Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Organization Profile: Africa Community Technical Service

This is the last of 3 posts looking at different organizations I may potentially partner with.

The Africa Community Technical Service (ACTS) is a Canadian organization that works with local churches and community groups to help facilitate development in local regions. ACTS works with local residents to identify issues impeding development, and then provides some technical assistance to complete projects and build the local expertise to maintain projects into the future.

ACTS works to simultaneously address the many inter-related issues that lead to poverty. Their current projects address issues such as: water supply, agro-forestry, income generation, skills transfer, health, land rights, HIV/AIDS, and environmental conservation. This multi-pronged strategy is in response to failures that have been observed when focusing solely on one issue. For example, a doctor may come to treat symptoms of a water-borne illness. However, if the source of the water contamination is not removed, the disease will return. But then, if a project is completed to bring clean water, if the residents do not have the skills to maintain the system, it will eventually fall apart. When tackled simultaneously, these inter-related problems can be solved. However, the going can be slow and the work takes patience and perseverance. It requires a deep relationship with all people involved.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Organization Profile: A Single Drop

"Teach a man to fish..." We all know how to finish that saying. It sticks with us because it makes intuitive sense - teach someone how to provide for themselves, and they will no longer need your help. Basically, this is the work A Single Drop does - teaching local organizations the basics of water technologies and implementation so that they can do it themselves.
A Single Drop started in the Philippines and has recently expanded to Africa. Their philosophy focuses on providing a training workshop to local communities, which afterward will form a water group to manage local water resources. This training lasts for several weeks, with each week covering different aspects of implementing a community-wide water program. The first week teaches the community how to inventory their needs and identify areas for improvement. The second week is devoted to teaching the actual water technologies - embankments, rainwater collection, sand filters, sanitary toilets, etc. The last two weeks focus on budgeting, fund raising, and bookkeeping.

A Single Drop provides the training to implement projects - the actual construction is left to the local communities. This ensures that the communities take ownership of their own development. Also, by explaining water issues during the first week of training, A Single Drop helps to "open the communities eyes" so to speak, but doesn't tell the community what it needs. In this way, the community learns to identify its own problems. It can then look to the available technologies and decide which is most appropriate to their situation. The solution may look different for each group.A Single Drop follows a philosophy of growing influence in the world of development NGO's - working alongside communities to provide assistance, but not just giving things away. The idea is that when recipients take ownership of their development, the projects that are established will last long after the group providing assistance has left. In this way, long-term, sustainable development can be achieved.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Organization Profile: Medair

Planning ahead is a good thing - after all, it's what we teach our sons in the Boy Scouts. Planning ahead can make it easier and faster to adapt to changes. For example, bringing a rain jacket to India during the Monsoon season is probably a good idea.

But if you plan too much, you come burdened to your destination with things you'll likely never need. And if you plan for a specific set of circumstances that don't happen, you can find yourself with skills or items that are no longer needed. You're not flexible to handle the unexpected.

And so it's been a hard decision for me to leave some of the "pre-planning" for this time in Africa until after I arrive. The most important decision I have still to make is which organization I'll be partnering with when I arrive. I'm not fitting neatly into any organization's application process - the truth is I'm making some of this up as I go along. But it's also a tremendous lesson in leaving up my direction and expectations to God. And so as I arrive in Uganda, I will be meeting with several organizations to get a hands-on look at what they do. With time, I'm confident there will be an organization that will be a good mutual fit. Since my trip to Uganda last Fall, I've found 3 different organizations that I think may be a great opportunity. Over the next 3 posts I'll outline what they do. The first is Medair.The Organization
Medair is a Swiss organization that does relief and rehabilitation work in many countries all over the world, including Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Madagascar, and Uganda. Their work in Uganda focuses on the devastation caused by the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal force that terrorized the population (especially children) of northern Uganda. Though the fighting has subsided (at least in Uganda), the physical and psychological wounds require much healing. This is where Medair steps in.

Medair provides two services as a result of humanitarian disasters. The first is immediate relief; as soon as is possible, Medair staff arrive to assess the situation and begin work. They have three areas of expertise: health, water & sanitation, and shelter & infrastructure. Medair works to provide each of these to return the impacted region to its previous level of these services.

Once immediate relief is provided, Medair then begins the rehabilitation process. In this stage, Medair trains local staff and population to provide health, sanitation and shelter without outside assistance. This is known as "capacity building". Through this work Medair ensures that the relief provided will be sustainable in the future.

Medair is not a development organization, and so there are many regions in need of assistance that may not be candidates for Medair's assistance. Instead, Medair focuses specifically on regions most hard hit by humanitarian disasters - in this way limited resources and expertise are used to the greatest effect.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Need

There is a lot of need in this world - we see it every day. If you've been to the global church conferences at First Pres Berkeley, you've seen the vast need to address dire issues in our world, such as HIV/AIDS and human trafficking and sexual exploitation. But because we're simply limited people, with genuinely important personal issues to address, the din just needs to be tuned out.

Sometimes one must start yelling a little bit louder in response, however. Why should access to clean water and sanitation be as important as these other truly tragic issues? The answer is that water is the foundation upon which a functioning society is built. If there's no clean water, people are no longer able to sustain themselves. The result is poverty, and people in their poverty become vulnerable to exploitation, both from nature and tragically, other people.

Crunching the Numbers
Huge numbers can often obscure reality rather than reveal it; and yet the scale of suffering due to unhealthy water calls for such numbers. Helpfully, the World Health Organization has provided some visuals to help better digest some of the data:

About 2.6 billion people (40% of humanity) do not have 'improved sanitation', which means they have no access to even pit latrines, and their excrement is in danger of contaminating food and drinking water sources. Eastern/Southern Africa has the least access to sanitation as a proportion of the population. In sub-Saharan Africa, the richest 20% area 5 times more likely to have access to safe sanitation than the poorest 20%.

Drinking Water
Clean water is closely related to good sanitation. When human waste is properly removed, it doesn't contaminate the water supply. However, diseases can run rampant when waste enters the water supply. Recently, there have been terrible outbreaks of cholera in Zimbabwe and DR Congo because violent disruptions in those countries have forced people to flee their homes and leave safe water supplies behind.

And finally, here's a graphic to give you a sense of how many people, especially children, die each year from diarrhea (which is caused principally through poor sanitation):

Why are so many children dying from something so simple to treat as diarrhea, not nearly so hard to treat as AIDS?

Sunday, March 1, 2009


As you know, we all need some clean water to lead a decent life. You know - to clean our clothes, to clean our smelly bodies, to do our dishes, to disinfect, to cook, to defecate, and of course, to drink. Ironically, because of it's very necessity we in the rich world have developed amazing ways of just forgetting about it. Our water systems are so good (usually) that we forget how vital it really is. Lately, we've heard about our lack of rain in California, so it's been a bit more on our minds than usual. But not by much; be honest - how much shorter are your showers these days?

But there are literally billions of people (perhaps 1/3 of humanity) who do not have access to clean water. When they go to the bathroom, their excrement goes into the very water that others will drink. There's not enough water to clean their hands, or wash themselves. And so the most vulnerable, as usual, are the first to die. Cholera takes the lives of the old, the infirm and children. Diarrhea will do the same. If nothing else, I can hardly fathom the indignity I would feel about using a forest or river as a bathroom.

All this could be prevented by something as simple as clean water. But the simplest of problems often have maddeningly complex issues lying just beneath the surface. And I think those issues (poverty, abuse of power, hate) ultimately come down to how we treat one another. People don't just one day wake up with no clean water. Water is a valuable and limited resource, and so the powerful will take it from the weak. Jesus' ministry has sometimes been called "the upside down kingdom" - the last shall be first. When we treat the least of us as the first, we will see the injustice of their poverty.