direction. In 2004, when the team needed an evaluation and directional guidance, they requested tribal leaders to undertake it, rather than an education consultant. The insight they provided was unorthodox but effective.

Reflection: The indicators and yardsticks we use for measurement of change can become the determinants of direction. They say far more than we recognize. Seeking direction from the Indigenous community itself has helped protect the soul of the school. The aspects they value could be quite different from those education administrators and urban parents pursue—such as easy and open access to their children in school, use of their mother-tongue language and use of traditional musical instruments and cultural media.

Contributions and support: At MRSK, the community is very engaged and involved. The land is contributed by two families. The first building was erected through community effort by the people of the 16 member villages. Every year, parents and community members contribute a day’s labour together to undertake road repairs and to complete other needed infrastructure projects. Selection for admission to grade 1 is through a lottery process, done village-wide, as an open community event. The family of each child contributes a small amount in cash or in-kind installments to contribute to the cost of running the school. The ownership of and by the community needs to be real, nurtured and celebrated. Ways must be created for participation that are meaningful and doable.

In conclusion, what are the lessons learned in the journey of MRSK over the last 20 years? We would highlight at least three:

  1. The community is the primary stakeholder and strength, not a liability to be humored. Whose school is it anyway?
  2. Involving communities in decision-making may cause an apparent slowing down of management, but gives a great degree of ownership and sustainability.
  3. You have to become the change you want to see.

Chandrasekhar Ray, Jaysen Kumbrika, Manoj Wadaka, Madhabo Rona and John Oommen work with the MRSK and Mitra teams in Kachapaju, Bissamcuttack, Odisha, India.

Learn more

“Development dreaming.” Video with Johnny Oommen. Available at https://vimeo.com/20119763

Community participation in child protection


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

As schools strengthen their child safeguarding efforts, they must work together with families and communities as key allies in the critical responsibility of protecting children. Sometimes family, neighbors and other community members play an obvious role in keeping children safe—for example, when a 12-year-old girl is sexually assaulted by a stranger but manages to scream, and other community members come to her rescue and eventually capture her assailant. However, just as it would be unthinkable for the community to remain silent in moments of crisis like this, it is equally important that the community be actively involved in preventing and responding to more hidden forms of abuse that unfortunately are too often perpetrated by teachers, staff or other adults in positions of trust.

The Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) underscores that community participation is critical to the effectiveness and sustainability of education programs. As such, community members must be supported to participate actively, transparently and without discrimination in all stages of education responses (INEE Minimum Standards for Education, 2010). Community-led approaches are grounded in the idea of people power, that is, the ability of ordinary people, even under difficult circumstances, to organize themselves, define their main problems or challenges and collectively address those problems (Wessels, 2018). In that view, structured community-led forums are the best place to identify local protection issues and develop the most appropriate solutions in cooperation with schools (“Role of School Management Committees,” 2016).

School Management Committees (SMCs) and Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) are important tools for enhancing school governance—particularly with respect to leadership, management and decision-making. These community structures are developed through a series of comprehensive social mobilization activities which encourage and guide communities in the participatory processes of managing a school. They normally consist of seven to eight members from diverse interest groups: SMCs often include a school administrator or principal, parent representatives, teachers, social workers and community elders. SMCs provide a natural and important opportunity to involve the community in making schools safe for children. SMCs and PTAs should participate in every stage of child safeguarding and protection efforts, from the development of child safeguarding policies to overseeing that these procedures are implemented, monitored and updated.

At the stage of policy development, SMCs and PTAs can help identify the risks children face and establish effective steps to reduce those risks, including reporting mechanisms that are culturally appropriate and accessible to all. They can also ensure that children’s voices are heard, through encouraging the establishment of child-led groups in the school and community and by soliciting input from children to feed into SMC discussions.

Policies only have a positive impact if they are put into practice, so SMCs and PTAs are even more important at the stage of implementation. Since SMCs and PTAs play a key role in budgeting and disbursement of funding, they should be in the forefront advocating for resources to be set aside for disseminating policies that have been translated into local and child-friendly languages. They should also ensure that both teachers and students are regularly made aware of the types of abuse children face and that the school has set up the necessary reporting and response mechanisms.

Over the past two decades, both of Kenya’s refugee camps, Kakuma (pop.188,000) and Dadaab (pop. 211,086), have witnessed growing community participation in protecting children through schools. Not only have these community structures strengthened refugee schools in numerous ways, but they have also proven to be an important tool for raising awareness about and addressing cultural norms that marginalize certain groups of children and young people—for example, highlighting and responding to the distinctive challenges facing children living with disabilities, child-headed households and child mothers in accessing education (“Good Practices,” 2015). In Kakuma, parents who undergo SMC training expressed feeling more confident in their roles and responsibilities in engaging the school in cases of child abuse.

In their role as decision-makers, SMCs and PTAs can influence decisions about appropriate response actions when a teacher has been found culpable of abusing or exploiting children—for example, by pushing for dismissal or arrest and conviction of perpetrators in a case of serious abuse or corporal punishment of students by teachers.

Beyond school-based groups like SMCs and PTAs, community-based child protection groups are key players in ensuring children are safe not only in school but even the surrounding community (“A Common Responsibility,” 2008). Community-based child protection groups bring together volunteers who aim to improve the protection and wellbeing of children in a village, urban neighborhood or other community. They are known by a variety of names—for example, orphan and vulnerable children committees, child protection committees, child welfare committees, community care committees and anti-trafficking committees. Despite having different names, these groups are mostly very similar, with the common aim of protecting and caring for vulnerable children. For example, such committees might mobilize adults to accompany children to prevent them from being attacked when going or returning from school. It is important for schools to also engage and collaborate with these kinds of groups, to raise awareness of key child protection issues in the community or identify children who may not be attending schools and refer them for assistance.

Communities must not be left out or reduced to mere rubber stamps in the day-to-day management of school-based initiatives. This is especially true when it comes to child safeguarding. Since communities vary enormously in each context, they must develop their own ways of working that fit their context. Schools form only a part—though a very significant one—of a holistic social reality, so they must not work in isolation from the community. Rather, they must actively involve parents and community to understand how child abuse and its prevention in the school context is related to its dynamic manifestations within the community. This will ensure that school-based safeguarding efforts are culturally sensitive, locally appropriate and as effective as possible.

Martin Juma is a short-term consultant with MCC programs on child protection. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Learn more

“A Common Responsibility: The Role of Community-Based Child Protection Groups in Protecting Children from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.” London: International Save the Children Alliance, 2008. Available for download at https://resourcecentre.savethe children.net/node/1245/pdf/1245.pdf.

Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery. New York: UNICEF, 2010. Available for download in multiple languages at https://inee.org/resources/inee-minimum-standards.

“Role of School Management Committees (SMCs) and Local Governing Bodies in Violence Prevention within School: Evidences from Nepal.” Regional Expert Roundtable on Prevention of Violence in Schools in South Asia, April 25-27, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Available for download at http://www.knowviolenceinchildhood.org/about/ downloadpdf/ Day%201%20Session%204%20KBNepal%20Role%20of%20School%20 Management% 20Committee%20and%20Local%20Governance.pdf.

UNHCR. “Good Practices for Strengthening Community Participation in Education In Kenya.” January 15, 2015. Available at http://coexist.co.ke/files/GP_Kenya_ComParticipation_FINAL_DRAFT_Jan_15_2015.pdf.

Wessells, M.G. “A Guide for Supporting Community-Led Child Protection Processes.” New York: Child Resilience Alliance, 2018. Available at http://www.socialserviceworkforce.org/system/files/resource/files/Guide-Community-Led-Child-Protection.pdf.

Community-led early childhood care and education


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Samuel, four years old, initially struggled upon entering preschool. His mother, Christina, a refugee in Cairo, Egypt, had been stripped of her family support network when she fled Sudan and therefore was forced to leave him at home while she worked long hours to support the family. Samuel thus spent his first years largely isolated from human interaction, and feared people, light and the bustling streets. Despite her long hours of work, Christina could not afford childcare for Samuel—the preschools in the area were too expensive and the few free preschools were full. Community-led, holistic and sustainable programming is essential for refugee children like Samuel to access the benefits of quality early childhood care, which include cognitive, psychosocial and health effects that extend for a lifetime.

Refugee parents in Egypt must cope with disruption to family life, extreme poverty, trauma, no or insecure employment and lack of social support. Many thus struggle to provide their children with the support they need for early childhood development. Some neighborhoods in which refugees live have created affordable initiatives run by community-based organizations, with local community members as teachers, where refugee parents are comfortable leaving their children. These preschools within a community have many benefits: the preschool staff are familiar with the parents, they can conduct home visits and the parents do not have to travel long distances to drop off and pick up their children. However, the ongoing challenge of maintaining enough resources, space and trained teachers often puts these community preschools at risk of shutting down.

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), a refugee-led and run organization in Cairo that partners with MCC, was well-equipped to support communities in facing these challenges. StARS had well-established relationships in the most vulnerable neighborhoods, experience and knowledge of best practices from running two preschools of its own and a strong dedication to refugee-led work which meant that community ownership would be central to the project. From this background, StARS developed an innovative early childhood wellbeing project, founded on the three principles identified above: community at the center of programming; holistic care; and sustainable growth.

Community-led programming: In October 2017, StARS’ early childhood development team worked with the StARS community outreach program, which had already conducted extensive community mapping, to identify communities most likely to benefit from its early childhood wellbeing project. StARS then conducted focus groups with community members to understand the existing community structures for early childhood care and elicit suggestions on what might be done to strengthen them. A common concern was how to increase financial resources, as the schools could not sustain themselves through community contributions or school fees alone without making the preschools unaffordable to the communities they sought to serve.

Building upon these focus group discussions, StARS collaborated with the community-based organizations in each neighborhood to elect a management team and design a response model. Caregivers voted on the priorities to be addressed, and a tailored training package was developed. For example, unlike most preschools, some of the preschools needed to care for very young babies, and thus required appropriate space and trainings.

Later in the project, the preschools also received a small budget to invest as they saw fit. StARS’ commitment to community-led programming enabled them to provide relevant, specialized advice to teachers. So, for example, when a student drew a picture of a gun during class, StARS’ teachers, who are themselves refugees, were able to provide an intensive two-week training for teachers and caregivers in the community on how to support young learners in building positive behaviors and coping with trauma. The community teachers later reported that the students no longer exhibited aggression and that the atmosphere of the class had improved. Altogether, this community-led approach means that plans are tailored to the particularities of the communities, thus building community trust and ownership of the project while reducing cost.

Holistic care: StARS’ community-led approach provides those caring for preschool-age children with a nuanced understanding of the underlying reasons for neglected early childhood development. In addition to training teachers on best practices, such as how to welcome students and create play activities, the early childhood wellbeing staff participate in weekly meetings with caregivers. This has created referral pathways to other departments within StARS (facilitating, for example, access to counseling, legal advice, education and medical micro-grants) for the parents and students. When StARS noticed that parents of children with disabilities needed assistance, they established a peer support group for the parents and created referral channels to a provider of education grants for special needs children. With this holistic approach, StARS does what it can to remove the many barriers to the children’s development.

Sustainable growth: It is not enough to train community teachers and to provide them with resources to offer early childhood education for refugee children. If these schools were to close because of lack of resources or, in order to sustain their operations, they were to increase school fees and thereby exclude the very families the project was meant to help, the schools’ founding goals would not be achieved. StARS therefore entered the project with a sustainable strategy. In the short term, work with the preschool management teams to establish alternate income streams, such as providing adult language classes in the center during the hours that the preschool is closed. In the long term, connect the preschool management team with other potential funders.

By training community members as teachers and by equipping parents with positive parenting skills, the project hopes to increase the recognition of early childhood wellbeing as an essential aspect of family life, and thus increase opportunities for children more widely than the parameters of the project. Ultimately, StARS seeks to have a wide impact on community life, including improved communication between family members and strengthened community relations. Sustainable, daily childcare programming for refugee children allows refugee households, especially single parent households like Christina’s, to engage in wage-earning activities while knowing that their children are being cared for in safe, development-focused, community-based spaces.

Daniel Davies is Policy and Advocacy Officer for St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, Egypt. Other staff running the Supporting Early Childhood Wellbeing Project also contributed to this article.

Learn more

Manning-Morton, Julia. “Well-Being in the Early Years.” Teach Early Years website. Available at https://www.teachearlyyears.com/a-unique-child/view/wellbeing-in-the-early-years.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. “The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain.” Working Paper No. 12. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, 2012. Available at https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/the-science-of-neglect-the-persistent-absence-of-responsive-care-disrupts-the-developing-brain/.

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services website. http://stars-egypt.org/.

School Management Committees and school improvement


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Education is a human right! The School Management Committee (SMC) is the driving force responsible for ensuring this right to every child in their community. An SMC has the responsibility to manage its school with a business mindset and determine the most effective way to use limited resources in order to deliver quality education services in the community the SMC represents.

School improvement and accountability movements have challenged schools and districts to develop plans for how they will produce better results. The Zimbabwean government, seeking to maintain its reputation within Africa for its high-quality schooling and to keep up the country’s high literacy rate, has devised a lot of innovations to improve the quality of education in all teaching/learning institutions in the country. One such innovation was to introduce decentralized governance of the schools, to give local communities more say in the management and administration of the schools through the formation of School Management Committees.

SMCs are typically comprised of parents, teachers and headmasters. However, MCC Zimbabwe, in consultation with school administrators and SMCs, has realized that SMCs are even stronger if they also include local leaders (e.g., chiefs, village heads, local council members, business community leaders) and students.

SMCs have a variety of roles, but one of the most important is their role in managing the use of financial and other local resources for the improvement of the school. The committees manage funds from levies paid by the parents and small grants from the government whenever they are made available. During periodic meetings with parents and other stakeholders (including Ministry of Education officials and local leadership, such as chiefs and village heads), the vision of the community is made public for implementation by the school authorities together with the SMC. Budget plans are laid out during the meetings and then spending decisions are ultimately made by the committee’s votes.

Sometimes non-governmental organizations partner with schools to pay the school levies for underprivileged students. When this happens, SMCs select the students that qualify for assistance and manage the use of the funds paid by the partner organizations.

Financial reports are shared and presented to the parents and other local stakeholders during the regular meetings which are usually held three times a year so that everyone is involved in monitoring how the accumulated funds are spent. The level of feedback and accountability is thus clear and transparent. In cases in which funds have not been used as planned, the parents as key stakeholders have the right to recall the elected members should they find that reasons for not using funds as planned are not satisfactory.

One challenge in rural Zimbabwe is that most parents struggle to pay the required school levies, hence SMCs also struggle to execute their mandate due to financial constraints. Where there are financial constraints, it is usually difficult to mobilize communities for unskilled labour as well.

Key stakeholders such as chiefs, village heads and ward councilors are important in overcoming these challenges. When these leaders spearhead the implementation, it builds confidence in communities and thereby promotes the community’s positive response, perceptions and participation. These leaders are the access points for other community members to the school and hence can influence and mobilize the community to provide resources and actively participate in the school. Local leadership is very influential in the Zimbabwean context, such that local leaders bear great authority to foster positive responses.

Effective SMCs also seek to mobilize young people to contribute to the school. Young adults who are not working can be contracted to provide much-needed unskilled labor, something that in turn gives young people a sense of ownership in the school, fostering a feeling of community members being micro-donors to the school rather than waiting for funding from somewhere else.

Another challenge is the need for the capacities of SMCs to be strengthened. MCC Zimbabwe walks the SMCs through the budgeting and reporting processes for prioritizing and managing limited resources. To further support the committees in gaining confidence in managing funds, MCC Zimbabwe provides grants to the schools and the SMCs are responsible for how the grant is used. They plan, budget and purchase, with MCC staff playing an advisory role.

In Binga district, communities have undertaken massive projects such as building classroom blocks through mobilized community participation, with community members donating locally available material like stones and digging pit sand. Through SMC efforts, there have also been notable changes in the schools’ learning environments. The planning has led to the efficient use of funds to purchase learning and teaching materials. Moreover, there has also been an increase in the number of learners who passed their national examinations after these improvements.

It has been observed over time that if communities are empowered and stop viewing themselves as subservient, then they begin to view their environments differently, gaining new confidence in their ability to change their status quo. For instance, many communities in rural Zimbabwe have a lot of resources around them that they can use to their advantage, but due to lack of foresight they end up waiting for an external person or entity to come to their aid. However, the establishment of SMCs in Zimbabwe has fostered development in the schools through their coordinated effort in mobilizing the communities towards set goals. SMCs have created transparency and in turn community confidence has also increased, creating a fertile education environment for the children of that community.

Tinodashe Gumbo is education program officer for MCC Zimbabwe.

Oversight committees help hold schools accountable


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In Honduras, like in many other countries around the world, the right to quality education is protected by the constitution. In practice, however, most children do not reach satisfactory levels of learning in the educational system. The 2017 National Academic Performance Report showed that across grades 1 to 9, 60% of students scored “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” in the core subjects of mathematics and Spanish. Is this a failure of the Honduran state educational system alone? Or are there other actors that can contribute to ensuring a quality education for children and adolescents?

In our experience, community participation in “Comités de Veedores” (Oversight Committees) has helped improve the quality of education. [Veeduría can also be translated as monitoring, observation, inspection or supervision.] These committees, made up of community members, watch over their local schools and advocate for better educational quality by monitoring the performance of teachers and the level of student learning. One concrete result has been a noticeable increase in the number of days schools are open, with students saying, “Now we don’t lose class time!” For example, one oversight committee identified an educational center which, during a 40-day period, had suspended classes on 20 days for different reasons. After implementing the oversight process, the same school successfully provided 99% of the class days required by law the following year.

This initiative emerged from a series of meetings organized by Transformemos Honduras (“Let’s Transform Honduras”). These meetings, called tarde de café con sabor a esperanza (“conversations flavored with hope”), brought together various community leaders around a common goal, namely, that their communities would have educational centers that provide high-quality education. These leaders carried out a community diagnosis which examined the reality faced by each of the schools, including their specific strengths and weaknesses, and the process led to a decision to systematically monitor the schools’ activities and ensure that the services they provided met higher quality standards.

This important community decision propelled the implementation of community watchdog processes across the education sector, resulting in meetings with local authorities as well as the highest educational authorities in the country. Training was developed for local community members on social oversight and about legal regulations concerning citizens’ rights and duties. Then they coordinated with the educational authorities at different levels, including school principals, to proceed with the implementation of the school oversight committees. Reaching out to these decision makers was critical in explaining that the oversight process is intended as an opportunity to improve the school’s quality and ultimately to benefit the children.

Oversight committee meetings became spaces of learning and citizen empowerment, since at the beginning the members had many fears of approaching the teachers. Historically, there has been a vertical relationship between teachers and community members. In some cases, the same teachers had taught these committee members when they were children, so visiting the teachers now as adults in an oversight role became a huge challenge. The constant technical support the project provided to the committees in the early stages of their implementation was a critical element for the achievement of the positive results enjoyed today.

School oversight committees have been successful in pressing for and monitoring school progress in key areas. So, for example, oversight committees have undertaken daily monitoring exercises that have tracked when schools are open, monitoring schools’ commitment to fulfilling the 200 days of school required by law. Observers from the committees are distributed to the educational centers and daily write in a notebook whether classes are in session, to verify compliance with the law.

Observers also collect information to document the use of class time in schools, by making visits to the school without prior notice to teachers. They fill in a form to collect information regarding the schedules, duration of classes, activities that interrupt classes, presence of teachers, principals and parents in the center and good practices. The results of the data are used to advocate to the authorities so that the one thousand hours of class required per year are used effectively.

The oversight committees consolidate and analyze the information they gather, generating a preliminary report on the schools in their communities, complete with findings and recommendations for improvement. This report is shared with the school principals for them to review and validate. If school principals have any observations about these reports, they can send them to the committee with supporting documentation to make the pertinent corrections. Then the revised, final report is delivered to the relevant government authorities and shared with other stakeholders, such as parents and teachers.

A commitment is obtained from the principals to consider the recommendations made in the reports and to prepare improvement plans, which include concrete actions that respond to the recommendations and improve the quality of service provided. The improvement plans are monitored by the oversight committees who use a table to track which activities are carried out and which are not. This oversight exerts healthy pressure on the schools to comply with the plans.

The challenge in making school oversight committees into truly effective bodies that strengthen school quality and foster greater accountability by schools to their surrounding communities is constant and great. Yet, as Doña Alma, an oversight committee member, observes: “Although two of my grandchildren have been killed, I believe I have a civic duty to fight for all the children of my community to have a different future. Even if some teachers don’t like it, I will continue with my work in the oversight committee because I do not lose hope that the situation in my country will improve.” It is truly everyone’s responsibility to ensure the education of our children. School oversight committees are a concrete way that communities can exercise this responsibility.

Blanca Mungía works with the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, an MCC partner.

Learn more

Website for the Association for a More Just Society. Available at http://asjhonduras.com/webhn/transformemos-honduras/ (Spanish).

Strengthening School Management Committees


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

With the decentralization of educational governance over the past 15 years in Nepal, community participation in school management has become a vital component of improved quality of education. The government in Nepal has begun encouraging the use of School Management Committees (SMCs) as a means of ensuring community involvement in schools’ decision-making processes. Strengthening these committees is one of the most effective ways non-governmental organizations like MCC and its partners can contribute to improving the quality of education.

In Nepal, the law requires every school to form an SMC composed of nine members, at least three of whom must be female. Members are elected for three-year terms, with committees including representatives from the local community, government and education offices, intellectual and philanthropic communities, a founding member of the school and the head teacher. Government-mandated roles of SMCs in Nepal are to assess teacher performance, identify and mobilize local resources, coordinate with stakeholders who might contribute toward the school’s development (donor agencies, NGOs, government offices), develop and monitor school improvement plans, oversee regular audits of the school’s financial management and motivate parents and community members toward greater ownership and accountability.

In practice, MCC and its partners have found that, despite legal requirements, many schools do not yet have an SMC that actively understands and operates according to its mandate. Bal Krishna Maharjan, strategy advisor for MCC partner organization Sansthagat Bikas Sanjal, explains that prior to implementing the organization’s MCC-funded education project, the SMCs they worked with functioned only in a rudimentary way, which tended to create an environment that enabled poor accountability and teacher performance (and, in turn, poor academic results). Similarly, Suresh Adhikari, program coordinator of Sanjal’s partner, the Hilly Rural Development Organization Northern Morang (HRDON), found that there was a significant lack of coordination among students, parents, SMCs and NGOs. With limited trust and accountability, students in the region where HRDON operates did not attend class regularly and expected to be promoted regardless of their performance.

Understanding the vital role of SMCs in improving quality of education for students, Sanjal and HRDON intentionally incorporated SMC capacity-building activities into the design of their rural education project. Among the strategies they found to be most effective in Nepal’s context were: orienting SMC members to their roles and responsibilities; regularly coaching SMCs in the process of developing and monitoring school improvement plans; organizing joint meetings between teachers and SMC members to discuss vision and goals; helping SMCs develop guidelines for raising funds to support school improvements; and creating criteria for SMCs to carry out teachers’ annual performance evaluations.

Sanjal and HRDON have found that the impact of strengthened SMCs on school and student performance is profound in several important ways. First, the participatory approaches used by SMCs have led to an increased sense of community ownership over schools. Adhikari explains that “SMC members are now actively involved in setting goals related to improving the quality of education, especially increasing the number of students and improving school infrastructure. The SMC members even contributed to the construction of a new two-room school structure by raising funds and carrying gravel from over three hours away!” Active involvement of SMCs has also increased the schools’ access to educational resources and to teachers with training in specific subject areas. Maharjan explains that in his working area, SMC members began to assume an active role in building relationships with government line agencies and sending delegates to district education office meetings, all of which eventually led to much-needed financial and infrastructure support for their schools.

Teachers now also feel a greater sense of accountability to their schools and to SMCs. With SMCs requiring annual evaluations on teacher performance, teachers are compelled to attend classes regularly, participate in professional development opportunities and meet basic teaching standards. SMC members have also become engaged in student enrollment campaigns, parental counseling and advocacy for local peace and justice initiatives. In HRDON’s working area, SMC members became actively involved in supporting schools’ “child clubs” to create awareness around the harmful impacts of child marriage, offer counseling to parents and students and support students who had run away to re-enroll in school. Beyond promoting academic performance, SMCs can thus play a significant role in engaging young people and parents in a variety of relevant social issues.

While significant improvements to school management committee capacity have been made, there remain several challenges and obstacles. While SMCs in Nepal have a mandate to carry out annual performance evaluations, they do not currently have adequate authority to take action against poor teacher performance. Consequently, teacher performance continues to hinder change in schools to a certain extent. In addition, in geographic areas characterized by difficult terrain and long walks to and from school, it is challenging for SMC members to find time to meet regularly.

Among the biggest learnings around the promotion of SMCs by MCC Nepal and its partners is the acknowledgment that building the capacity of SMCs should be an integral component of any education project. Both Sanjal and HRDON have found that the most effective strategy to strengthen SMCs is simply regular and systematic coaching from NGO staff. With adequate SMC support, schools are able to comply with government regulations while also creating a flourishing and transparent community in which administrators, teachers, parents and students can collectively thrive.

Juliana Yonzon (program coordinator) and Daphne Hollinger Fowler (representative) serve with MCC Nepal.

Communication between school, students and parents


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

“To work in education effectively and successfully, one cannot work alone,” says Esther Pierre, principal of Fodation Œcumenique pour la Paix et la Justice (FOPJ), an MCC-supported school located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. For Pierre, success in education is the result of three key groups—school staff, students and parents—working together. “In Haiti, we have a proverb that says, ‘If you balance a pot on three rocks to cook, but one of the rocks is missing, the pot will never boil.’ This is why it is important for the school staff to work hand-in-hand with the students and their families to be successful.”

The Haitian education system faces unique challenges. With 85% of schools being run by non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations, churches and private organizations, Haitian families face high tuition costs (USAID, 2017). The average cost per student for primary school is US$154/year, which amounts to 21% of the average GDP per capita in Haiti (World Bank, 2015). For many families in Port-au-Prince slums, this represents an insurmountable cost.

FOPJ, located in the slum of Kafou Fey on the southern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, provides primary education to local students at no cost or for a small fee, based on family income. Kafou Fey is often considered one of the most violent neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, facing high rates of gang activity. One-fourth of the FOPJ’s students are classified as restaveks (vulnerable young children, most frequently girls, from the countryside sent to live with family in the city to perform domestic labor in return for lodging, food and school), while another half of the students are children being raised by a single parent.

Within a challenging context, Pierre and her colleagues at FOPJ have found creative ways to actively engage parents in the school, with the aim of supporting students’ academic and personal success. In Pierre’s experience, there are four primary ways to facilitate the engagement of parents and students: school committees; effective communication; personal relationships; and parent meetings.

While parents at FOPJ do not have disposable income to donate to the school, Pierre encourages them to join committees which allow them to be involved with school activities such as clean-up days, organizing special events, gardening and recruitment of new students. These committees offer parents opportunities to give back as well as see the inner workings of the school, in turn giving them more confidence in the quality of education their children are receiving. “If they have confidence in what you are doing, you can encourage them to become a part of the school,” Pierre observes. School committees have succeeded in attracting parental involvement: participating parents encourage and recruit parents of new students to join committees.

FOPJ’s director and staff have found that maintaining effective communication not only with students, but with parents as well, is vital to foster parental engagement. Communication with parents should include updates about students’ academic performance, behavior and attitude towards others. Pierre believes that by practicing open and honest communication, school administrators create a learning environment in which parents and students can share questions, concerns and needs. “The director must learn to listen to the parents and children regarding the relationships that exist within the home, and keep that information confidential,” Pierre maintains. When parents are informed about what their children are learning and feel included in their children’s education, they are more deeply invested in seeing their child succeed and in supporting the school.

For Pierre, her job includes more than an interest in the academic success of her students. Understanding that turmoil within the personal life of a student can manifest itself through poor behavior or academic achievement, Pierre makes a point of forming personal relationships with students and parents in order to build trust and offer assistance when able. “People think that in order to have a relationship you need money or status, but if you consider everyone a person, you can have a relationship with all,” notes Pierre. “If I see that there is something troubling in the home of a student, I address it after I form a relationship with the parent and student, not before. When I am building a relationship with them, I just want to ensure that they know they have value.”

As a result of the strong relationships Pierre has formed with parents, she has found success in planning parent meetings as a way of updating the parents on school events and student activities and reinforcing the importance of their children’s education. Despite parents at FOPJ often working long hours to provide for their families, many parents still place high priority on attending the meetings. Even if a parent is unable to attend, Pierre remarks that they often pass by the school as soon as possible to receive the information shared at the meeting. These meetings require great effort from Pierre and her team, as they spend hours calling parents individually to remind them about the meetings: distributing printed schedules was not successful with the school’s parents, who are predominantly illiterate. Pierre also stresses the importance of having multiple staff and teachers present at the parent meetings. “It is important for them to see we are a team,” says Pierre. “It is not only one person who is doing this work. They need to know that whatever happens, it is the whole team who will respond.”

Engaging parents in the education of their students requires additional time, effort and creativity on the part of school staff. It means taking a holistic approach that considers the academic and personal lives of students, while making meaningful connections with their families.

Alexis Kreiner is assistant representative for MCC Haiti. Esther Pierre serves as principal of Fodation Œcumenique pour la Paix et la Justice (FOPJ) in Port-au-Prince.

Learn more

Avvisati, Fransecso, Bruno Besbas and Nina Guyon. “Parental Involvement in School: Literature Review” Revue D’Économie Politque 120/5 (2010): 759-778. Available at https://www.cairn.info/revue-d-economie-politique-2010-5-page-759.htm.

Islam, Assadul. “Parental Involvement in Education: Evidence from Field Experiments in Development Countries.” Monash Business School Discussion Paper No. 02/17 (2017). Available at https://www.monash.edu/business/economics/research/publications/ publications2/0217parentalislam.pdf.

Lunde, Henriette. “Youth and Education in Haiti: Disincentives, Vulnerabilities and Constraints.” Oslo: Fafo, 2008. Available at https://www.haiti-now.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Youth-and-Education-In-Haiti-FAFO-2008.pdf

Participación comunitaria en la educación (Verano 2019)


[Articulos Individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Verano del 2019 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

El CCM invierte una cantidad significativa de recursos para brindar acceso a una educación de calidad, creyendo que este es un ingrediente clave para construir comunidades saludables y sostenibles. Este énfasis se alinea con el llamado a la educación primaria universal en los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio de las Naciones Unidas (2000) y los Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible más recientes (2015), que en conjunto reflejan un consenso creciente de que, garantizar solo el acceso a la educación no es suficiente y, en cambio, debe haber un compromiso con “una educación de calidad inclusiva y equitativa” para todas las personas.

Basándose en una larga historia de apoyo a la educación mediante la colocación de personas trabajadoras del CCM como maestras y maestros en las escuelas y el pago de cuotas escolares para estudiantes individuales, el enfoque del CCM se ha ido orientando gradualmente hacia modelos que se centran más en fortalecer a las organizaciones educativas locales. Este cambio surge de la conciencia de que la educación—muy a menudo importada por los poderes coloniales y beneficiosa solo para unos pocos individuos seleccionados—debe estar conformada y pertenecer a las comunidades locales para lograr un cambio positivo a nivel comunitario.

Este número de Intersections explora las muchas maneras en que la participación comunitaria puede hacer que los esfuerzos educativos sean más efectivos, responsables, relevantes y sostenibles. Comenzamos con la importante pregunta de cómo el personal de la escuela puede desarrollar una buena comunicación y colaboración con las madres/padres y el estudiantado para reducir la desconexión que, a menudo, existe entre las escuelas y las familias. Luego profundizamos para ver cómo las estructuras formales tales como los comités de gestión escolar o los comités de supervisión pueden otorgar a los miembros de la comunidad un papel activo en la toma de decisiones sobre las prioridades escolares, responsabilizar a los docentes y administrar los recursos financieros y de otro tipo que pueden aprovecharse para mejorar el aprendizaje del estudiantado. También vemos la experiencia de una organización asociada en el apoyo a modelos liderados por la comunidad para la educación de la primera infancia y examinamos la importancia del papel de la comunidad en la protección infantil. Finalmente, aprendemos de una escuela tribal en Odisha, India, sobre cómo la apropiación de las comunidades indígenas en el nivel más profundo puede moldear el ethos e identidad de una escuela y, en última instancia, marcar la diferencia entre que la educación sea una herramienta de opresión impuesta por una cultura dominante o la herramienta de empoderamiento de la comunidad que aspiramos a que sea.

Lynn Longenecker es el coordinador de educación del CCM.

Community participation in education (Summer 2019)


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC invests significant resources into providing access to quality education, believing this is a key ingredient for building healthy, sustainable communities. This emphasis aligns with the call for universal primary education in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (2000) and the more recent Sustainable Development Goals (2015), which together reflect a growing consensus that access alone is not enough and a commitment instead to “inclusive and equitable quality education” for all.

Building on a long history of supporting education through placing MCC workers as teachers in schools and paying school fees for individual students, MCC’s approach has gradually shifted toward models that focus more on strengthening local education partners. This shift grows out of an awareness that education—too often imported by colonial powers and beneficial for only a select few individuals—must be shaped and owned by local communities if it is to truly bring positive change at the community level.

This issue of Intersections explores the many ways community participation can make education efforts more effective, accountable, relevant and sustainable. We begin with the important question of how school staff can develop good communication and collaboration with parents and students to reduce the disconnect that often exists between schools and families. Then we dig deeper to see how formal structures like school management committees or oversight committees can give community members an active role in making decisions about school priorities, holding teachers accountable and managing financial and other resources that can be leveraged to improve student learning. We also look at one partner’s experience with supporting community-led models for early childhood education and examine the importance of the community’s role in child protection. Finally, we learn from a tribal school in Odisha, India, about how Indigenous community ownership at the deepest level can shape a school’s ethos and identity and ultimately make the difference between education being a tool of oppression imposed by a dominant culture or the tool of community empowerment that we aspire for it to be.

Lynn Longenecker is MCC’s education coordinator.

Lessons in gendered project design: reflections from Cambodia


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Both large development actors, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and small community-based organizations, like many of MCC’s partners, offer gender equality as a response to a wide range of social ills in the face of continued challenges. MCC affirms basic gender equality principles, such as women and girls having equal access to education, economic opportunities and resources. However, there remains a disconnect between funders’ theoretical perspectives on gender equality and local organizations’ capacity to design and implement projects that take gender seriously. For the most part, local partners are willing to work for gender equality; the disconnect, then, occurs because of unrealistic donor expectations that translate into ineffective project design at the local level. In this article, I examine challenges MCC’s Cambodian partners have faced when engaging funding organizations in designing and implementing development projects that seek to address gender equality.

For over three decades now, much of MCC’s work has been primarily carried out through partnerships with local actors (churches, community-based organizations and more). More recently, other development actors have also begun to affirm that localized partnerships are critical to community transformation. However, the partnership model brings its own challenges, including the challenge of how funding agencies communicate various expectations to their local partners. A particularly pertinent example is the difficulty of translating expectations regarding gender equality in project design and implementation, with continued gaps between funders’ expectations, on the one hand, and local partners’ reality, on the other.

As development efforts become increasingly professionalized, they come with an ever more complex vocabulary. Specialized vocabulary can create significant barriers to local partners. These barriers are particularly pronounced for language regarding gendered aspects of projects. For example, a recent call for proposals from an external funder to MCC asked that projects ideally be “gender transformative” as opposed to “gender
sensitive.” This choice of vocabulary led to confusion and apprehension by MCC’s partner organization that their project would not be approved if was not deemed “gender transformative.” While the partner indeed values the goals behind this term, they feared that their proposal would not be selected for funding because they had not used the funder’s exact terminology.

When gender-related concepts are unclear or poorly defined, they become unapproachable for local partners involved in project design, which disempowers those best positioned to structure projects in ways that address the needs of women and girls. Much development language is English-based, which presents significant barriers to development practitioners in small local organizations due to challenges in translating concepts into different cultural and linguistic contexts. This challenge is not limited to gender-related development matters, but it clearly plays out in this space. For example, several Cambodian organizations with which MCC partners have few employees who speak English, so concepts and ideas that are not easily translatable into Khmer remain inaccessible to much of the team. This experience has been referred to as the “untranslatability of concepts” (Footitt, Crack and Tesseur, 2018). The Khmer language, for example, does not include separate terms for gender, sex or feminism. Typically, when MCC’s Cambodian partners discuss how gender is being accounted for in project planning and implementation, they use English terms. It becomes difficult for the entire project team to fully understand how gender analysis is shaping project design and implementation since much of the information is subject to translation and contextualisation. In order to address such challenges, Footitt, Crack and Tesseur recommend more intentional work around language and cultural awareness among program teams as well as specific resources for language support for projects. MCC could do further work clarifying expectations around how conversations about gender are conducted and providing training for partner staff on what we mean when we talk about gender.

This challenge of language is compounded by differences in cultural expectations around gender. Gender equality is an often sensitive subject, so the imposition of foreign funders’ understanding of gender equality poses particular challenges. It can become tricky to balance respect for culturally embedded behaviours and practices related to gender while also maintaining a commitment not to unintentionally reinforce unjust systems that deny women’s freedom and agency. The significant power differential between funding agencies (like MCC) and community-based partner organizations means that partners will work hard to satisfy donor expectations. At its worst, this desire to please donors can result in projects that may check all the right boxes for the donor, but, when put into practice, fail to actually address gender inequality. Projects designed for funders versus those that truly address inequality are far too common.

The power dynamic is further felt in what local partners can experience as a double standard for funders and their local partners. Recently, an MCC partner organization in Cambodia asked why funders require local organizations to address gender equality in project staffing and design when funders themselves are not practicing gender equality in their own staffing practices. This conversation pointed to the double standards between local partners and funding institutions around accountability for certain practices. This double standard causes the local partner to distrust the funder. It also communicated that gender is not truly important to the funder, regardless of rhetoric used.

Addressing local gender dynamics in the design, implementation and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of development projects is essential to projects’ long-term success. At the same time, development projects that incorporate poorly-understood gender concepts into their design simply to meet donor requirements will not produce sustainable change. How to work with local partners in a way that addresses gender equality in a contextually meaningful way thus represents an ongoing challenge for organizations like MCC. There are no perfect solutions to this challenge. That said, an important starting point is awareness of language used when communicating with local partners. Language must be fully accessible to local partners; otherwise, it becomes meaningless while reinforcing imbalanced power dynamics. Also, if funding agencies push local partners for gender parity within their organizations, they must seek to follow standards of gender equality in their own staffing. Sustained attention to gender equality truly has the power to transform societies. However, if funders’ expectations and behaviours are not responsive to local partners’ capacities, it will be impossible for projects to sustainably address gender inequality.

Tyler Loewen is MCC Cambodia planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting coordinator.

Learn More

Footitt, Hilary, Angela Crack and Wine Tesseur. Respecting Communities in International Development: Language and Cultural Understanding. Arts and Humanities Research Council June 2018. Available at: https://www.chsalliance.org/files/files/ Listening_zones_report_-EN.pdf.

To know and be known: reflections from a woman leader


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

How has my identity affected how I work with and support churches and communities? From the inside out, in the place of formation—a woman created, knitted together in my mother’s womb. Born into a world that shouts your identity and tries to define you before you are personally self-aware, I had to take a journey in what I call “core confidence,” knowing who I am as a beloved daughter of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

As the oldest daughter of parents of two children, both girls, I observed early the outside world’s perspective on our family. My father, a pastor, often had male mentees who would assume there was a vacant place for a son. Many of them lamented for my father, suggesting that something was incomplete in his life, in our lives, because there was no male child in our family to learn the way of the “family business.” Well, are ministry, service and calling a family business? These mentees made statements like, “I’m your son, Pastor. Teach me, I’ll be by your side.” It was as if they were on a rescue mission for my father’s ministry, calling and gifts, which might be lost because there was no male to whom to pass on his ministry. Were my sister and I not enough?

There was a great deal of gender bias that I absorbed and was a part of, as well, in my own projections of myself and of other women. Growing up, my sister and I never thought we would be leaders in the church or in church-affiliated organizations. Our service in the church would be as a Sunday school teacher, worship team leader or youth leader, and we were content with that. The thought of any leadership roles in the church never crossed my mind, nor did anyone ever ask about or name our gifts with titles that were traditionally reserved for males. In my late twenties, I started to experience a shift in the types of responsibilities and service to which I was feeling called and drawn. How could these callings be living in the skin I’m in—Camp Pastor, Program Director, Conference Speaker, Lead Pastor, Oversight Minister?

A pouring came into my life, a flood of opportunities. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28). My gifts, professional skills and experience were opening doors and leading to invitations for roles in my local context that had been traditionally filled by and reserved for males. Our communities and cultures are so deeply steeped in tradition, a tradition that has often been mistaken for the Gospel. But Jesus modeled the value of women in spaces despite the customs, rituals and traditions of his day. His active love moved to heal, restore, liberate and empower women. Throughout the gospels, Jesus hears the voices of women and does not silence them. They, too, were a part of his inner circle. Women provoked, inspired and even filled Jesus with expanded compassion.

As I responded to these calls, the way I had been knit together started to emerge, gradually revealing the me as I was before the seeming restriction of my body. Like a child in the womb, developing so she can later become free and evolve, I slowly discovered that my gifts were areas for growth, not restriction. Before I could expect others to accept me for who I am in my varied roles, I had to admit my own inner worth, value and purpose, and commit to those truths daily. Difference and gender can be spaces that easily unhinge confidence and cause an internal tug and pull of self-worth. If I am welcomed and joyfully received everywhere, but internally doubt my value, then I will always be emotionally tossed back and forth by every word of praise or disregard.

During this season in my life, I began to seek out mentors, other women in leadership and pastoral roles who could walk alongside me, sharing the journey together. One of the essential spaces in this area of development has been a mentoring group, Radical Anabaptist Women (RAW). This group of women supports and mentors other women as they discern call, ministry and service. This group has helped me on the journey as one of God’s leading ladies.

Even with these supportive mentors, I still faced challenges as I took on leadership roles. For about eight years, my husband and I were co-pastors of the congregation formerly led by my father. On one occasion, the church hosted an event with a Christian comedian. Due to another obligation, my husband could not attend, so I was representing both of us. When the comedian arrived, I was introduced to him as the pastor. During his show, I sat on the front row, and, every time he did something that included audience participation, he would refer to me as the “first lady.” In many African American churches, the title “first lady” is reserved for the pastor’s wife. Yes, I was the pastor’s wife, but I was also a pastor. After about the third time he used this reference, several men and women in the audience yelled back “PASTOR!” This Christian brother could not and would not acknowledge me in my pastoral role; he could only see me from one perspective. He was in a box and wanted to keep me in one, too.

Our narrow spaces can become our equipping spaces. There is a difference between social boundaries for development and imposed boundaries of oppression. Learning to live into the who and the how of my identity started with embracing a fundamental truth in my life: I’m fearfully and wonderfully made, and God pours out his spirit on all flesh. These scriptures, among many others, have become a protective covering for the truth that I have hidden in my heart and embrace with my life. I have come to a place of personal declaration. This same truth compels me to be gracious to those who attempt to box me into their definition of “me.”

There are times when my voice or contributions have been minimized and rejected because of gender. I have learned that my value and worth as a woman cannot be defined by the imposed traditions of others. Staying rooted in God’s words anchors me in spaces that historically reject and minimize me. Whether I am considered as a woman, black woman, leader, mother, wife, pastor, colleague, friend, sister or neighbor, I am fearfully and wonderfully made!

Hyacinth Stevens is the New York City program coordinator for MCC East Coast.


Learn More

McKenzie, Vashti. Not Without a Struggle: Leadership for African American Women in Ministry. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press. 2011.

Adapting family planning initiatives to respond to the needs of faith communities in Senegal


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In recent years, Senegal has made significant strides in several development areas, including gender parity and access to family planning services. Maternal and child mortality have decreased significantly since 2005 but remain high compared to global rates. Many of these deaths are from avoidable causes. Improving maternal and child health, notably through family planning, is a priority for Senegal’s government. Although the contraceptive prevalence rate has doubled since 2012, only 27.8 percent of married women are currently using any method of contraception. Another one in five married women wants to use a contraceptive method, but currently cannot do so.

Religious institutions and beliefs shape many aspects of life in Senegal, but systematic approaches to linking these dimensions to development policies and programs have been rare. Despite recognition that faith leaders can play important roles in family planning, some stakeholders have been cautious to engage them out of concern that influential leaders may take firm, anti-family planning positions. At the same time, rumors have circulated about what faith traditions say about family planning, with little clear guidance from faith leaders. In that context, World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) facilitated discussions in 2014 with a group of Senegalese faith leaders to explore issues of maternal and child mortality and family planning. After building consensus on what religious teachings say about family planning, the group formed into the Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement (CRSD), an interfaith association that brings together leaders from prominent Sufi orders of Senegal, other major Islamic institutions and the country’s Catholic and Lutheran churches.

As faith leaders with a deep understanding of religious sensitivities, CRSD members have developed strategies that align with religious teachings and are appropriate for the local context in order to encourage broad shifts in attitudes and behaviors related to family planning. Activities include visits to meet with the leaders of Senegal’s principal religious communities; workshops for community groups of religious women; workshops during significant religious events and holy periods, such as Ramadan; and media outreach through radio, television and print. This mix of approaches targets religious leadership at both the national and local levels.

Engaging women through religious networks, both Christian and Muslim, has emerged as a central and particularly successful strategy for family planning efforts. In 2015, CRSD partnered with a midwife to develop workshops that bring technical and religious perspectives into the same conversation. The workshops educate participants on family planning, addressing common myths and rumors and explaining various methods. After piloting the program, CRSD scaled up the work through a training-of-trainers model, directly reaching over 40,000 Senegalese in all 14 regions of the country.

CRSD’s workshop focuses on dispelling misinformation by providing accurate and accessible information on family planning. For example, one commonly held belief is that religion is against family planning, so messaging focuses on the holistic well-being of the family, emphasizing to participants the need to be able to provide for the children they do have. Another common misconception is that family planning is a Western effort to reduce the number of Muslims in the world, with some Sengalese making comments like, “If you look closely, you ask yourself whether Westerners are promoting birth spacing, or if they’re really aiming for birth limitation.” The workshops for Muslim communities, therefore, draw on the Qur’an and the hadith (sayings about the Prophet Muhammad) to show that traditional methods of family planning exist in Islam and that religious teachings promote healthy timing and spacing of births. Discussants draw parallels between the traditional methods found in Islam and the modern methods available today. Some people also believe that women who want to use family planning are promiscuous; by partnering with a midwife to provide accurate medical information to participants, CRSD counters such beliefs and emphasizes that family planning has health benefits for mothers and children.

Although the workshops initially targeted women, men’s engagement has emerged as a priority area. CRSD members have noted that few couples have substantive discussions about family planning. In many cases, men are or perceive themselves to be the principal authority on family planning decisions. Men’s focus groups revealed a range of perspectives on decision making, but many participants echoed this statement from a man who was asked whether or not he had ever discussed birth spacing with his wife: “No, no, no. Regarding birth spacing, well, that’s my decision. If my wife has a kid, it’s me who can let her go five years without giving her a child.” CRSD has worked to convince men to attend workshops with their wives and has included more messaging around joint decision-making. And that effort has paid off—in 2017, 31 percent of participants in CRSD’s workshops were men.

WFDD and CRSD have made considerable progress in dispelling myths about what religious teachings have to say about family planning, but several key challenges persist. Among married women and men in Senegal, the ideal number of children is largely unchanged; society remains staunchly pro-natalist, yet there is a lack of awareness that high fertility rates are linked to maternal and infant mortality. Moving forward, we are continuing to work with CRSD to develop new and innovative approaches that respond to these challenges.

Lauren Herzog is program coordinator and Wilma Mui is program associate at the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Changing health behaviors, especially our most personal behaviors, is extremely difficult. Trying to do this against the grain of local values, traditions and religious beliefs and without local support is generally ineffective and often counterproductive. Doing effective “behavior change communication” (as it is often called) in the diverse contexts where MCC works requires deep local knowledge, ability to adapt to local realities and creativity in finding ways to engage with local power structures and religious communities in a way that takes cultural beliefs and understandings of gender into account. So-called best practices, however well-intentioned and research-based, can rarely be successfully copy-and-pasted between different cultural contexts.

Providing women’s health education in the highly rural Central Highlands of Afghanistan, for example, is only possible with the full support of local Islamic religious leaders, community elders and men more broadly. Getting such buy-in for the MCC-supported maternal and child health projects in that area has required deep adaptation to and respect for local traditions and beliefs, including allowing male religious leaders to be present during group sessions, supporting male relatives to accompany local female staff in their work and prioritizing approaches that are realistic for women to implement within this context. It is not always comfortable or straightforward to negotiate these dynamics, especially when working across wide cultural and religious divides, but doing so is essential if we care about making progress on women’s health across the varied contexts of MCC’s programs.

The article by Herzog and Mui about WFDD’s family planning work in Senegal shows what this negotiated contextualization of programming can look like when scaled up to a national level and when that contextualization is seen as part of the intervention itself, rather than just one step in project design. MCC has similarly found through its work with partners to improve women’s health that taking local understandings of gender into account when planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating those women’s health initiatives is vital to their success.

Paul Shetler Fast is MCC’s health coordinator.

Learn More

Levy, Noam N. “Pope Francis Isn’t the Only Religious Leader to Give a Surprising Boost to Contraception.” Los Angeles Times. February 19, 2019. Available at https://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fgcontraception-world-religion-20160219-tory.html.

Herzog, Lauren. “Building Consensus for Family Planning Among Senegal’s Faith Communities.” World Faiths Development Dialogue Briefing. July 2017. Available at https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/publications/building-consensus-for-familyplanning-among-senegal-s-faithcommunities.

Impact Staff. “Muslim Leaders in Senegal are Improving Women’s Access to Contraceptives.” Vice Impact. Sept 21, 2017. Available at https://impact.vice.com/en_us/article/43axbp/muslim-leaders-insenegal-are-improving-womensaccess-to-contraceptives.

Gender equality as presupposition: the story of ANADES in El Salvador


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Founded among women of rural base communities towards the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war of the 1980s, the Asociacion Nuevo Amanecer de El Salvador (ANADES) has a long history of accompanying colectivos (collectives) of women in urban and rural communities across the country. Staff and leadership at ANADES have spent decades refining their development approach, an approach marked by a commitment to gender equality and women-centered education, community development and public advocacy efforts. ANADES’ continuing self-reflection and analysis have generated a rich body of knowledge and learning around gender equality in development work. In November of this past year, I sat down with three staff members from ANADES—Ana Mirian Ayala, Nery Rivas and Gilma Escalante—to talk about what they have learned over these many years of work. What follows is a summary of our wide-ranging conversation, including lessons from ANADES about what have been critical components in its work to promote
gender equality.

ANADES’ formation among colectivos of women widowed by violence during El Salvador’s bloody civil war grounds and anchors its work with women and gender. According to Ayala, ANADES’ vision is shaped by what justice “looks like” to these communities of marginalized women in El Salvador: through its work with the colectivos, ANADES supports these women’s groups in striving toward a future of justice and equality. Ayala, Rivas and Escalante view this shared history as an advantage for ANADES’ day-to-day work, because it makes gender equality something of a “presupposition” or shared assumption for all that ANADES undertakes. For Rivas, the long and continuing history of ANADES’ work and self-reflection in the area of gender equality is an essential dimension of its identity.

Rivas and Escalante both underscored the practical necessity of gender equality in ANADES’ education, development and public advocacy work. If ANADES is going to have a long-term, sustainable impact on the social, political and economic structures that generate inequality, injustice and exclusion, it must work with the most marginalized populations, in this case, women. While acknowledging the marginalization of other populations in communities across El Salvador, ANADES focuses on promoting gender equality through women’s colectivos, because these women have faced human rights violations and extreme exclusion due to their gender. Without a focus on gender equality, Rivas contends, instead of achieving “inclusive and holistic development … we merely end up replicating the same social structure, maybe with a few more resources at each level of the structure, but we still have the same discrimination and exclusion, with people better off, but still facing the same social realities.”

While ANADES’ history of rootedness in El Salvador’s colectivos is of course particular to that country’s context, ANADES’ experience could suggest a lesson for other organizations, namely, the importance of developing and maintaining a narrative framework or a story that connects an organization’s individual initiatives to a vision of a more just and equitable world. Instead of viewing gender equality solely as a pragmatic matter of improving project outcomes, the lesson of ANADES is that gender equality needs to be part of a vision and a story that guides an organization, representing a coherent philosophy that grounds its work.

MCC supports ANADES in multiple ways, including by placing young adults from MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) and Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) programs at its day care centers in San Salvador and rural Perquín and through grant support for ANADES’ agroecology, youth and health programs. These programs emerge from the priorities set by the colectivos of women, but also are part of a strategy to address gender equality at all stages of life. In Ayala’s words, gender equality work requires engagement with children in their day care centers and participants in youth groups.

Working across the life course allows ANADES to better address one of the most significant challenges in gender equality work, namely, the unequal distribution of work in the domestic sphere. While ANADES works to increase women’s participation in the social, political and economic life of their communities, women routinely remain responsible for the tasks of child rearing and housekeeping. Women who seek engagement in their communities add on a “third shift” to their first and second shifts of housework and paid work outside the home. Ayala laid out how the day care exists to support women’s participation in community life outside of the domestic sphere and how day care staff work tirelessly to engage fathers in the raising of their children. When resources are available, community development projects work with men to build buy-in and support for women’s participation in project activities and to engage men in discussions of male identity and patriarchy.

All three ANADES leaders emphasized the importance of public advocacy to local and national governments to increase and improve social welfare provisions. Small, non-profit organizations like ANADES, they stressed, do not have the capacity to provide broad-based social welfare programs that can free women from some of their domestic tasks and allow for greater participation in community life.

Ayala and Rivas underscored the importance of ANADES constantly working to ensure that its own institutional practices match its vision of gender equality. Ayala proudly ticked off the gender representation ANADES has achieved from the governance level to all staff levels: the board president and treasurer are women, two of the four remaining board members are also women, while 27 of ANADES’ 39 full-time staff members are women.

Provocatively, Ayala followed up this listing of ANADES’s achievements in gender representation by stating that “this means nothing to me if the women are themselves machistas” (a Spanish term referring a particular kind of misogyny based in certain patterns of shared Latin American culture): ANADES wants women leading its efforts not solely on the basis of their gender, but because of their commitment to gender equality. Ayala explained that “it is important to constantly train staff, to engage in self and collective reflection and have written and enforcement policies in the organization that lay out what are the expectations for staff in the area of gender discrimination.” Project participants also need to be aware of ANADES’ codes of conduct for its staff and of mechanisms for lodging complaints if staff do not live up to these expectations. Escalante concurred that striving for gender equality requires a constant learning process for individual staff members and for ANADES as an organization. Rivas added that the challenge of working for gender equality within ANADES mirrors the broader challenge of working for gender equality across El Salvador’s marginalized communities. When ANADES develops policies, procedures, professional development programs and codes of conduct related to gender equality, these serve as signposts and guardrails on the road to developing an organizational culture that matches ANADES’ vision of more just, more inclusive and more equal communities in El Salvador.

A key lesson from ANADES’ gender equality work that is easy to overlook is the foundational importance of trusting women. Rivas expresses it well: “our work in ANADES can’t violate an already violated population.” If the goal of gender equality work is to create spaces of freedom and liberation for women to achieve their individually- and collectively-generated goals and personhood, the methods used to achieve those goals must allow women to experience and practice that kind of liberation and freedom.

Having men (or women) from an outside institution scolding women for lack of participation or treating them as children in need of enlightenment must end, ANADES’ leaders emphasized. Instead, ANADES insists on treating women who take part in its programs as adults in need of spaces for free expression of their needs, desires and dreams. The question is not whether women will succeed or fail in some narrowly defined sense, but rather whether through their collaborative work they will begin to exercise freedom and experience liberation from the exclusion and injustice that mark their lives.

One hour-long conversation cannot, of course, do justice to all that can be learned from the successes and challenges of ANADES’s long history of gender equality work. The discussion with ANADES leaders did, however, highlight several potential lessons from ANADES’ experience that may be relevant for other ways that MCC and its partners work for gender equality in other contexts: ground gender equality efforts in a shared story and vision of justice and equality; work with women at various stages of life; address the impact of the domestic sphere on women’s broader participation in society; embed gender equality principles within one’s own institutional policies and practices; and trust in women’s insights and capacities. Taken together, these lessons from ANADES’ experience give MCC important clues about how to work with our partners to reduce gender-based discrimination and exclusion.

Jack Lesniewski is MCC representative for Guatemala and El Salvador, together with his spouse, Sarah. He interviewed three ANADES leaders: Ana Mirian Ayala (executive director), Gila Maritza Escalante (social promoter) and Nery Misael Rivas (civic participation coordinator).

Learn More

ANADES website: anades.org/wp/

Elevating and empowering women’s voices in Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) is a grassroots, rights-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to promote gender equality and the rights of marginalized groups, especially among the Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon. [Gatherings are communities of Palestinian refugees outside the twelve United Nations-administered refugee camps for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.] Palestinian refugee women living in Lebanon are deprived of many basic human rights and face multiple difficulties, including but not limited to insufficient education, limited reproductive health services, unemployment, low socioeconomic status and discrimination stemming from both their status as refugees and their position as women. PARD places a special emphasis on empowering women by identifying and redressing power imbalances and providing them with more autonomy by procuring access to healthcare and education, environmental health and sanitation services and community awareness and advocacy trainings.

Approaching gender issues using a culturally relevant and sensitive approach is essential for good relief and development work in any setting, but particularly so when working in a context where addressing gender issues is extremely delicate. Such is the case for the communities in which PARD operates. In these communities, one cannot address gender issues directly. It therefore becomes not only necessary, but deeply advantageous, to adopt a gender-mainstreaming approach, understood as “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels” (UN Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, 2002).

For the past thirty years, PARD has worked in the Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon and has consequently garnered a significant amount of trust and respect from both the gatherings’ governing bodies and the individual inhabitants themselves. PARD believes that the acceptance and relationships it has built up are essential components of its work: without the communities’ trust, PARD would not have the access or ability to address gender issues to the degree that it does. In contrast, other NGOs have sought to carry out programs in the Palestinian gatherings around gender-related issues such as family planning, gender-based violence and early marriage, but they were not invited or welcomed by the communities, because these NGOs lacked the trusting relationships that PARD has fostered with residents of the gatherings.

Despite PARD’s success and far-reaching work related to gender issues, these efforts have encountered some resistance. PARD has had to exercise a high level of creativity in the ways that it helps educate and empower women as it implements its programs related to gender equality and justice. In one example, a local sheikh (a Muslim religious leader) approached a PARD staff member and told her that she could not hold a scheduled session on family planning. To work around this restriction, the staff person decided to host a session regarding children’s nutrition instead, making the topic more acceptable to local community leadership, while still being able to incorporate ideas about family planning, gender rights and women’s empowerment into discussions about household nutrition. As the assembled women discussed malnutrition and healthy lifestyles, the PARD community worker spoke with these women about the difficulties of providing for ten children without having an income and thus integrated family planning concepts in a culturally appropriate and indirect way that was better-accepted and understood.

Another integral component of PARD’s work in addressing gender inequality is working with local Women’s Committees in the gatherings. These Women’s Committees are made up of women who have undergone PARD’s comprehensive training program aimed at strengthening decision-making and problem-solving, in which participants acquire skills relevant to their individual, familial and community needs. Participants learn how to carry out community mapping, conflict mediation, needs-assessment and advocacy for their rights as women and as refugees. Women’s Committee members also serve as a community alarm system, help shape and implement relief and development projects and serve as spokespeople to the male-dominated Popular Committees that govern the Palestinian gatherings.

The Women’s Committees in these gatherings differ from the Popular Committees in several ways. Firstly, the Popular Committees are composed almost entirely of men, with few exceptions (and even when women serve on the Popular Committees, they are typically not integrated successfully, nor taken seriously). The members of the Popular Committees are appointed by political parties. The Popular Committees were not originally receptive to the idea of Women’s Committees: even today, the relationships and the levels of coordination and cooperation between the Popular Committees and the Women’s Committees vary depending on the gathering. In some gatherings, heavy competition over governing authority exists between the Popular Committees and Women’s Committees. While the Popular Committees are on paper the governing bodies in the gatherings, in practice the Women’s Committees have more influence and can even overrule the Popular Committees: so, for example, the Women’s Committee in the Jim Jim gathering forced through a plan against the will of the Popular Committee to construct a road with the help of an engineer from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

As it carries out its work in the gatherings, PARD coordinates closely with the Women’s Committees, given that their active involvement in project development and implementation is essential for the success of PARD’s relief and development programs. PARD staff meet with each Women’s Committee at least once a month and are available to meet more frequently if necessary. As the women serving on the committees are themselves members of these communities, they already have knowledge and insight into the issues facing the gatherings and can significantly influence and shape the projects that PARD undertakes. PARD supports and empowers women in these communities by providing training-of-trainers opportunities to help women become social workers and undertake fieldwork themselves (e.g., conducting needs assessments and community mapping exercises, developing action plans and advocacy campaigns, etc.) The Women’s Committees thus play a significant role in the development and design of projects as well as in the monitoring of projects.

In addition to its programmatic focus on gender mainstreaming and its work with Women’s Committees, PARD also utilizes an operational framework to address gender equality and women’s empowerment with three main dimensions: capacities and education, access to resources and opportunities and security. The first of these refers to capacities as measured by education, health and nutrition, elements fundamental to an individual’s well-being and the means through which women can access other forms of well-being. Access to resources and opportunities, the second dimension, addresses equality in opportunity to use or apply basic capabilities through access to economic assets and resources, as well as political opportunity, because without to access to economic and political opportunities, women’s ability to employ their capabilities for the well-being of themselves, their families and communities will be limited. Security, the third dimension of PARD’s gender equality framework, refers to reducing women’s vulnerability to violence and to conflict that results in physical and psychological harm, violence that diminishes the ability of individuals, households and communities to fulfill their potential. Moreover, violence directed specifically at women and girls often aims at keeping them subjugated through fear.

PARD recently underwent a gender audit, which in turn led to some noteworthy organizational changes, including the revision of PARD’s bylaws for women’s protection and the institution of rights regarding maternity leave and work leave for menstruation. According to Lebanese law, women are given seven days annually off work for menstruation; PARD changed its practice to go beyond the provisions of Lebanese law, allowing women to claim up to twelve days a year for menstruation leave. Additionally, Lebanese law permits women 40 days of maternity leave, but PARD extended this to 60 days and decided to give women an hour for breastfeeding at work as well.

PARD’s operational framework for gender equality not only paved the way for changes to the organization’s bylaws, but also has helped to assess PARD’s organizational culture, policies and efforts to examine organizational leadership through a gender lens. PARD has found that if women are in power, not only are their voices heard, their voices are louder. Having a critical mass of women both in leadership and in field work positions gives greater voice and attention to women’s issues within PARD’s work. PARD employs 60 women and 14 men, all belonging to the communities targeted by PARD’s relief and development efforts. These women hold key leadership positions at all levels of the organization, including executive director, chief accountant, program coordinator, community health workers, kindergarten coordinators, psychosocial activities coordinator and project leaders.

PARD believes that women’s empowerment is crucial for sustainable development and human rights for all. Gender-mainstreaming is at the forefront of its holistic approach to addressing gender issues in a locally-driven manner, influenced by PARD’s partnership with the Women’s Committees. When women are empowered, whole families and communities benefit, and these benefits have ripple effects for future generations.

Paula Holtzinger is MCC’s emergency response assistant for Lebanon and Syria. Rita Hamdan is the executive director of The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD).

Learn More

The Popular Aid for Relief and Development. The Popular Aid for Relief and Development Annual Report 2017. Beirut: PARD, 2018.

United Nations Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York, 2002. Available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/e65237.pdf

Addressing gender issues using Participatory Rural Appraisal processes among the Maasai community in Kenya


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In 2015, MCC Kenya conducted a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in ten communities in Kajiado, Kenya, where its partner, Maasai Integrated Development Initiative (MIDI), works. Kajiado is predominantly inhabited by the Maasai community. It is a water-stressed county, where community members must travel up to ten kilometers in search of water. The area is also food insecure and suffers frequent droughts. MCC carried out this PRA in order to gain a better understanding of the food security situation in Kajiado through participatory engagement with community members. Results from the PRA helped to inform collaborative work between MCC and MIDI to plan new food security initiatives.

The PRA approach, widely used by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other agencies to incorporate the knowledge and opinions of rural people in the planning and management of development initiatives, can also help organizations understand how gender dynamics shape community development. MCC and MIDI used PRA gender analysis tools to identify specific needs for men and women and to gain a better understanding of their different roles and socio-economic positions.

MCC first trained MIDI staff in PRA skills and mentored them in how to facilitate the process. To ensure that the appraisal process would identify relevant gender dynamics at play within the Maasai community where MIDI planned to work, facilitators organized separate focus groups for men and women. In these focus groups, participants analyzed their daily workloads using a method called Daily Activity Clocks. Dividing men and women into separate groups gave the younger women an opportunity to interact and speak freely about issues that would otherwise be difficult for them to discuss with men present, since the Maasai community is male dominant. In the Daily Activity Clocks exercise, group members name what they usually do during the day at a specific time of the year, starting from the time they usually get up. The exercise elicits information about who works the longest hours, who concentrates on a few activities, who does several tasks in a day, who has the most leisure time and sleep and how much time is spent on different activities by men and women.

The Daily Activity Clocks exercise revealed different patterns for how women and men in the community typically spend their days. Participants found that women’s chores usually begin early, around 5:30 am. Women wake up to milk the cows and goats and to monitor and report to their husbands about any sick or pregnant animals. After milking, women proceed to prepare breakfast for the entire family and then embark on other important chores. Fetching water and firewood may take the whole day, with women in this Maasai community having to travel long distances (up to six kilometers) in order to carry out these vital tasks. Other work carried out by women includes cleaning the home, making food for their children and engaging in beadwork for their husbands and children and for commercial purposes. In the evening, women make the fire before everyone comes home, bring calves and goat kids into their enclosures and then milk the cows again before preparing more food for the entire family, including any visitors.

Participants also noted that men usually wake up between six and eight o’clock in the morning. They monitor the village to check for any theft or loss of livestock during the night. Their work also includes protecting the village. After breakfast, they take the cattle to graze. Most grazing work, however, is done by young boys (ages nine to 14). Adult men search for better pastures and watering holes for their cattle and protect them from predators, like lions. Those who remain at home mend fences around the village while tending calves. These responsibilities last until the evening. Some men spend the evening drinking traditional beer and playing games.

After reflective sessions in which women and men considered their respective Daily Activity Clocks, men realized that women work more hours than men. On average, women work for 14 hours a day, rest for four hours and sleep for six hours. Men spend four hours working, 12 hours resting and eight hours sleeping. They also realized that women do much of the physical work, and their chores are rather repetitive, while men’s work is managerial in nature and often involves decision-making. Men’s managerial roles and women’s reproductive roles take a great deal of time, but generate little income.

Given the changing gender situations among the Maasai, the groups felt they needed to identify alternative activities that would not only ease women’s workload but also improve their communities’ household food security and incomes. Men resolved to support initiatives that could help solve gender-related challenges identified by the community, including constructing sand dams, building water tanks to harvest rain water, planting trees for firewood and fodder and installing solar lamps in their homes for energy needs. They also agreed to set up kitchen gardens in their homes and fence grazing spaces for livestock.

The PRA succeeded in creating awareness about the important role women play in the day-to-day affairs of their homes and the wider community as well in bringing forward women’s voices about their own situation. The PRA exercise also highlighted that even though women are marginalized, they make immense contributions to the wellbeing of their families and communities and to solving their communities’ food security problems. The PRA even helped the community identify development initiatives that would improve women’s lives. These types of steps towards greater gender equality, however, are limited: women in Maasai society still lack equitable access to resources and decision-making power. Men continue to dominate some sectors and the most powerful positions in society. Longer-term movement towards equality for Kenya’s rural women will require improved access for women to education and material assets and the formation of strong women’s movements.

William Kiptoo is MCC Kenya peacebuilding coordinator.

Learn More

FAO. The Group Promoter’s Resource Book. A Practical Guide to Building Rural Self-Help Groups. Rome, Italy: FAO, 1995, 1997. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/T1965E/ T1965E00.htm.

Freudenberger, Karen Schoonmaker. “Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) and Participatory
Rural Appraisal (PRA): A Manual for CRS Field Workers and Partners.” Catholic Relief Services. Available online: https://www.crs.org/sites/default/files/toolsresearch/rapid-rural-appraisalandparticipatory-rural-appraisal.pdf.

Institute of Development Studies. “Participatory Methods.” Available at https://www.participatorymethods.org/

Sontheimer, Sally, Karel Callens, and Bernd Seiffert. “PRA Tool Box.” Conducting a PRA Training and Modifying PRA Tools to Your Needs. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: FAO, 1999. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/x5996e/x5996e06.htm .

Listening to local voices on gender (Spring 2019)


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Over the last few decades, the importance of considering gender dynamics in specific contexts when planning development and humanitarian responses has become a topic of increased attention among both governmental and non-governmental actors. Heightened emphasis on women’s participation in humanitarian and development initiatives has resulted in the inclusion of gender-specific development goals set by the United Nations for both short-term and long-term development and in a push for “gender mainstreaming,” or the use of gender analysis at all levels of policy and program development. The gender mainstreaming approach calls on humanitarian and development agencies to take gender into consideration in the design, implementation and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of their work. Some fear, however, that, as they push to mainstream gender across their programs, development and humanitarian actors are imposing an external, neocolonial agenda that fails to appreciate the cultural dynamics within the communities in which they work.

Such critiques have some validity. That said, significant work is being done by local actors at the community-based level on gender issues, work that takes cultural dynamics into account and is too often inadequately recognized. These local voices also call for consideration of gender issues, but gender issues as they understand them. Development and humanitarian actors, we argue, must pay attention to these local voices and perspectives on gender. Organizations such as MCC must ask ourselves: How do we affirm our partners’ agency and leadership in identifying contextually-meaningful ways to work for gender equality, thus avoiding a top-down, patronizing approach of ‘empowering women’? How do we support local voices and initiatives for gender equality as they work to create lasting change in their communities?

Too often, efforts to mainstream gender across development and humanitarian programs have focused on what we would like to achieve, rather than the more challenging and important process of how we achieve these goals in a way that can be sustainable and transformative. As the following articles from MCC, partner and peer organization staff from Kenya, Lebanon, El Salvador, New York, Senegal and Cambodia highlight, locally-oriented listening processes are key to transformative change. Though these articles vary in focus, all reflect the importance of working for gender equality in culturally-sensitive ways. Authors also recognize the necessity of moving beyond the imperative but basic step of incorporating women in relief, development and peacebuilding efforts towards an emphasis on the equitable treatment of women, men, boys and girls. While the broader push toward gender mainstreaming may have wide support from powerful actors, these articles demonstrate that more deeply transformative change requires listening well to how local voices define and demand change around gender dynamics and relations at the community-based level.

Annie Loewen is an MCC humanitarian response and disaster recovery coordinator, based in Winnipeg. Martha Kimmel is an MCC learning and evaluation coordinator, working in Akron, Pennsylvania.

Learn More

Bradshaw, Sarah. Gender, Development and Disasters. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc. 2013.

Cornwall, Andrea, and Jenny Edwards. “Introduction: Beijing +20—Where Now for Gender Equality?” IDS Bulletin, 46/4 (2015): 1-8.

Eyben, Rosalind. “Gender Mainstreaming, Organizational Change, and the Politics of
Influencing.” Feminists in Development Organizations:Change from the Margins. Ed. R. Eyben and L. Turquet, 15-36. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing. 2013.

Sand dams: providing clean water?


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Located in the semi-arid region southeast of Nairobi, Kenya, the region known as Ukambani maintains a substantial maize-growing agricultural population. However, inconsistent and low rainfall presents challenges to providing enough water for crops, livestock and household usage. Communities and organizations have adapted by building thousands of sand dams and taking advantage of the region’s conditions (sandy soil, variable slopes and defined rainy and dry seasons) to harvest and store water in seasonal riverbeds for later use.

Part of the attraction of sand dams as a solution in this region lies in their purported ability to filter rainwater as it percolates through the sand pores, providing not only a consistent source of water, but one which is safe to drink. However, this is an assumption which had gone untested. Recently, MCC Kenya engaged with two partners, Utooni Development Organization (UDO) and Sahelian Solutions Foundation (SASOL), to test the water harvested from the sand dams to see if it was indeed clean and safe for drinking. Contrary to expectations, water from scoop holes had consistently high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. This finding spurred a recognition that additional efforts are needed to ensure safe use of water from sand dams. This experience with UDO and SASOL underscores the importance of rigorously testing assumptions about project effectiveness: doing so can reveal previously unrecognized conditions, which can then in turn spur action to achieve better project outcomes.

With a rapidly increasing population putting pressure on water supplies, sand dams can be an elegant and effective solution to providing water for communities in semi-arid regions such as Ukambani. The principles of sand dam function are conceptually simple to understand, and the results can be dramatic. Concrete dams constructed across seasonal streams cause coarse sand to accumulate behind the dam, and pore space in the dam then holds water which can be accessed by the community for many subsequent months of dry seasons.

In well-functioning dams, a patch of emerald green vegetation flourishes at the dam site well into the dry season, and visitors to the region can easily find examples of communities with thriving grasses and grain, vegetable gardens and orchards that depend on water from sand dams. A recent evaluation undertaken by MCC Kenya, in collaboration with UDO and SASOL, added to the body of evidence outlining the various benefits of accessing this water source. Community members identified benefits that varied dramatically with gender and age. Men and boys near sand dams stressed that water from sand dams was beneficial for brick-making. Girls, meanwhile, noted that better access to water allowed for better sanitation and hygiene, which in turn led to improved school attendance. Women, for their part, cited the benefits of reduced time needed to fetch water.

Sand can be an effective filter, and in fact sand filter technology is one of the WASH solutions widely adopted in WASH projects around the world. Water clearly does filter through the sand into scoop holes (simple holes in the sand, which are the most common method used by communities to access the water), suggesting that sand dams could provide a purifying role for the water held in the dams. With the help of a donation of bacterial testing materials from an MCC constituent with extensive experience in water testing, we went about testing this assumption. Kenyan partner staff and local university students received training in techniques needed to answer if sand dams do in fact purify water held in the dams. We then randomly selected sites from a list of existing dams and evaluated a combination of biophysical and social parameters related to water quality at each of these sites.

The results of this study were clear: 84% of dams in the dry season had more than 100 fecal coliform colonies per 100 ml. This is well above the World Health Organization standard for fecal coliforms (zero), and in the high- to very high-risk category. Surprisingly, it was not statistically different from surface water (nearby areas that had standing water on the stream or dam surface). These results were consistent with a study by another group in the region, which likewise found consistently high fecal coliform levels in scoop holes. Together, these studies point to a previously unrecognized health hazard.

Equipped with the knowledge that untreated water from sand dam scoop holes presents a health hazard, MCC and its partners have worked to identify potential solutions. One approach is to change the method of water harvesting by relying on sealed pump wells rather than scoop holes, a solution that had already been implemented by SASOL in some areas. Water from pump wells was in fact much cleaner on average, but still showed fecal coliform contamination in 25% of cases; this approach also suffers from well-known challenges of maintaining the pump wells.

For its part, UDO responded to the finding of contaminated scoop hole water by implementing a pilot water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) program in three communities aimed at identifying locally appropriate approaches to improve health measures associated with water quality, including water purification. Over a one-year period, UDO staff worked with 177 households to offer training in and support for improved WASH facilities and practices. Some WASH behaviors did improve during this period, such as the percent of households practicing water treatment, which went from 31 to 76%.

Why would the water from sand dams not be clean? A quick perusal of the surface of sand dams gives the observer clues to this unexpected result—the area on and around most sand dams is usually littered with animal dung. While the intention at sand dams is to limit livestock access to water sources in order to avoid contamination, in practice this proves difficult to maintain, and the distance from animal dung to the scoop hole typically is not far. Although we could not specifically test whether dung was the source of the contamination, we hypothesize that contamination originates with this livestock, just as it does in waterways in Canada and the United States where livestock access is not controlled.

Perhaps more puzzling is the question of why it was assumed and reiterated by villagers and promoting organizations alike that water from sand dams was clean. Our survey of communities that utilize sand dams indicated that in 74% of communities, most or all believed that the water was clean, and in 71% of communities, most or all did not treat water before drinking. This does not imply people are willfully ignoring the problem, or that there is a lack of expertise on the part of villagers or organizations. It does point towards the power of narratives. Indeed, the assumption of clean water fit well into a narrative of sand dams providing multiple benefits that were well-suited to local conditions. The known effectiveness of sand filters also provided a powerful analogy, and it was logical to assume that sand dams would function in a like manner to these sand filters. These biases led to untested assumptions, and points to the importance of experimental investigations. By rigorously testing our assumptions about development projects, we can uncover areas where our biases and perceptions might lead us to erroneous conclusions.

Doug Graber Neufeld is professor of biology and director of the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions at Eastern Mennonite University.

Learn More

Quinn, Ruth, Avis Orlando, Manon Decker, Alison Park and Sandy Cairncross. “An Assessment of the Microbiological Water Quality of Sand Dams in Southeastern Kenya.” Water 10 (2018): 708-722.

Kostyla, Caroline, Robert Bain, Ryan Cronk and Jamie Bartram. “Seasonal Variation of Fecal Contamination in Drinking Water Sources in Developing Countries: A Systematic Review.” The Science of the Total Environment 514 (May 1, 2015): 333-343.


Successfully adapting ‘Community Led Total Sanitation’ to the Haitian context


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Despite decades of targeted foreign aid, Haiti has struggled to make significant progress on curbing infectious waterborne diseases or improving basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). While official statistics (WHO/UNICEF, 2017) report that 24% of Haitians have access to latrines or other improved sanitation (similar to the global average for low-income countries), in most rural areas where MCC works, less than 5% of households have latrines, open defecation is commonplace, handwashing with soap is rare and people are dependent on untreated surface water sources for drinking and washing. This combination of challenges has led to persistently high rates of infectious waterborne diseases (including cholera), high rates of malnutrition and stunting and high mortality. According to the World Health Organization (2016), 41% of Haiti’s total disease burden is due to poor WASH infrastructure and practices (the fifteenth highest in the world). One of the promising innovations in WASH programming globally has been ‘Community Led Total Sanitation’ (CLTS). This approach has been imported to Haiti by major funders in recent years with mixed success. Following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, MCC, along with its local partners in the Artibonite region, piloted an adapted version of CLTS that has been extremely successful, leading to zero new cholera cases in the implementation area in nearly two years since the project began (compared to an estimated 1,818 cases over the prior 18-month period). 

CLTS was developed in 2000 by Kamal Kar in rural Bangladesh. The approach was a response to decades of failed WASH programming, which tended to assume that WASH problems could be solved simply by installing infrastructure (latrines, water systems, etc.) along with education by non-local experts on WASH topics. This approach all too often led to extreme waste of resources, underuse/nonuse of latrines and WASH infrastructure and deepening dependence on outside resources and expertise. CLTS works at the community level to facilitate a locally-led analysis of WASH problems leading to a community commitment to ending open defecation and a plan (sometimes with outside subsidy) to develop and install appropriate sanitation infrastructure (latrines, handwashing stations, etc.) and enforce new norms of behavior based on community priorities. When it works, CLTS has been demonstrated to generate community ownership for WASH problems and solutions, be cost-effective from a donor/NGO perspective, create rapid change in health outcomes and produce durable behavior change at the community level. These very positive findings from early CLTS projects have resulted in the approach being zealously promoted by most major health-focused international groups in over the last 15 years.

Unfortunately, CLTS has not proven to be the panacea its promoters hoped for. In many contexts, it has been very challenging to implement and has faced deep cultural resistance from local communities. This resistance is generally produced by the way in which CLTS facilitators mobilize communities and use the power of group norms to push change. Specifically, CLTS relies on strong negative emotions, including guilt, disgust, shame and fear to ‘trigger’ and galvanize communities to eradicate the ‘bad’ behavior of open defecation. In some documented cases this has included shouting insults at and humiliating ‘violators’ for endangering the community. As the CLTS manual explains, the approach specifically “shocks, disgusts, and shames people” as it believes this is more effective than non-judgmental or positive health messaging (Kar 7). This approach is controversial, and in some contexts a cultural non-starter. Additionally, in cases of extreme poverty and immediate post-disaster rebuilding, the demands for locals to bear full responsibility for the costs of WASH changes may be unrealistic, unnecessarily slow the pace of change and potentially humiliate and further marginalize the most vulnerable who are the least able to make the necessary investments. 

Haiti is a good example of CLTS failure in recent years, despite millions of dollars in international resources supporting the model. Since 2010, the list of organizations promoting CLTS in Haiti touches all the major players, from various ministries of the Haitian government, to United Nations agencies, to large international non-governmental organizations. However, the vast majority of these efforts have had disappointing results. A Plan International evaluation in 2015 found that only 8% of communities achieved their goals of ending open defecation and/or achieving near universal latrine access. A similar UNICEF evaluation in the Artibonite region (the same area as MCC’s work, described below) found only 15% success in achieving its goals. Both evaluations noted strong resistance from local leaders, local government officials, local health workers and participant communities to the shame and disgust-based approach to motivating change. Others noted that while top governmental and NGO leadership in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince had read the CLTS literature and signed on to the approach, local implementation was weak, and communities refused to enforce the negative norms as required by the model. A UNICEF evaluation team in 2012 concluded that “the key learning here is that a more nuanced understanding of community and individual motivation is required to implement CLTS programmes in future [in Haiti]. A solution to this difficulty has not yet been identified” (Plan International Haiti, 2012). 

Following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, MCC began a series of pilot WASH projects in the Artibonite Department of central Haiti. These projects used many CLTS elements but built on the positive Haitian cultural tradition of konbit (a rough equivalent to the Amish barn raising tradition) to build positive and inclusive community engagement rather than taking a negative, shame-based approach. The focus on WASH programming was driven by the communities themselves, who identified the eradication of cholera and other deadly diarrheal diseases as their number one priority for MCC accompaniment. Community-led mapping was done to identify the catchment areas that would maximize impact on community-selected WASH outcomes (in this case prioritizing communities living near to and uphill from shared community water sources). Neighbors were organized in groups of 10 to 15 to jointly contribute the labor for latrine construction (digging the holes, transporting materials and collecting locally available materials such as wood, water, stones and sand), which allowed for disabled, elderly and single parent families to fully participate. Local leaders, government officials and health professionals volunteered to work with MCC staff to facilitate community meetings on latrine construction and maintenance, water source protection, hygiene, disease prevention and the importance of complete community engagement in the project. MCC contributed local staff to lead trainings and conduct home visits and subsidized the purchase of some latrine supplies (cement, metal roofing and piping). 

This phase of the project expanded several times, as neighboring communities asked to participate after seeing the plummeting infection rates and strong community engagement. Noting the success of this work, a follow-on project working at the commune level (equivalent to a county in the United States) brought together volunteers from the local hospitals, local water authority, public health department, all local primary schools, local disaster response committees and the local government to implement a larger scale version of this work. This second phase of the project used a similar approach to the prior projects, but also included getting the voluntary support of all 213 primary schools in the commune (representing 26,068 students) to install sanitary handwashing facilities and filtered drinking water stations and provide recurrent education to students on WASH topics.  

While direct causality is impossible to prove, the rates of infectious waterborne disease, including cholera, have plummeted in the project catchment area since this WASH intervention began. In the 18 months prior to the project’s start, this area saw 1,818 cases of cholera. The 18 months following implementation have seen zero. By adapting the CLTS approach to the local context and listening to the local cultural priorities of respect, inclusiveness, positive group engagement and mutual solidarity, the project achieved rapid success in making durable change, gathering strong community support and participation, keeping costs low and promoting stronger community cohesion and cooperation. As organizations look to implement ‘best practice’ models like CLTS, the lesson from Haiti has been to take the cultural context seriously and adapt thoughtfully. 

Paul Shetler Fast is MCC’s health coordinator, based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Learn more

Kar, Kamal, and Robert Chambers. Handbook on Community-Led Total Sanitation. London: Institute of Development Studies, 2008. 

Bongartz, Petra, Naomi Vernon and John Fox. Sustainable Sanitation for All: Experiences, Challenges, and Innovations. Rugby, Warwickshire, UK: Practical Action Publishing, 2016. 

Plan International Haiti. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in 60 schools and 60 Communities in the North‐East and South‐East Haiti: Narrative Report. Port au Prince, Haiti: Plan International, 2012. 

World Health Organization (WHO). Global Health Observatory: Mortality and Burden of Disease from Water and Sanitation. Geneva, Switzerland, 2016. 

WHO/UNICEF. JMP Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Baseline. Available at  https://data.unicef.org/topic/water-and-sanitation/sanitation/#data. 

Drinking water user committees: sustaining impact in Nepal


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Stories of dilapidated water taps, broken pipes and rusted equipment with no means for repair are common in the development world. To help ensure the lasting impact of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives, incorporating community-level mechanisms for long-term monitoring and maintenance into project design is critical. In Nepal, government and nongovernment actors collaborate to create village user committees that provide technical support for WASH initiatives, systematically collect money for repairs of water infrastructure and cultivate community ownership of drinking water and sanitation schemes. 


Kupchet Village, Dhading District, Nepal

The village of Kupchet—the northern-most community in Dhading District before reaching Nepal’s mountainous border with the Tibetan region of China—presents one example of a community that has developed a user committee to sustain drinking water schemes supported by MCC and its partner, Shanti Nepal. While another organization had previously built several water taps in the village, years of use, compounded by Nepal’s shattering earthquake of 2015, left the taps largely dysfunctional. With technical input and survey work initially conducted by the Shanti Nepal team, Kupchet now receives water from a clean source atop the steep hill towering over the village. Water flows through 230-meter long pipes connected to a cable suspended across a deep, rocky valley, an engineering feat deemed impossible in prior surveys. The subsequent formation of a drinking water user committee now allows for ongoing impact in an isolated community that is several days’ walk from the nearest road. Kupchet’s story highlights key best practices and learnings from Shanti Nepal’s many years of engaging with drinking water user committees.


Kupchet’s cable/pipe system

First, user committees offer a local, immediate and cost-effective means of technical support. Shanti Nepal paid for two people on Kupchet’s seven-member committee to attend a basic course in construction and water pipe repair. These members were selected based on their prior relevant experience related to construction. The two trainees then led the new water system’s construction and installation processes, following the design of Shanti Nepal’s lead engineers and technicians. Active engagement from the very initial stages of project implementation allows user committee members to more deeply understand the purpose and design of water and sanitation schemes, develop a keen eye for regularly monitoring infrastructure and gain critical skills in maintenance and repair. Repairs beyond the scope of the user committee members’ skill sets may receive support from Shanti Nepal or be outsourced to other technicians. In such instances, user committees play a key role in connecting to local government bodies (in Nepal’s case, ward and municipality offices) that may contribute toward major repairs.  

Second, user committees ensure proper infrastructure maintenance through the regular and systematic collection of fees from all households that benefit from water and sanitation schemes. In Kupchet, all 67 households contribute Rs. 100 (approximately US$1) per month to the user committee. This fund covers the cost of basic repairs as well as regular monitoring of the water system. Unlike other tax collection systems—the benefits of which may be less visible to a remote village family’s eye—local-level collection ensures greater accountability and a more direct cost-benefit relationship.  


Mr. Tak Tamang, Chairperson of Kupchet’s Drinking Water Committee

Finally, the influence of user committee members builds momentum toward an entire community’s collective ownership over water and sanitation projects. Dr. Krishna Man Shakya, executive director of Shanti Nepal, researched WASH projects for his doctoral studies in public health and explains that, “user committees institutionalize the community’s involvement and contribute to leadership development as well.” In the case of Kupchet, the influence of the user committee resulted in 65 people from the village participating in the installation of the water system’s pipes. Lined up along a precarious trail, these 130 hands grasped the cable and pipes as they were swung across a gorge and attached to cement pillars. Tak Tamang, chairperson of the drinking water system user committee, shares that there were many torn palms, but no one complained. There was a deep sense of pride and ownership in having installed a much-needed system through the village’s collective strength. 

As in other community-based organizations, the selection and diversity of WASH user committee members is key to impact. While Shanti Nepal aims for 30-40% of committee members to be female, those with appropriate technical background tend to be male. Tak Tamang explains that women too can play important roles on committees, such as treasurer and secretary, thus contributing toward greater gender equity. 

While the engagement of drinking water user committees brings many benefits, there are challenges that may impede project impact if left unaddressed. According to Dr. Shakya, these challenges may include: motivating committee members to consistently monitor water schemes, teaching them to handle funds transparently and mobilizing all users to feel a long-term sense of ownership over the scheme in order to keep up with repairs. As with any infrastructure scheme, community drinking water systems may create or exacerbate conflicts related to water use, drainage and maintenance. While a thorough conflict analysis in the project design phase helps reduce this risk, user committee members may find themselves challenged to treat all users with fairness and equity. Despite these challenges, Shanti Nepal and MCC have found that, when coupled with well-thought-through project design and appropriate levels of support, WASH user committees that monitor drinking water systems at the community level in Nepal significantly contribute toward the long-term use and maintenance of water systems and the sustainability of sanitation and hygiene outcomes. 

Daphne Fowler serves as MCC’s representative for its Nepal program and lives in Kathmandu. 


Community members from Kupchet celebrate the opening of the new water system, as well as a new primary health care outreach clinic

WASH as part of an integrated community development plan in Nicaragua


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In 1984, a group of Nicaraguan university students who felt called to emphasize their faith in action founded the organization Acción Médica Cristiana (AMC). This group of doctors and other health professionals started out by sharing their gifts in medicine through mobile medical care in the rural, war-torn areas of Nicaragua. In October 1988, after its humanitarian response to Hurricane Joan, AMC began a more permanent presence in the Caribbean regions of the country. Initially, AMC’s response to health needs was primarily clinical, but as time passed the organization recognized the need for a more holistic community development model, and in 1990 AMC shifted toward community health prevention and promotion. Addressing the basic need for clean water and sanitation was a central part of this shift. AMC leaders and staff observed that, without clean water, medical care was only a short-term solution for communities. In the years that followed, AMC leaders included water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions in the organization’s strategic plan. AMC uses a holistic approach that integrates WASH projects into its larger community development strategies. An additional principle for AMC is for WASH education and infrastructure to go hand-in-hand. AMC has both enjoyed successes and faced challenges as it incorporates WASH strategies into its health and development outreach.  

Over the past thirty years, AMC has focused mainly on rural communities in the Autonomous Caribbean Regions of Nicaragua. These regions are home to many of the poorest municipalities in the country, where drinking water and sanitation systems are limited. The root causes for malnutrition and dehydration in the regions include waterborne illnesses, making WASH interventions essential. AMC has expanded into other areas of development beyond WASH, but with the ongoing limited availability of drinking water and sanitation infrastructure, AMC has worked to keep WASH in its strategic plan. At the same time, AMC collaborates and advocates closely with local and municipal governments in WASH initiatives as more government regulations are put in place and as access to clean water and sanitation becomes a priority within the public sphere, stressing that the success of WASH initiatives is crucial to the overall success and sustainability of general health outcomes. 

AMC’s philosophy that WASH projects are a basic community development strategy has led the organization to incorporate WASH into various levels of their work. AMC uses a holistic model in which infrastructure, education, peacebuilding and spirituality are intertwined. Currently MCC is partnering with AMC in both WASH and education projects in and around the city of Bluefields in the South Autonomous Caribbean Coast Region. AMC’s focus is to invest at the community level, especially in schools. Support for education without any assistance to address school infrastructure is often received by communities as shallow and insufficient since the schools in this region of Nicaragua have substantial infrastructure needs, including WASH infrastructure, such as wells for schools to access potable water. At the same time, building wells without education has led to contamination and disrepair. From AMC’s perspective, infrastructure and education must go hand in hand. 

AMC works hard to integrate and involve community members from project design through to implementation, monitoring and evaluation. AMC’s experience shows that community participation is fundamental to the success any development project. This involvement ensures ownership by the community. AMC also works together with the community to ensure that whatever system or tool is being offered is appropriate for the location. For example, a community with only sporadic electricity may benefit more from a hand pump on a well than an electric one.  

Community members are also involved in the actual manual labor of the project. Gerardo Gutierrez, AMC Project Director, tells the story of one community where the men were not interested in helping with the project because the water storage system was located up a large hill and they felt the work was too intense. The women, however, felt the need for clean water in the community was great, since they were the ones who walked for kilometers to the river to collect buckets of water for daily chores. The women started taking the plastic pipes one by one up the hill and digging trenches. The men felt ashamed to be outdone by the women and children and decided in the end they should join in as well. The water system was completed and the project has been administered exclusively and successfully by the community for 20 years, demonstrating the community ownership of the project.  

The community is also empowered as it makes decisions about the design, the education process and the community potable water committee that functions after the official projects have ended. With increased community participation, AMC has used input from the community to develop gravity-based water systems, hand-dug and -drilled wells and water treatment systems using filtration, chlorine, ozone or ultraviolet treatment, depending on the context and need. AMC also has ample experience in the construction of different types of latrines based on the geographic and cultural conditions in the area.  

While AMC staff are positive about their efforts, they also face many challenges. They continually work to be culturally sensitive in a region with substantial cultural diversity. They also face challenges to foster community participation when other groups, both nongovernmental and governmental, come in and do projects for free or even pay beneficiaries, while failing to slowly build community ownership for WASH initiatives. A serious concern in the region where AMC operates is climate change that is increasing the already heightened risk for disasters, especially flooding, which contaminates soils and destroys infrastructure. Despite this, AMC has witnessed the improvement of health, education and community organization, all as a result of making WASH part of an integrated community development model. 

MCC has been privileged to work with AMC over the past thirty years. We as an organization have learned from their experiences in community development and specifically WASH projects. AMC’s collaboration with the community has been especially meaningful as it aligns with MCC’s own values as an organization and provides evidence for the benefits of community involvement in projects.  

Rebekah Charles is the MCC Nicaragua representative. Jeannette Kelly is AMC’s project coordinator in Bluefields, while Gerardo Gutierrez is the AMC Project Director. 

The impact of a school WASH project in Kenya


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

After many years of supporting water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) activities in Kenyan schools, MCC asked one school, Mukuru Mennonite Academy, located in an informal settlement of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, what impact its WASH program has had on the broader community. The school serves over 350 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Most pupils live in rented, makeshift houses that have poor ventilation and lack water and sanitation facilities. Seventy-five percent of homesteads in the settlement use community pay toilets. Some have private toilets and others use the “flying toilet” method of defecating in a plastic bag and then throwing it out into the alleyway. Almost all (98%) inhabitants use community pipes for their water supply. Residents buy this water from the Nairobi city water supply and the pipe infrastructure is fraught with leaks, often passing through open sewer ditches. According to the local Rueben Health Center, more than 30% of common recurrent diseases that they treat are water- and sanitation-related. 

The long-term goal of the WASH program at Mukuru is that “the Mukuru community will be healthier with children having fewer incidences of diseases caused by poor personal and environmental sanitation. In addition, good hygiene practices will become a social norm within the Mukuru community.” Specific goals of the program include: educating community members and school children on methods of treating their drinking water; educating households on the importance of proper human waste disposal; facilitating community clean-up days to remove litter and clear drainage ditches; and increasing the attendance rate at the school by reducing waterborne diseases.  

In responding to the question of what impact the WASH program has had on the community, the WASH promoters tell stories of improved relationships—both relationships between the school and students’ parents and relationships between the school and community leaders (clan elders and chiefs). One component of this WASH program is that every three months the WASH promoters visit the household of each pupil. The benefit of these household visits has gone beyond the original goals of educating the family on WASH practices. As the promoters visit parents, they develop a trusting relationship with them, fostering a feeling among parents that the school is concerned about the well-being of their child, not simply managing the school for personal gain. This has improved the engagement between parents and the school. Often during these visits, curious neighbors come and join the visit and learn about WASH practices as well. An additional benefit of this relationship between parents and the school is a high retention rate of pupils. In this densely populated community, there are many schools (most of them private) to choose from and it is not uncommon for a student to stay at one school for only one year or one term before changing to a different one. When WASH promoters regularly visit pupils’ homes, the opportunity for that student to succeed in school is greatly improved.  

Another positive outcome of the household visits by the WASH promoters is an increased security in their community due to the positive relationship between the community administrators and the school. The community administrators see the promoters educating parents in their homes, regardless of what family or tribe they are from, and appreciate that the school is actively promoting community health. This positive relationship bears fruit when the community administration calls for community clean-up days where the whole community works together to clean out drainage ditches, pick up litter and learn more about environmental sanitation. Since the WASH promotors have been training on the importance of good hygiene and sanitation, more people participate in the clean-up days. The promotors also note that as they build rapport in the communities, more families welcome them into their households for training.  

Together with the Kenyan government, Mukuru WASH promoters also observe international Water Day, Handwashing Day and Toilet Day. During these celebrations, community members are encouraged to actively improve hygiene and sanitation by physically opening drainage systems, collecting litter and constructing ‘leaky tins’ or ‘tippy taps’ for improved handwashing. Promotors model good handwashing behavior and establish places to wash hands in the school and community. 

The respectful relationship between parents and WASH promoters can help dispel some commonly held myths. One myth that some families believe is that young children get diarrhea because their teeth are coming in. This leads parents to not intervene when a child gets diarrhea, leaving the child vulnerable to dehydration and malnutrition. A second myth is that children’s feces are safe, and one cannot get diseases from them. This can lead families to not properly dispose of a child’s feces because they believe they contain no pathogens. During the WASH visits, myths like these can be discussed and parents learn healthy WASH behaviors. WASH promoters report that parents have increased their practice of WASH behaviors and they have become a regular part of their lifestyle. For example, the number of families using flying toilets has decreased by 34%. The Mukuru WASH promotors attribute the success of behavior change to the consistent follow-up visits within the community and the WASH-related murals painted at community gathering points. Parents self-report that they are washing their hands after using the toilet and overall toilet usage has increased by 78%. Households have also reported improvement of garbage disposal habits.  

Promoters report that 233 families of students are treating their drinking water and 182 families use the Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) method for improving the safety of drinking water. Promoters report that a few households (5%) have installed a ‘leaky tin’ handwashing station at their homes to encourage more frequent washing of hands as well as to conserve water. Mukuru Mennonite Academy has several of these leaky tins installed at their school where children wash their hands. Parents also report that they spend less time taking their sick children to medical facilities and less money on medicine. This change is attributed to practicing WASH behaviors. 

The private schools in the community belong to a cluster of schools that meet together regularly to collaborate. Mukuru Mennonite Academy administrators noted that as they adopted WASH behaviors on their school grounds, other schools followed suit as they were able. For example, now some schools have installed one toilet and one handwashing station model for their students to use during the school day when previously there had been no facilities available. And now some schools are purchasing water for their students to drink after learning from Mukuru Mennonite Academy about the importance of water for one’s health. 

The WASH program has achieved a positive impact in the community. This has been a result of good relationships within project staff and beneficiaries. Relationships have led to open discussion of good WASH practices and helped in tackling myths which sometimes prevent adoption of good hygiene and sanitation. The participants share challenges as they brainstorm together for concrete solutions to the problems they experience while trying to maintain good hygiene and sanitation. As the health goals are being realized in Mukuru Mennonite Academy, the WASH program has also created peaceful and trustful relationships between the school, students’ parents and the community. 

Krista Snader works with MCC Kenya in its WASH projects. The Mukuru Mennonite Academy WASH team is an MCC Kenya partner.


School WASH clubs in Uganda


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Flooding is not only dangerous, but also dirty, particularly when the area flooded is underdeveloped and densely populated. High waters flush sewage, refuse, corpses and general debris back up into inhabited areas. Regaining access to clean water and sanitary living conditions after a flood takes significant time and resources. It can be easy to forget that dirty water is simply a fact of life for many rural communities, with or without the complication of flooding, and progress toward better water access is usually fragmented and slow. When the need is as broad as in rural Uganda, finding a place to begin is one of the biggest challenges, and one emergent pattern of development, more pragmatic than philosophical, is that long-term visions often get their footing as relief aid. In Western Uganda’s Kasese district, in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains that divide Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the catalyst to begin addressing widespread water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) concerns in rural schools was disastrous flooding, which in May 2013 wiped out the health stability of several primary schools and their communities. 

MCC works through partnership with local organizations which have the experience and connections to effectively navigate the local economic, political and cultural considerations that any relief or development project must address. MCC’s partner in Kasese is the development department of the Church of Uganda’s South Rwenzori Diocese (SRD). After reaching out to MCC in 2013, SRD conducted surveys of the area, looking for schools most impacted by flooding. SRD staff found high incidence of disease among students, mostly typhoid, cholera and dysentery from untreated drinking water further contaminated by flooding. The flooding had also destroyed many existing drainage systems, resulting in more stagnant breeding pools for malarial mosquitoes. The immediate concerns caused by the floods also highlighted endemic health issues at the schools, such as inadequate and under-maintained washing and toilet facilities and no established practices or systems to purify drinking water. MCC and SRD agreed on a short-term relief project, running from January through August 2014, that focused on returning identified flood-affected schools to a baseline of operation through the provision of food, school supplies and counseling to help students continue studying despite having lost homes and possessions. This partnership for limited relief activities opened the door for an ongoing partnership with SRD to address the WASH needs in these rural schools. 

To counter the spread of waterborne illnesses, MCC and SRD focused at first on improving the WASH infrastructure at the schools, supporting the construction of latrines, washrooms, hand-washing facilities and water tanks to collect rain runoff from the school roofs, ensuring that this project met the standard humanitarian guidelines for the infrastructure required to meet the water, sanitation and hygiene needs of students at the schools. Building infrastructure, however, is insufficient: such construction efforts must be coupled with programs that seek to bring about behavioral change. To promote specific sanitation and hygiene practices, SRD and MCC supported the schools in setting up school WASH clubs. These clubs are active in spreading messages about WASH within the school and the surrounding community through songs and drama. These messages encourage students to practice good hygiene and use sanitation facilities appropriately. 

Another club activity is to make ‘talking compounds,’ which are signs that are displayed in the schoolyard that share short health concepts such as “menstruation is normal.” Students and teachers are also provided with training on how to purify drinking water and maintain personal hygiene. Students learn to making ‘tippy taps,’ simple and inexpensive hand-washing stations consisting of a small jug of water suspended from a wooden frame: WASH clubs construct such stations throughout the school compound. Children are in turn encouraged to bring these techniques to their homes: follow-up visits by project staff have found that students have in fact begun erecting tippy taps in their homes and communities.  

Perhaps the most progressive and promising aspect of the school WASH project is the provision of materials and training to young women to make re-usable menstrual pads (RUMPs). In many places, girls have a disproportionately low rate of school completion due to absenteeism because they have no simple and effective way to manage menstruation. The project staff provided training and materials to assist girl students in production and use of RUMPs. The entire school, including staff, receives education on menstrual hygiene to help break the pervasive stigma that menstruation is dirty and shameful. The project has resulted in reduced absenteeism, increased completion rates and improved performance for girls in the schools where SRD and MCC have introduced RUMPs. 

The choice of where to direct resources is never easy, and sometimes commitment to a new development project needs the motivation and tangible impact of a relief effort to gain traction. In one region of Uganda, MCC and a church partner were able to build on a disaster relief response to address longer-term health needs in the community. Initial results from the construction of WASH infrastructure and the mobilization of WASH clubs show promise in preventing the spread of waterborne illness and reducing absenteeism and increasing school participation, including by adolescent girls. 

Joshua Kuepfer was a SALT participant with MCC Uganda for the 2017-2018 year.


Sanitation for women and girls in Nairobi’s informal settlements


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Walking in the informal settlements of Mathare, Korogocho and Viwandani in Nairobi, one is confronted with a disturbing smell of human waste mixed with raw sewage and rotten garbage. Within the first few minutes, the Kenyan heat acts to intensify these smells which burn the eyes and nose. Amidst all this waste, the streets are busy with women, men, girls and boys living and tending to their everyday lives. Within these settlements, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is a challenge. Lack of awareness of safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices can affect all members of the family, both adults and children. Women and girls, meanwhile, have distinctive sanitation needs: WASH programs designed to address these needs make vital contributions to the overall empowerment of women and girls (WaterAid 2018). 

Women in Kenya typically have the responsibility for both procuring and using water for their households. A woman who cannot clean her house, provide food and keep the water pot always full of drinking water is scorned and loses the trust and love of her husband. Due to this cultural norm, women struggle to find water at any cost and may end up providing their families with water from questionable sources. Women in informal settlements are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to water and sanitation, with challenges ranging from unsafe drinking water and absence of proper sanitation to lack of hand washing facilities. The work of fetching water and accessing poor sanitation facilities can also put women and girls at risk for violence. 

Conversations with women in these informal settlements revealed how they cope with lack of toilet facilities. During a focus group discussion, women confided that they find it difficult to go to the toilet, especially at night, due to fear of being raped while walking to a distant toilet facility. To mitigate the danger of leaving the safety of their homes at night, women have resorted using the “flying toilet” method of disposing of human waste. This practice requires one to defecate in a plastic bag and throw it as far as possible from the house, usually in the late night or early morning hours. This practice exacerbates the problem of poor sanitation within the settlements. 

Women also reported that finding water to prepare food, wash family clothes and clean the house is a challenge. Without access to city-supplied water, women depend on vendors who unscrupulously break into the water pipes that pass through the informal settlement and steal water, which is then sold to residents of the informal communities at exorbitant prices. Due to this practice, women with limited income find it difficult to cope with household water needs. 

Households in informal settlements routinely buy food from street vendors because it is quick and easy, requiring minimal energy of preparation. Families also save on fuel, time and water for washing up the dishes when they buy food from street vendors. However, the hygienic practices of the street vendors are questionable at best. Purchasing this convenient food on the street can contribute to illnesses within the family. 

The WASH challenges facing households in Nairobi’s informal settlements are varied and numerous. One way that MCC and its partners seek to address the WASH challenges faced by these households—and especially by women and girls in these households—is through school-based initiatives that focus on the distinctive hygiene needs faced by adolescent girls and that increase access to safe drinking water.  

In a survey carried out in an informal community in Nairobi, a group of 25 schoolgirls aged 12 to 15 years highlighted the challenges these girls face regarding menstrual hygiene and the negative impact these challenges have on their schooling. Up to 60% of the girls found it difficult to come to school during menstruation and stated that they missed an average of 36 days of school in a year. The girls attributed their absences to cramps, the lack of a place to dispose of sanitation materials and not having proper sanitary towels to protect them during the day at school. Several of MCC’s partners are addressing the need for schoolgirls to have access to menstrual hygiene supplies by providing reusable and disposable sanitary pads. These projects are recording a decrease in absenteeism for girl students, a decrease attributed to the girls’ access to sanitary products.  

MCC funding also makes it possible for Kenyan organizations to increase access to safe drinking water for households in the informal settlements by training children and families how to purify drinking water using the Solar Disinfection (SODIS) method. This method uses transparent PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and the sun’s ultraviolet rays to purify water. SODIS represents a low-cost solution that even economically marginalized families can use. WASH teams organized by MCC’s Kenyan partners offer training to introduce the SODIS method and provide ongoing follow-up to support families as they begin using this sustainable water purification method. 

These school-based WASH initiatives emerged after listening to women and girls about what challenges they face when it comes to ensuring their families have clean water and to meeting their hygiene needs. Both the menstrual hygiene and the solar disinfection programs have contributed to significant improvements in the lives of students and the broader population of Nairobi’s informal communities. School teachers, administrators and parents have all bought into these initiatives and testify to their impact. The community- and family-based ownership of these WASH initiatives will help guarantee the sustainability of the positive impacts of these efforts to assist Nairobi’s informal communities in having adequate water, sanitation and hygiene resources.  

Jane Otai previously served as a consultant for MCC Kenya school WASH project and currently works for Jhpiegoan international, non-profit health organization affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University.

Learn More 

Amnesty International. “Risking Rape to Reach a Toilet: Women’s Experience in the Slums of Nairobi, Kenya.” July 7, 2010. Available at   https://www.amnesty.org/en/ documents/AFR32/006/2010/en/ 

Bitew, Bikes Destaw; Yigzaw Kebede, Gashaw Andargie Biks; and Takele Tadesse Adafrie.  “The Effect of SODIS Water Treatment Intervention at the Household Level in Reducing Diarrheal Incidence among Children under 5 years of Age: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial in Dabat District, Northwest Ethiopia.” July 31, 2018. Available at https://trialsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13063-018-2797-y.  

Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), in cooperation with UN-HABITAT and the World Health Organization (WHO). “The Right to Water.” Fact Sheet No. 35. 2010. Available at http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ Publications/FactSheet35en.pdf. 

WaterAid. “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: A Pathway to Realizing Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls.” 2018. Available at   https://www.wateraid.org/ca/sites/g/files/jkxoof281/files/WASH_A%20Pathway%20to%20Gender%20Equality%20and%20Empowerment%20EN%20PRINTED.pdf 


Water, sanitation and hygiene (Winter 2019)


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In July 2017, when reporting on global progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations Secretary General stated that “Access to safe water and sanitation and sound management of freshwater ecosystems are essential to human health and to environmental sustainability and economic prosperity” (UN, 2017). Water is a basic human need. Both during emergency responses and in longer-term development efforts, securing access to safe water and improving sanitation for vulnerable populations are top priorities. Communities affected by emergencies and poverty are generally more susceptible to disease and illness than other populations. Much of this increased vulnerability can be attributed to lack of access to safe water for drinking, cooking and washing, which contributes to poor sanitation and hygiene. 

Unfortunately, UNICEF (2015) reports that the two- to five-year failure rate of water and sanitation projects is 30-50%. Research indicates that this failure rate can primarily be attributed to lack of effective sustainability planning, including community participation in planning and implementing these initiatives, rather than to the technical dimensions of the projects. Successful water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) responses build on the capacities of communities and local governments to ensure safe, sustained and equitable access to appropriate and adequate WASH services (Sphere, 2018.) Other factors that improve success rates of WASH projects include an understanding of the socio-political, cultural and economic contexts of participating communities on the part of organizations carrying out WASH projects. Strong community participation and involvement of local structures and experts improve long-term outcomes. 

MCC and its constituents have long championed the importance of assisting vulnerable communities with safe water and sanitation. MCC records indicate that the first multi-year project to address the provision of safe drinking water took place in 1964 in Grande Riviere du Nord, Haiti. In the project, MCC workers collaborated with the community to tap a natural spring and pipe its clean water to the village. Working to connect communities to clean water and to support community efforts to improve sanitation and hygiene have remained vital MCC initiatives over the ensuing half century. MCC supporters, meanwhile, have demonstrated a persistent and growing interest in WASH-related projects. This issue of Intersections offers articles examining different ways in which MCC and its partners are responding to needs in Kenya, Uganda, Nepal, Nicaragua and Haiti for safe, potable water, improved sanitation and hygiene promotion. Taken together, the articles underscore the need for strong community participation and for considering the distinct needs of women and girls to achieve successful implementation of WASH projects. 

Beth Good is MCC’s representative for its Kenya program and lives in Nairobi.

Learn More

The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. 2018. Available at https://handbook.spherestandards.org/. 

UN ECOSOC. (2017). “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.” Retrieved September 1, 2018, from: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=E/2017/66&Lang=E 

UNICEF. (2015). “Accountability in WASH: Explaining the Concept.” Retrieved September 1, 2018, from: https://www.unicef.org/wash/files/Accountability_in_WASH Explaining _the_Concept.pdf  

Closing the loop: accountable communications in a digitally-connected world


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In March, shortly after a group of MCC staff travelled to Syria, MCC Canada Executive Director Rick Cober Bauman wrote a reflection featuring the story and photo of a woman we had met. We used a pseudonym to protect her identity. Four days later, we received an email from the MCC representatives to Lebanon and Syria that the woman, Rahaf Abdo, had seen the story on Facebook (after a friend shared it with her) and she wrote to request that we use her full name.

It was an easy change to make, but a good example of how storytelling changes in a more digitally connected world. MCC has long reflected on whose stories we are telling and what role partners and participants play in shaping those narratives: new forms of digital communications prompt renewed consideration of such questions. MCC has an opportunity to hear directly how our stories are seen by the people featured in them. This will be an especially valuable lesson for a communications team, and an organization, that is overwhelmingly white and from Canada and the U.S.

For many years, the stories MCC told were primarily distributed in print and in person (at church meetings, for example). If there was feedback from the people in the stories, it would come much later. Today it is easy for the people featured in the stories to read the posts and articles and watch the videos we have made about them—and for those people to tell us what they think.

This can be a positive experience for everyone when the stories are told well. When we shared the story of Boniface Anthony, a peacemaker in Nigeria, on Facebook, he commented on the post, writing: “Thank you MCC for sharing my story and [I] hope it will inspire others to join the peacebuilding train.”

But sharing stories online can also lead to painful lessons, sometimes learned publicly. Recently we posted a story on a school that brings together students who are Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The original headline to the story was “Jewish, Arab children learn together.” When the story was posted on Facebook, two commenters criticized the headline. One comment took issue with using the general term Arab because they felt it erased the Palestinian identities of the children, while the other felt the headline and was incorrectly comparing a religion (Judaism) with a nationality or ethnicity (Arab). After internal conversations between communications and program, we took the story down, reassessed the language and wrote a new headline.

Taking criticism publicly on social media or the web for communications mistakes doesn’t feel good. But the opportunity to get that feedback quickly and directly from the people featured in our stories, or who are part of those communities, is an important opportunity to improve MCC’s communications.

Online communication also provides opportunities for international MCC partners to share their stories directly—for MCC to amplify their voices, while also telling MCC’s story of collaboration with them. This is an area where MCC can and should do better. We have started to share more stories online and on social media from staff and from participants in young adult exchange programs. But this content continues to consist primarily of stories from around the world told by white people in the U.S. and Canada. MCC could seek out and share more content created by MCC’s local partners and participants in our programs (although that would of course mean dedicating some of MCC’s limited time and resources for communications to such efforts). We have on occasion used content produced directly from partners, such photos from Syria. But there is space for improvement on this score.

The internet continues to break down the barriers between organizations and the people with whom they work and serve. MCC needs to continue to grapple with the question of how much we can or should shape the narrative and how much to let go and allow the individuals and communities with whom we work to both inform our stories and tell their own.

Emily Loewen is digital content coordinator for MCC.

Communications principles in the day-to-day work of fundraising


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In Representations of Global Poverty, Nandita Dogra advances several critiques of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) public fundraising and advocacy messages. Some of Dogra’s key areas of concern include:

  • the inclination of INGOs to use negative messages that highlight needs, crisis and disaster and that paint a picture of weakness, inferiority and dependence;
  • a tendency for INGOs to focus on their own achievements;
  • the portrayal of the developed world as ‘active givers’ and the majority world as ‘passive receivers’;
  • the erasure of complexity and context when INGOs communicate about relief and development to such an extent that they end up communicating ‘safe’ and overly simplified messages that do not say much.

Dogra’s critiques are serious and INGOs must grapple with them. In this article, I analyze my own practice as someone who has extensively communicated to MCC’s donors, using Dogra’s concerns as a guide.

MCC’s brand guide, which addresses many of Dogra’s critiques, provides basic information meant to shape the “communications of all MCCers”, including donor relations, or fundraising, staff. The priority in all MCC communications is to “share stories and information about our international programs and the people we serve in order to actively engage donors in our work, to broaden people’s worldview and to increase our donor base.” MCC messaging aims to: focus on people (“characterized by dignity, agency and value”); reveal both need and strength (“We report honestly about the needs we encounter while affirming the dignity and agency of each person”); and show compassion, as modeled in Jesus’ concern for the poor and marginalized.

Donor emails, however, are a ubiquitous form of communication that fall outside of MCC’s formal and edited communications and are not always consistent with the standards outlined in MCC’s brand guide. For this study, I reviewed 118 donor thank-you emails that I sent to MCC donors between January 3 and 13, 2017. Roughly one in six emails (19 out of 118) had an “impact report” attached, supplementing the content of the email with more detail.

In reviewing each of the emails I had sent to donors, it became clear that many of Dogra’s critiques applied to them. The emails are short and give minimal detail, especially those without a link to an impact report. They are generic and simple, avoiding complexity and context, echoing Dogra’s criticism of simplified, “safe” messaging. In the few words used in the emails (50 words per email was typical), the main actors are the donor (“your generous gift”, “know that your gifts have made a real difference”; all emphases here and below are added for this article) and MCC (“your partnership with us”, MCC’s work, “as we respond”). The project partners, communities and participants (i.e., “beneficiaries”)—central to the story of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding projects—are rarely mentioned. Furthermore, while compassion makes an appearance, the emails do not balance need and strength in alignment with MCC’s stated guidelines when beneficiaries are included (“those in need around the world”; “refugees in crisis”; “your gifts have made a real difference in the lives of families in need”).

What implications does this analysis have? From a fundraiser’s perspective, it would be unrealistic and problematic to stop sending these short thank-you emails or to substantially lengthen the thank-you emails to include everything named in the brand guide that is important to communicate. Either course of action would overlook some critical realities: we need to say thanks and we only have about 11 seconds to do so.

We need to say thanks because, along with our communications guidelines, we are committed to the Associate of Fundraising Professionals code of conduct and ethical code, which mandates timely stewardship (including acknowledgement and thanks for the gift). And saying thanks is itself one of the communications principles from our brand guide: “we take every opportunity to acknowledge and thank supporters who make our stories possible.” Donors are a central part of the story of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work, and they should know this!

There are some significant challenges that donor relations staff face in this critical work. For one, people’s attentions spans are short. Litmus Email Analytics has shown that the average time that people spend reading an email is 11 seconds. Another challenge is the sheer volume of emails required if we want to thank everyone who makes a gift. In 2017, approximately 7000 unique donors in Ontario alone made financial contributions to MCC. The combination of short attention spans and the need to reach out to so many donors lends itself to a short email. Put another way, a short email directly correlates to a higher number of donors receiving a thank you and actually reading it (assuming the same number of hours invested in the task). The result is an imperfect solution (a brief
email) to an imperative (the need to say thanks).

The question thus becomes: how might we improve the imperfect imperatives that are donor thank-you emails? A 50-word email will never avoid all of Dogra’s critiques (a short email must by its nature be an oversimplification), nor do justice to MCC’s own communication guidelines. But there are some simple tweaks to these short emails that are possible, such as avoiding negative messages that highlight needs or crisis. And as we saw with 19 of the 118 emails analyzed in this study, fundraising staff can quite easily attach impact reports that align with MCC’s brand standards (balancing needs with strength and highlighting the agency of beneficiaries and implementing partners rather than the achievements of MCC) and also address Dogra’s critiques. While it does not completely resolve the tension among Dogra’s critiques, short attention spans and limited staff time available for donor engagement, a clear improvement and next step for fundraising staff is to more consistently attach impact reports that align with MCC’s brand guide to donor thank-you emails whenever possible.

Allan Reesor-McDowell worked as MCC Ontario donor engagement manager and currently serves as executive director of Matthew House Ottawa.

Learn More

Dogra, Nandita. Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.

Sharing stories and images from the Kasai crisis


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

For the last year, MCC has been responding to the humanitarian crisis in Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R. Congo). MCC has been trying to increase awareness of MCC supporters and the broader Anabaptist community about this low-profile and significant humanitarian crisis. In order to mobilize resources to meet urgent needs, MCC has shared stories and images of people who have suffered horrific violence and remain very vulnerable. This article draws on my personal experience leading MCC’s response to the Kasai crisis, including collecting stories and images of displaced people, and will explore the dilemma of collecting and sharing stories and images of people affected by humanitarian crises.

The conflict in Kasai erupted in 2016. What started as primarily an antigovernment movement evolved and exploited historical ethnic tensions and political allegiances. At the height of the crisis, 1.4 million people were displaced; entire villages have been destroyed and over 3,000 people have been killed. Many Congolese have witnessed and directly suffered terrible acts of violence. Last year the United Nations declared D.R. Congo a Level 3 crisis—the most severe humanitarian crisis. While the humanitarian situation is grave and deteriorating, there has been little media coverage of the crisis in D.R. Congo overall, let alone the crisis in Kasai. Thus, it is critical that MCC collect and share compelling stories and images to mobilize supporters and raise awareness.

DRC intersection - 1

MCC has given high priority to this response because of the scale of the crisis and due to the historical and ongoing relationship between MCC and the large number of Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches in the region. To date, MCC has allocated over US$1 million to provide food assistance, hygiene items, shelter and educational support in partnership with Congolese Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren denominations. In this response, MCC has worked in partnership with various other Anabaptist mission agencies who also want to mobilize their church members to respond. This puts additional pressure on MCC to collect powerful images and narratives to share with other agencies.

MCC staff have gathered photos, video and stories in various locations in Kasai. Due to logistical challenges, MCC staff gathered this material while also undertaking other activities, including during the situation assessment carried out to determine needs and available resources and during the planning and implementation of the relief response. MCC communications policy requires that individuals give permission before their photos are taken and an explanation is provided for why MCC is collecting the photos. While some people were asked to tell their stories, others came forward on their own. Overall, displaced people from Kasai were very willing to share about their experience and to have their photos taken. They shared painful stories of fleeing their villages and seeing family members killed. They were also able to communicate their priority needs, including food, health care and education for their children.

DRC intersections - 2

The presence of visitors in the community and being invited to tell one’s story can provide hope to people in desperate circumstances—a hope that other people around the world will hear about their situation and be moved to provide support. At the same time, soliciting stories from people in crisis can also raise expectations that the community will be provided with assistance. While the response was at the planning stage, no promise of assistance could be provided; however, it could be viewed by some that telling one’s story would lead to a greater chance of being selected to receive humanitarian assistance.

During the assessment and planning phase of the response, I was able to visit several communities and hear the stories of community members. But due to limited resources, the security situation and logistical challenges, MCC was not able to assist all who shared their stories. As an example, I travelled with local church leadership to one remote village which was still an active military zone and not accessible for humanitarian assistance. In this case, providing food assistance could have potentially endangered the lives of people—two weeks later, there was a massacre in the village. In other cases, due to limited resources, MCC prioritized resources for the most vulnerable. This meant that some people who contributed to the fundraising effort by sharing their stories of displacement did not receive support from MCC.

In some instances, MCC is able to share the published stories and photos back with families. MCC interviewed Agnes Ntumba during the first distribution of food and education supplies in Kabwela. During a followup visit, I was able to show the images to her and her family that were printed in Mennonite World Review. The entire family was delighted to see their story and photos; knowing that others have heard their story and seen their faces can bring joy and restore dignity to uprooted people.

Gathering stories, photos and videos of people displaced by an active conflict presents significant logistical challenges and raises ethical questions of how to collect this material in a transparent fashion and without making promises or raising expectations. Facing these challenges and addressing these questions are essential parts of MCC’s work to meet basic human needs. By sharing the stories of people affected by the Kasai crisis, MCC has been able to slowly increase the number of displaced Congolese families from Kasai who receive assistance.

Mulanda Jimmy Juma is the MCC representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

Learn More

Dennison, Luke. “New phase of lawlessness grips Congo’s Kasaï region.” IRIN. August 28,
2018. https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/08/28/newphase-lawlessness-grips-congos-kasai-region.
More information about how MCC is responding to the Kasai crisis is available through MCC’s website: https://mcccanada.ca/stories/supplying-food-peopledisplaced-violence-kasai.

Advocacy as translation: representing partner voices


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office engages in advocacy to government on behalf of, and together with, MCC partners in Canada and around the world. We often describe our work as a two-sided coin. One side is political engagement. This is the work we do to speak directly to government and to the political system: through letters, face to face meetings, written or oral presentations to committees and more. The other side of the coin is public engagement: this is the work we do to help our constituents hear the stories, understand the issues and become advocates themselves.

We have found inspiration in the words of Samantha Baker Evens, a mission worker in Cambodia, who wrote: “We are not ‘a voice for the voiceless’—we lend our privilege as a megaphone.” In the Ottawa Office, we like to think of our advocacy work as amplifying the voices of our partners.

In representing the message of our partners to a wider audience, we often find that our work requires translation. We need to express the message in a way that both Canadian parliamentarians and constituents can understand and, we hope, act on. With parliamentarians, we translate concerns into the language of law and human rights; with constituents, we use the language of biblical theology and concepts such as justice, mercy and compassion.

We hope that in our translation we are bearing faithful witness to the advocacy message our partners urge us to speak. But sometimes we ask ourselves: Does it really do that Sometimes we wonder if our decisions about how to represent these voices is weakening or distorting their message. We wonder if, in our efforts to make the message work in the Canadian context, we are losing the essence of what our partners ask of us. A few examples illustrate this dilemma.

Some years ago, an MCC group travelled to Guatemala to learn about the activities of Canadian gold mining giant, Goldcorp, in the San Marcos region. While there, we heard about the mine’s contamination of water and soil, its tearing of the social fabric of the community and its failure to adequately consult with Indigenous people regarding the use of their land. We learned how the mine had devastated the community. At the end of the week, we sat together with local people who said clearly to us, “This mine is destroying our lives. Get rid of it.”

Our hearts sank. We knew there was no way we could get rid of the mine. We were only a small nongovernmental organization with a handful of advocacy staff. And, although we were part of a larger coalition back in Canada, we simply had no capacity or mandate to take on a mining corporation. What we could do was commit to pressing for changes in Canadian law that would make it much more difficult for companies like Goldcorp to act like it had in San Marcos.

Working with other advocacy groups back home, we had some success in pushing for corporate accountability. The Canadian government made it mandatory for companies to report all payments made to local authorities to gain mining contracts, with the aim of eliminating bribery. It also created the office of an independent ombudsperson to hear and adjudicate complaints by people harmed by Canadian corporate activity in their countries.

In that instance, we translated the messages we heard from MCC partners in Guatemala into requests for action that made sense and were achievable within the Canadian political system. We didn’t attempt to get rid of the mine. Should we have?

As indicated above, we also translate for our constituents. We do that, we say, to move people gently from their comfort zone and into their “learning zone,” rather than thrusting them into a “panic zone.” We translate our partners’ advocacy messages so that these messages can be heard by constituents who may feel deeply anxious or threatened when their worldview is turned upside down. An example from MCC’s work related to Palestine and Israel illustrates this dynamic.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society—including some of MCC’s Palestinian partners—initiated a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal human rights principles. From this call has emerged a global grassroots movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, popularly known as BDS. Palestinians and their Israeli allies have urged the international community to engage in academic and cultural boycotts and to undertake economic measures such as divestment and sanctions in order to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, to achieve equal rights for Palestinian citizens within Israel and to respect, promote and protect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties. Over the years, some of MCC’s partners urged MCC to participate in and promote the BDS campaign. The Kairos Palestine document from 2009, written by Palestinian Christian leaders, also urges churches around the world to explore divestment and economic and commercial boycotts of goods related to Israel’s military occupation. Over more than a decade, MCC has organized learning tours for church leaders to Palestine to hear directly from Palestinian Christians and from Palestinians and Israelis working for peace, including from people who have pressed Mennonites to join the BDS movement. Some MCC boards, meanwhile, have taken steps to divest from companies connected to oppression of people, including the Israeli military occupation. Yet MCC has also determined that it will not take a position on the BDS movement, but will instead use other language and strategies to call for a just peace in Palestine and Israel.Cry for Home - english

A current campaign led by MCC in Canada is called “A Cry for Home.” The campaign calls for safe and secure homes—and a safe and secure homeland—for both Palestinians and Israelis. It invites Canadian constituents to consider the situation of Palestinian children in military detention and urges them to act by raising this issue with their Member of Parliament. Our hope is that the plight of Palestinian children will open the hearts and minds of both constituents and politicians, while also providing an entry point into the larger and deeper reality of occupation and oppression. How should MCC balance diverse, sometimes conflicting, partner perspectives on potentially contentious advocacy issues like this? How should MCC balance these various calls from partners with the diverse perspectives of its supporters?

As indicated at the outset, in “translating” for our constituents, we try to represent the messages of partners so that they can be heard, understood and acted upon by our constituents and to maintain strong support for MCC. Like many Christian nongovernmental organizations, MCC works hard to maintain a strong support to carry out its work of relief, development and peacebuilding in the name of Christ. Traditionally, MCC could count on strong and steady financial and other support from Anabaptist churches and households. Today, that support cannot simply be taken for granted. MCC must work hard to seek out and sustain its support. Thus it might feel easier to emphasize MCC’s relief and humanitarian assistance work over more potentially controversial initiatives, including advocacy work.

As Anabaptists in Canada and the U.S., we do not want to hear that we are implicated in other people’s suffering, whether through lifestyle choices, racial privilege, distorted theology, colonial history or support for unjust government policies. Advocacy messages that imply complicity—or that simply point to the realities of systemic injustice—not surprisingly sometimes encounter resistance. Yet it is often these very realities that partners call us to address. It takes courage for organizations like MCC to act out of solidarity and call for justice when doing so may harm the bottom line. I am grateful for the times MCC has acted courageously.

In summary, advocacy together with and on behalf of our partners requires that we translate their concerns so that politicians and constituents in Canada can comprehend and act on them. Doubts and questions about how we represent their stories will—and no doubt, should—always remain with us. Nevertheless, we hope and pray that our translation bears faithful witness to our partners and helps to amplify their voices and ultimately leads to greater justice and greater peace.

Esther Epp-Tiessen worked for MCC for over 28 years, most recently as public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

Learn More

For information on MCC’s A Cry for Home campaign, visit MCC’s website: https://mcccanada.ca/cry-for-home.


Does fundraising need pity?: representation and donor response


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the 1980s, millions in the Global North were exposed to shocking images of famine in East Africa. It was certainly not the first time that such stark, desperate portrayals of hunger and poverty had been widely published, but it marked a new level in the proliferation of a certain type of imagery adopted in the service of fundraising appeals. The images showed widespread death and devastation. Subjects were usually visibly
malnourished, sick and depicted as passive and alone. In the years that followed, these fundraising tactics received deep criticism: for their oversimplification and decontextualization; for their attempt to appeal to charity rather than rights and justice; for the unequal relationship they suggested between the receiving victim and the heroic Western giver.

Afar, Ethiopia - intersections

But these efforts had worked, countered the defenders of these images, arguing that many thousands of lives had been saved through the ensuing humanitarian response.

In the years that followed the famine of the mid-1980s, many relief and development organizations moved away from this sort of negative, one-dimensional portrayal of those who participate in and benefit from their humanitarian efforts, often adopting codes of conduct to guide their communications efforts. Most organizations have begun to employ more positive imagery, attempting to portray dignity and agency in those pictured. Yet the question persists: by avoiding images that show devastation and provoke pity, have organizations raised less money for their work?  If a fundraiser’s primary concern is maximizing an organization’s ability to respond to crisis, is the loss of humanitarian capacity worth the less tangible virtue of using more positive imagery?

Responding to this line of questioning requires taking a step back and asking whether such a trade-off has in fact occurred. Do donors respond more to a particular type of appeal? Thanks to a young and rapidly developing field of social science research, we can explore these questions with more precision, studying why people choose to give and what factors accelerate or mitigate the impulse. By better understanding donor behaviour, we may find a model for effective fundraising communication that prioritizes positive and dignified representations—and we can also turn our attention to what happens after a decision to donate is made.

Fundraising appeals attempt to trigger particular cognitive or emotional responses in their audience. In recent years, the study of “helping behaviour” has led to some agreement among researchers that empathy— which is predictive of charitable giving—is composed of both affective (emotional) and cognitive dimensions. Giving decisions tend to be driven by either one or the other, but affective giving decisions comprise the bulk of responses to a typical charity appeal.

It might be tempting to pretend that these emotional processes do not matter, and to suppose that donors should simply give based on a reasoned determination of doing what’s right. It may also be tempting to suppose that a particular organization’s audience is special and somehow immune to these affective processes. But this would not accurately reflect the social and cognitive landscapes in which organizations like MCC work, contexts in which affective processes influence the majority of donations.

Deborah Small has cited several studies that demonstrate how people respond more generously to those with whom they feel affinity. One factor that contributes to “felt closeness”—similarity—is dependent upon social and cultural conditioning through “in-grouping.” Studies grouping people into an “in” group and an “out” group found more generous feelings among subjects toward in-group members. Surprisingly, this tendency held even when these groupings were completely arbitrary. The “categorization of others as belonging to the same social group as oneself”—no matter how spurious the in-grouping—“arouses feelings of greater closeness and responsibility, and augments emotional response to their distress.”

This social science research finds that individuals engage in different levels of processing and decision-making depending on the perceived similarity of a “victim.” Out-group members are likely to be processed more abstractly, with less emotional response (see Kogut and Ritov). These “cold cognitions” are less likely to motivate people to give than emotions, which create a “mental spotlight,” initiating an internal process that calls for immediate action.

Feelings of similarity or dissimilarity contribute to other cascading effects on a potential giving decision. When an individual perceives those affected by a disaster as dissimilar rather than similar, the impulse to help is interrupted in at least three distinct ways. First, feelings of dissimilarity can affect perceptions of how severe a situation is. Second, those feelings influence perception of the adequacy of whatever response is already in place. And finally, feelings of dissimilarity increase the likelihood of viewing those affected by a negative situation as responsible for their own suffering.

When an audience believes the subjects described in a fundraising appeal are at least partly responsible for their own situation, not only are the effects of empathy reduced, but a different set of emotions is also triggered: victims perceived to share responsibility for their situation tend to generate negative affective reactions, which further dampen altruistic impulses.

Individuals’ giving behaviour is also sharply influenced by their perceptions of others’ behaviour. Social norms have great power to sway individual behaviour and that social information can either encourage action or promote inaction. One study found that “downward” social information—the awareness that others are not giving or are giving little— can have twice as much impact as positive social information. In other words, if individuals perceive that others are not responding to an appeal, that information has double the influence on their impulse to give than if they perceive that others around them are responding.

While humanitarian organizations may launch crisis appeals as isolated events, concerning themselves with maximizing revenue on each individual appeal, their messages have always been received within particular social and psychological contexts. Before a viewer has the chance to react to the specific visual choices made by an organization in its fundraising appeals, these contextual and emotional factors are already at play, biasing the viewer either toward or away from a donation decision.

These social forces present interesting prospects for the creative communicator. Through their communications efforts both during and prior to an appeal, organizations have opportunities to encourage feelings of similarity, reduce social distance, use social information to encourage positive behaviour and counteract prejudice—positive outcomes on their own which also increase the likelihood of donor response.

The various determinants of giving behaviour, such as the dimensions of social distance identified by Deborah Small, are closer to spectrums than they are dichotomies. There is room to nudge an audience in a desirable direction. For example, studies have found that proactive in-grouping through an appeal can positively impact giving behaviour. In other words, fundraising that frames recipients as similar and proximate rather than as helpless, distant and “other” may in fact prove more effective.

It would be misleading to deny the effectiveness of pity-based appeals. They are proven to work. They are not the only fundraising strategies that work, but they may be the easiest fundraising strategies that work. David Hudson and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson measured the impacts of various emotional pathways triggered by fundraising appeals and found pity-based appeals to be effective at increasing giving decisions by provoking both anger and guilt. The emotion of “hope” was a similarly strong predictor of giving behaviour but was much more difficult to trigger than pity. However, when they extended their analysis to look at the impact on their audience after an appeal, a different picture emerged. After measuring the links between different emotional responses and their impact on decisions to give, Hudson and vanHeerde-Hudson also measured potential long-term effects on givers. They found a clear pattern where those who felt pity were likely to make an immediate giving decision, but also expressed reduced confidence in their gifts making a difference and a reduced sense of hope for the future. In other words, they gave to ameliorate an uncomfortable, temporary feeling, but in the process, they became less likely to give in the future. Humanitarian organizations interested in cultivating a strong, sustainable donor base should be concerned not just with immediate results, but with the long-term effects of their fundraising efforts.

No serious humanitarian organization should allow itself to define its communications objectives solely in terms of a dollar amount. A fundraiser’s first concern may be the bottom line, but the real impacts of their public communications extend beyond an organization’s revenue sheet. An organization’s decisions about how to portray its work carry real-world implications not only for itself, but for both potential donors and the beneficiaries of its work. The ethical weight of these decisions should never be forgotten.

Raising funds by telling other people’s stories is a complex endeavor, but for the organization willing to question its habits and learn from research, there should be a clear conclusion: successful fundraising and dignified portrayals of beneficiaries do not need to be mutually exclusive—and they may go better hand-in-hand.

David Turner, MCC Manitoba communications coordinator, lives and works on Treaty One territory.


Learn More 

Einolf, Christopher J. “Is Cognitive Empathy More Important than Affective Empathy?” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2012): 268–271.

Banfield, Jillian C. and John F. Dovidio. “The Role of Empathy in Responding to Natural
Disasters.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2012):276–279.

Hudson, David, Jennifer VanHeerde-Hudson, Niheer Dasandi and N. Susan Gaines. Emotional Pathways to Engagement with Global Poverty: An Experimental Analysis.” University College London, 2016.

McManus, Jessica L. and Donald A Saucier. “Helping Natural Disaster Victims Depends on Characteristics and Perceptions of Victims.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2012): 272–275.

Oppenheimer, Daniel M. and Christopher Y. Olivola. The Science of Giving: Experimental
Approaches to the Study of Charity. Psychology Press, 2011.

Conflicto y asistencia humanitaria

[Articulos Individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Otoño del 2019 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

Alberto Mosquera, navegando en su bote en esta foto de marzo de 2018, es un agricultor en la región del Bajo San Juan de Chocó, Colombia. Mosquera participa en un proyecto de cacao de la organización asociada del CCM Weaving Hope Agricultural Foundation (FAGROTES / Fundación Agropecuaria Tejiendo Esperanza). A través del proyecto, Mosquera recibió asistencia técnica en el cultivo y procesamiento del cacao. (Foto del CCM / Alex Morse).

Cada año, el CCM responde a docenas de desastres y crisis en todo el mundo que desplazan a decenas de miles de personas. En muchos casos, las personas que necesitan asistencia han sido desplazadas por el conflicto. En su informe más reciente de tendencias mundiales sobre el desplazamiento forzado, el Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados (ACNUR) informó de un número récord de personas desplazadas de sus hogares a fines de 2018 como resultado de persecución, conflicto, violencia y violaciones de los derechos humanos, incluyendo 25.9 millones de personas refugiadas y 41.3 millones de personas desplazadas internamente, con 37,000 nuevos desplazamientos cada día. Este contexto de violencia informa no solo el tipo de respuesta que el CCM apoya, sino también la forma en que se lleva a cabo la respuesta.

El trabajo de asistencia del CCM se adhiere al Estándar Humanitario Básico (2014) sobre calidad y responsabilidad que busca mantener a las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis en el centro de cualquier respuesta. Basado en los principios de humanidad, imparcialidad, neutralidad e independencia, el EHB establece nueve compromisos que las agencias que llevan a cabo respuestas humanitarias deben cumplir para mejorar la asistencia que brindan:

  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis reciben la asistencia adecuada y relevante para sus necesidades.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis tienen acceso a la asistencia humanitaria que necesitan en el momento adecuado.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis no se ven negativamente afectadas y están más preparadas, son más resistentes y tienen menos riesgos como resultado de la acción humanitaria.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis conocen sus derechos y beneficios, tienen acceso a la información y participan en las decisiones que les afectan.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis tienen acceso a mecanismos seguros y responsivos para manejar las quejas.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis reciben asistencia coordinada y complementaria.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis pueden esperar una mejor asistencia a medida que las organizaciones aprenden de la experiencia y reflexión.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis reciben la asistencia que requieren de personal y voluntarios competentes y bien administrados.
  • Las comunidades y personas afectadas por las crisis pueden esperar que las organizaciones que les ayudan gestionen los recursos de manera efectiva, eficiente y ética.

No es suficiente simplemente distribuir suficiente comida o enviar la cantidad necesaria de cobijas. La consulta auténtica con las comunidades afectadas es esencial para garantizar que la respuesta humanitaria sea apropiada y relevante, efectiva y oportuna, fortalezca las capacidades locales y responda a la retroalimentación de la comunidad. La respuesta del CCM en situaciones de conflicto debe considerar la seguridad física de las personas participantes y del personal así como el acceso a las poblaciones afectadas. Los proyectos no solo responden a las necesidades tangibles como alimentos y refugio, sino que también abordan las necesidades psicosociales muy reales que surgen del trauma del desplazamiento, violencia y destrucción de hogares y comunidades. La asistencia humanitaria en estos contextos requiere un buen análisis de conflictos para garantizar que la prestación de asistencia no agrave el conflicto y cause más daño que bien.

Los artículos en este número de Intersections exploran las formas en que el CCM, junto con sus organizaciones asociadas locales, ha estado abordando estas complejidades de proporcionar asistencia humanitaria en medio de conflictos en contextos tan variados como Colombia, Nigeria, Sudán del Sur, Líbano y Siria. Cada caso examinado en estos artículos contribuye al aprendizaje continuo del CCM en aras de mejorar su trabajo futuro, ofreciendo lecciones sobre el mantenimiento de la imparcialidad de la respuesta humanitaria, analizando diferentes tipos de desvío de la asistencia humanitaria, obteniendo el apoyo de los hombres para intervenciones humanitarias dirigidas a las mujeres, integrando la sensibilidad al conflicto en la respuesta humanitaria, construyendo capacidades locales para la paz y fortaleciendo la sostenibilidad de los proyectos de asistencia humanitaria.

Stephanie Dyck es coordinadora del programa de contribuciones externas del CCM Líbano y Siria.

Norma Humanitaria Esencial: corehumanitarianstandard.org