[Individual articles from the Spring 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Most MCC workers from Canada and the U.S. in MCC’s global programs have typically served for one-, three- and sometimes five-year terms. A relatively small number, meanwhile, have continued in service for more than five years. MCC programs have thus experienced ongoing flux in staffing. Amidst these cyclical disruptions, MCC’s “national staff” (MCC workers who serve within their own countries, such as an Indian woman who oversees MCC India’s education program or a Bolivian man who directs MCC Bolivia’s rural development program) have provided indispensable and vital stability, depth of contextual knowledge and breadth of experience to MCC programs. In this article, MCC staff from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Haiti, India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) and Nigeria, who together have over 150 years of MCC experience, reflect on shifts within MCC’s program, challenges faced, successes celebrated and lessons learned from MCC’s development work carried out in the name of Christ.
The MCC program in Bangladesh began in 1970 as a relief effort to respond to needs of victims of natural disasters. MCC responded to floods, cyclones and tidal bores with money, materials and personnel. As time went on, this relief response progressed into agricultural and economic development activities. Development efforts focused on two main initiatives: educating poor farmers how to increase crop production and empowering disadvantaged women to earn a living to support their families.
MCC’s agricultural program introduced winter vegetables and soybeans (a new crop) in its operational area. MCC introduced these crops to increase income for farming families and to help alleviate the widespread malnutrition among the rural population. The crops MCC introduced continued to be grown by farmers long after MCC stopped working in the area, providing income for farm families and food. Almost all crops grown by farmers in Bangladesh are grown with the intent of selling some or all of them for cash. In many cases farmers sell their entire crop to pay off debts and later buy the same food back by selling their labor. In the case of Bangladesh, MCC’s focus on agriculture was very appropriate.
MCC carried out its agricultural research in collaboration with the country’s agricultural research institutes. MCC’s annual research publications were valued greatly by national researchers. From the early seventies through the eighties, Bangladeshi agricultural institutions were not staffed adequately as the new country lacked the personnel and financial resources necessary to meet the needs of farmers and the agriculture sector in general. Limited government resources were used primarily to boost rice and wheat production. MCC’s work with vegetable and soybean crop research and extension was greatly appreciated by governmental agricultural researchers and extensionists alike.
Disadvantaged women were defined as those who were abandoned, divorced or widowed and who, in most cases, had children to raise. In a conservative society, normal employment outside the home was not a viable option for these women. The program therefore focused on creating jobs where these women could work from their own homes or in cloistered areas not far from their homes.
MCC Bangladesh’s job creation program helped bring about Aarong, a now nationwide and hugely successful department store created to sell products made primarily by disadvantaged women. The job creation program also spawned other business initiatives, including Saidpur Enterprises, Jute Works and Prokritee. These fair-trade businesses are now independent of MCC and are still creating jobs for disadvantaged women and bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars for their families.
In its early years of involvement in Bangladesh, MCC worked through other Private Voluntary Development Organizations (PVDOs) and with different government agencies to implement its relief and development programs. However, towards the mid-seventies, MCC began to directly implement agriculture and job creation programs. During this period, which lasted until after 2000, MCC placed highly qualified personnel to conduct research into agricultural production and job creation. These researchers worked at the grassroots level to find solutions to problems in these sectors.
During this time, MCC adopted the approach that Bangladeshi national staff should not usually make a career working for MCC, but should typically move on from MCC after a few years. This bias, coupled with a policy of three-year expatriate personnel circulating through the program, led to short-term institutional memory which in turn caused some innate weaknesses in the organization. One of these weaknesses was the lack of sustained leadership at the top due to operating with purely voluntary workers. Changes in leadership every three-to-five year caused the program to suffer. A large organization such as MCC Bangladesh would have benefited greatly from long-term leadership to provide stability, consistent direction and improved morale.
From 1972 to 2000, expatriate volunteers were the mainstay for research and extension activities in both job creation and agriculture for MCC Bangladesh. After 2000, MCC’s methodology changed drastically from “direct programming” to working through “partners.” This approach had a disadvantage in that it removed MCC from direct contact with the people it was trying to help. It was also not very successful in placing expatriate workers with partners to conduct research or extension activities as the partners chosen lacked the resources to: 1) invest in research in and development of new technological approaches and 2) work with government departments to employ expatriates. Despite these disadvantages, this shift in methodology towards partnership became more attractive as Bangladesh developed skilled people of its own who created and staffed Bangladeshi organizations and the government became more and more reluctant to allow expatriates to serve in the country as development or relief workers.
Regardless of the many changes to the program over the years, MCC’s efforts in Bangladesh have always focused on the poor, disadvantaged and those in need of aid. Its concern has always been for those who feel powerless to progress on their own, giving them the tools they need to rise out of poverty into a sustainable existence.
Derek D’Silva worked with MCC Bangladesh in multiple capacities from 1974 to 2011, most recently as MCC Bangladesh director.
Mennonite Central Committee in India has changed significantly over the decades. My life too has been changed through my association with MCC. After receiving assistance through MCC’s Vocational Training program as a young woman, I joined MCC India’s staff, where I have served for over 39 years. This service has been a tremendous honour—a journey of love, care, hope, strength and strong faith in God’s love.
Our work patterns have changed and so has the office environment. Today we have many more electronic gadgets compared to our old typewriters. While today we almost always have electricity, in the past we worked amidst power cuts for several hours a day.
MCC’s work in Kolkata is well-known by residents, especially because of the humanitarian resource items that MCC distributed for many years to schools, orphanages and old age homes. More than 300 institutions received canola oil, milk powder, soap, canned chicken and wheat through these MCC distributions, providing essential care for many children in schools and the elderly in old age homes.
The closing of the distribution program in the 1990s brought a lot of anxiety. MCC began to focus more on development work and thus did not want its partner institutions to become dependent on MCC but rather to look beyond handouts. MCC encouraged them to develop proposals for income generation activities. However, this did not always work as hoped. For example, the mission of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s mission, with which MCC worked, is to feed the poor and hungry. They do not have the means to start an income generation program. Rather they are called to give service and to date they are still taking care of orphans, the mentally challenged, the destitute and the dying.
Our education program is now more focused on access to quality education than simply on access, but still in India access to education, period, is a pressing need. The one-to-one educational sponsorship that MCC India used to operate had a personal touch and fostered relationships between sponsors and children. Each year the students sent Christmas Greetings with a letter and card, which the students enjoyed doing. This one-to-one relationship between student and sponsor got lost with the change in focus towards strengthening schools as institutions. We in the Kolkata office still maintain contact with students. When we see a student get a job after years of struggle through schooling and training, that brings satisfaction and joy to our work and the change we see in the family later is remarkable. MCC India has transformed many lives and brought smiles to the faces of students and their families. Compassion and love have made a difference in individual lives.
MCC stands out among other funding agencies because MCC respects each partner agency with whom we work. We care for people and we listen and implement our work in a just way. We trust our partners’ good work. We work as partners and do not make them feel that we are the donors and they are the receivers. Yes, we need our work done, too, so we are transparent from the beginning of the project with partners, their board members and participants about our expectations. We also share with them about MCC’s work and who supports MCC.
MCC carries out its mission without preaching the word of God. Rather, our staff live out the word of God, which one can see through their attitude, behaviour, respect for each other, compassion, just dealing and love. That is why many of the people whom we come across want to join MCC’s staff or want to become a Mennonite. I pray that this mission carries on bringing faith in Christ.
In our office, we always say, “This is God’s work and He will surely guide us through.” MCC is so fortunate to have worked with God-fearing people like Mother Teresa, the late Brother T.V. Mathews, the late Sister Florence, Dr. Johnny Oommen and many others who have served and continue to serve with compassion, love and hope. These partners and spiritual leaders are our strength and help us to be gracious, kind, humble and helpful to each other in times of need.
MCC continues to be a strong support to the impoverished and marginalized and works hard to meet the needs of the people. MCC is known for its simplicity, justice, listening attitude and commitment to building the capacity of the poor. God bless MCC!
Ayesha Kader is education sector coordinator for MCC India. She has worked with MCC for four decades.
Throughout my time with MCC, we have consistently worked to improve food security and access to safe water and sanitation facilities and to minimize the risk of violence faced by vulnerable communities. Even amidst this consistent focus, however, one can note shifts. For example, in the past MCC implemented its own projects in rural and urban communities, with a focus on the city and provinces of the Santa Cruz department. Direct implementation has given way over the past decade or two to partner accompaniment. A related shift during these past two decades has been a reduction in the number of MCC service workers assigned to live within rural communities as part of MCC’s rural development program in Bolivia. MCC continues to place workers, but its focus is now on supporting and accompanying partner organizations as those organizations, rather than MCC staff, implement rural development projects in eastern and western Bolivia.
In the past, MCC Bolivia focused its program on resettling Low German Mennonite, Quechua and Aymara families who arrived in the east of the country in search of land for building houses and growing crops. Migration today continues to be a challenge facing rural communities, as these communities struggle to meet water and food security needs. MCC continues to walk alongside farming communities, both native Indigenous and Low German Mennonite, in supporting agricultural diversification, adaptation to changing climates and cross-communal collaboration and learning.
Exchange visits with other MCC programs have been extremely valuable for MCC Bolivia staff and our partners. So, for example, an exchange visit with MCC programs in Bangladesh and Central America allowed us to share ideas about how to support and strengthen local organizations, what effective conservation agriculture programs look like, how to plan agricultural development work in a way that maximizes food security and how to accompany rural communities as they face changing climates.
Although international NGO development projects are welcome in Bolivia, they should be part of a development plan promoted by the Bolivian state. MCC’s projects, like the work of other international NGOs, are monitored more carefully today than before by government authorities. MCC has worked hard to meet Bolivian government expectations, while remaining constant in its commitment to accompany marginalized communities and standing firm in its call to serve in the name of Christ.
Patrocinio Garvizu has worked for MCC in Bolivia for twenty-five years, most recently as MCC Bolivia’s rural program coordinator. Originally from a Quechua community in western Bolivia, he has lived for many years in eastern Bolivia with his wife and two children.
I have seen many things in my years with MCC in Haiti. MCC’s history here is long—it is a sixty-year legacy of focusing on people and building local capacity in Haiti. I myself am an example of MCC’s investment in long-term and sustainable development through people. When I was called to work for MCC as a young man, almost forty years ago, I had no idea this would be my life. I could not imagine all that would happen in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley through MCC.
MCC’s work in Haiti has always placed a strong emphasis on building up local organizations and equipping local people. This has consistently been our strength. MCC has maintained a focus on community building and mobilization of community cooperation groups called gwoupman in Haitian kreyòl. MCC has prioritized accompanying the most vulnerable and worked to empower women through its programs. It has built respect for natural resources and the environment and has always maintained a focus on peace, justice and long-term change.
MCC was talking about protecting natural resources and the importance of trees since it started working in Haiti, long before other NGOs and local organizations began worrying about erosion and deforestation in the country. It has always had a long-term vision for sustainability. MCC’s work was best when we held fast to that empowering vision. A commitment to long-term sustainability is why MCC Haiti has always invested in trees. MCC helps people learn how to care for their own natural resources, like the soil, trees and water sources, helping them understand the necessity of protecting these essential resources. To build on what people have, rather than always importing solutions from the outside—that has been our focus. If we can’t protect what we have, we cannot live well or long in Haiti.
The most challenging times for MCC was during the years of military control after the Duvalier rulers. It became really challenging for MCC to work in these years. During that time there were practical challenges that kept us from doing the work as well as the spiritual and psychological challenges that come from living under fear and repression. We couldn’t plant trees and we couldn’t organize trainings to conserve the soil to help people plant better. But the most difficult thing was that we could not hold meetings or bring community members together. We could not mobilize. We could not put our hands together to support one another. This was the reality during the military years. Today we are faced with political problems again, the worst since that time. This is always our challenge in Haiti, to be on the ground, doing the work despite the political problems around us and the people that want to divide us and pull us apart.
When I think of MCC’s legacy in Haiti, I think of the green trees that cover so many mountains that used to be barren deserts, the streams that now run again in river beds that had been dry for decades, the birds that have returned and the faces of the people with whom we have worked to make this happen. We have shown people that a sustainable, hopeful future is possible and is worth investing in. People now believe that trees can be a source of income and have enough value for people to buy and plant them with the little money they have. There are communities where MCC works that now have their own self-supporting tree nurseries. We have created a business spirit around trees, for people to enter the tree business, to invest back in their own communities. MCC has created a spirit of hope that motivates people to invest in the future. They now see buying trees as something that is important because trees have economic and environmental value—people want to invest in trees because they have hope and believe they have the power to change their future. You cannot put a price on this change in mindset.
MCC’s staff and partners, in the way they do their work, their passion for their work and the way that they live out their values through service, are truly engaged in service in the name of Christ. Such service is MCC’s greatest success and is the seed of enduring development planted here in Haiti.
Jean Remy Azor is executive director of MCC Haiti partner, Konbit Peyizan. He worked previously with MCC Haiti for 37 years.
Reviewing MCC Nigeria’s history, one can see several programmatic shifts. For example, MCC’s main engagement during its initial years in Nigeria involved placing teachers from Canada and the U.S. in Nigerian schools as part of MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP). As Nigerians began graduating more teachers from universities and teacher colleges, MCC’s program expanded into a variety of other sectors, such as agricultural development, health care outreach, afforestation and more. The seeds of new ideas were planted, with some sprouting, blossoming and growing into oak trees and with others dying off. Other shifts over the past decades included:
- A transition from primarily engaging Nigerian partners through the secondment of MCC workers to also providing grants to support partners’ visions;
- A shift from churches being MCC’s primary or even exclusive partners to MCC also developing partnerships with organizations identified with other faiths (in Nigeria’s case, Islam);
- A movement from relationship building as MCC’s primary programmatic mode towards the adoption of results-based programming;
- A shift from MCC program leadership coming exclusively from Canada and the United States to Nigerians such as myself being able to take up a leadership role in my own country, a shift that values the depth of cultural and contextual knowledge Nigerians bring to MCC’s work in Nigeria.
Despite the changes in some areas of MCC’s operations in Nigeria, some things have remained constant, such as:
• working alongside partners in relationships of mutuality;
• being present to share in the joys, sufferings and challenges of the Nigerian people in the communities where MCC operates;
• building relationships with churches and vulnerable communities;
• valuing and connecting with Nigerians as people made in God’s image.
Matthew Tangbuin is MCC Nigeria representative. He has worked for MCC for 21 years.
Over the four decades of its presence in Laos, MCC has been actively involved in projects ranging from addressing the problem of unexploded ordinance (UXO), organizing teacher training, providing needed supplies for children’s education and implementing complex integrated rural development projects aimed at improving food security, nutrition and sanitation in remote villages. Throughout these varied projects, what has remained constant is an emphasis on peacebuilding. However, the focus of MCC’s peacebuilding has changed over the years, shifting from initially helping farmers come to grips with deaths from bombies to more recently helping to resolve land issues and offer conflict resolution training in rural communities.
Reflecting on my years with MCC, what stands out for me, and what I believe characterizes MCC at its best, has been working closely with villagers, sharing their triumphs and their heartaches, learning from them and witnessing slow but steady improvement in their lives. Our reward has been a sense of fulfillment in seeing renewed hope, empowerment and gratitude in the eyes of those we helped, such as the boy whose eyesight was restored after being injured by a bombie explosion and then rushed to the hospital by MCC.
If ever there was a desperate need in Laos, it was to clear bombies (unexploded bomblets) dropped by the U.S. military onto farmers’ fields in the north of the country at the height of the U.S.-led war in neighboring Vietnam. Farmers could not grow their rice crops because of the bombies— or, when they tried, many were killed and injured. In 1975, in collaboration with American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), MCC initiated efforts to reduce the ongoing damage caused by unexploded bombs and bomblets. In true MCC fashion, the MCC team worked directly with farmers, supplying shovels, oxen, plows and a shielded tractor to clear the land. This method of bombie clearance, while it had a positive impact, was inefficient and, shielded tractors aside, not always safe.
Through advocacy and public engagement, MCC sought over the ensuing twenty years to raise awareness about how unexploded bombies put Lao farmers and their families at daily risk. Then, after two decades of effort, MCC partnered with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) from the United Kingdom. In 1994 alone, MCC and MAG destroyed more than 4,000 pieces of unexploded ordinance!
In its health and integrated rural development projects, MCC has used the same effective approach of working closely with villagers in remote districts of provinces such as Huaphan, Phong Saly, Vientiane and Saysomboun. Working with village leadership, we determined and addressed their most pressing needs. Our approach worked, helping to alleviate poverty and illness. I have countless memories of seeing villagers bringing their sick children to see the MCC medical doctor early in the morning, before the dispensary was opened, grateful for access to medical care.
We had many challenges. Travel to visit poor families in remote villages was time-consuming and expensive. For the bombie clearance, MCC and the Lao government lacked technical expertise, so finding efficient and safe ways to remove bombies proved time-consuming. Raising awareness about the bombie problem took too long—it was almost twenty years after the war that the bombie problem became globally recognized.
Over the decades, MCC Laos staff have learned the value of working closely with communities, building up community peacebuilding skills, collaborating amicably with partners and various government entities (from village councils to government departments and ministries) and the centrality of the wellbeing of those we are here to help. When we have kept these principles in mind, we have had success in every endeavor we have undertaken.
Hien Phammachanh served with MCC Laos from 1984 to 2010, most recently as co-representative.
Klassen, George. The Rower Pump. Dhaka: MCC Bangladesh, 1979.