Thursday, 18 January 2018

Localisation Pick ‘n Mix

It’s easy and comfortable sitting in Headquarters passionately advocating for a commitment to localisation. After all, the theory of a localised approach to humanitarian action makes sense, we all agree that making our humanitarian action as local as possible and as international as necessary, will better address the needs of affected populations. That by engaging with local and national responders in a spirit of partnership and aiming to reinforce rather than replace local and national capacities we will deliver a more sustainable impact.
localisation means recognising, respecting and strengthening leadership and decision-making by local and national actors in humanitarian action, in order to better address the needs of affected populations.
Aligning our strategies with the World Humanitarian Summit imperative and ensuring a commitment by humanitarian actors to deliver on the theory is easy. It really does make sense and it is not as if it is a new initiative or principle. Governments and academics may have coined a new term and re-defined the principle – but most humanitarian actors (and many faith communities) have been committed to the principles of local ownership and action for decades. (Conversely, and in truth, as many governments and actors have not – a paternal, colonial approach is much easier and quicker.)

But then, one day the academic, the politician and the strategist visit the field! They spend time in a disaster-prone community, they meet a school principal who regularly evacuates his school because of flood, they meet with groups who support women who have experienced intimate partner violence. They meet real people, living in difficult and complex real-life contexts, within a community that is not as structured and supported as home. And, almost instantly, the champion of inclusive localisation theory, the passionate advocate of self-governance and ownership transforms into a paternalistic colonial. “Why are they still operating in that area if it is flooded regularly? Why haven’t you (the NGO) moved them? Why are you not making the government department move them?”

The gap between theory and practice is revealed in the field. I am a passionate advocate for localisation, always have been, whether we called it that or not, but it’s not as easy as you might think, and want. While it is a principle that can be mandated by donors and international stakeholders – it is not a practice that can be assumed, a mindset easily adopted or even believed in by all humanitarian professionals. When faced by the realities of injustice and inequity localisation is not often the first principle to jump to mind and practice.

You can’t pick ‘n mix what parts of localisation you like. You can’t mandate that all funds will go to local actors, but their decision on how to spend it will be subject to donor approval. You can’t pretend you are empowering the local government but then dictate how and where they will build facilities.

The principles of localisation are good and right, as international actors we must work to operationalise the theory, but let’s not pretend it’s easy and that we will always get the results we want, or think they should have. (Nor should donors imagine they will always get the quality of compliance or transparency they demand if they require localisation.) Giving people ownership, ensuring that they choose their priorities requires giving up my control and trusting them, even if I don’t agree. (And maybe working on informing their decisions and priorities through relationship and trust – not compliance.)

Friday, 22 December 2017


It’s about 10 meters long and 10 meters wide, it’s unavoidable and it’s infamous. It’s outside the Rove Police Station in Honiara (Solomon Islands) and it’s the reason why it takes over an hour to travel 6km home.

There is only one road through Honiara, west to east, and this is a section of it. So, when, because of the latest downpour it takes on the nature of steroid infused swiss cheese, when there are more potholes, (that is, craters) than there is road – drivers are forced to a go-slow – around, through and head on - in both directions. Until, one day the road is graded and, while it could not be called ‘carpet road’ it is flat and easily navigable.

There is now need for excessive caution or potential head on collision at 5 km/h and yet despite the fix, drivers still go slow, and meander erratically - as a result there is still a backup of traffic.

I have plenty of time to contemplate the pothole, and I wonder: are there some lessons to learn from the pothole for the industry in which I work? I think of a couple:

1. The road is apparently a never-ending cycle of repair and despair. Instead of a once and for all fix more sand and gravel is tipped in and flattened down; for a time it looks and feels good. The art of the quick fix.
If only it were that easy and yet despite the logic and the benefit of experience we do the same in the world of aid and development. It is so much easier and quicker, and often looks good on the nightly media round-up to lay down some dollars – feed some people, build a facility, pay off some debt. 
To fix the root cause and to invest in the foundation takes more time, more effort and potentially upsets some power holders. It is so much easier, and cheaper, to avoid upsetting the system and just fill in the potholes. Even if changing the system, addressing the root cause, building strong foundations, (sealing the road) could result in sustained and beneficial life change, (and in the end actually be cheaper). 
2. What fascinates me about the driving conditions after the road repair is that despite the fix drivers still slow down to crawl through as though nothing has changed. What does it take for people to trust the fix after so many false starts?  
People are desperate for help, desperate for hope - but frightened to trust, frightened to believe that anything has changed. Do people just become so used to the way life is that even when they can see a fix they are more comfortable being cautious? Making things look good is easy, changing behaviours is the harder route – it requires a reason, time and trust. 
Until we can convince people that the fix, and we, can be trusted why should they change their behaviour? (And here in Honiara, all we have proved is that the road fix cannot be trusted – two days after the fix the road is as bad as ever as the rain washes away the fill.)
Our job is to push back against the quick fix with the associated media grab and brand boost. There will be no lasting hope without trust and there can be no trust without results.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Star Thrower

people were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2014-2016 (UNFAO)
forcibly displaced people worldwide
refugees, over half of which are children under 18 years old
45% of all child deaths, in 2011, were the result of undernutrition
people a day are forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict and persecution

THE WATER is a little choppy in the lagoon as the tide begins to turn, but I am determined to keep going – to reach my predetermined goal, before I turn around. Other than the sound of waves lapping against the paddle-board there is nothing, and no one, out here. The water is a translucent silver-green and below me I can see to the sea bed where brightly coloured and oddly shaped fish dart quickly from my shadow. In contrast to the manic fish, static among the coral and scattered like coloured confetti, are a multitude of star-fish - bright blue, red dotted, orange, green and brown - as far as I can see and for as far as I venture.

I am a long way from Darling Harbour Convention Centre in Sydney were recently I addressed a group of scientists on the subject of feeding the hungry in a complex humanitarian crisis. As part of the presentation I was asked to set the scene – to outline the scope of the global need. The numbers (above) are enormous, overwhelming and incomprehensible. The need is unprecedented in our history. As a result, for most, because the need and numbers are unfathomable we prefer to ignore, or at least excuse ourselves from the solution because ‘my little can’t possibly make a difference’.

Describing the context and rattling off the numbers in the comfort and excesses of Darling harbour is a far cry from where I am now, and where I have been in these last weeks. The statistics become personal in the eyes of the East Timorese child who will eat one meal a day, walk five kilometres to school and then go home to collect water from the river before helping her mum collect fire wood for sale the next day. Or in the story of the young Fijian boy who because of his disability was unable to get into the evacuation centre when the cyclone hit his village.

Four million Pacific Island people live in poverty – almost half the total population. Poor child and maternal health care, contaminated water, poor sanitation and a lack of education about nutrition are wasting opportunities, wasting lives and killing people. (Oxfam)

As I glide across the water with the uncountable number of star-fish below me, the sea breeze picks
up and I find it harder to make progress into the waves and the wind. I am reminded of the story of the Star Thrower (Loren Eiseley) and I am almost overturned by the prompt that I have a decision to make (again – because it’s a recurrent prompt). I can choose to be overwhelmed, throw my hands in the air with despair and ignore the need because the numbers are just too mind boggling, and the needs way to complex, or I can try to make a difference for that one boy, or that one girl that play in the dirt in front of me now.

So, like I did on the water, I keep going – often against the tide and into the wind – and I choose to make a difference – for that one.


'It made a difference for that one'

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out 'Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?'

The young man paused, looked up, and replied 'Throwing starfish into the ocean.'

'I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?' asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, 'The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die.'

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, 'But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!'

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, 'It made a difference for that one.'

So, can I encourage you to take the time to do something that will make a difference to someone else's life ... and it doesn't have to be much and they don't need to know. Just take a moment, do something special.

[Adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)]

Friday, 28 July 2017

The Impact of Water

 A lack of rain, resulting in a dry and dusty drought has become the norm for most of the inhabitants of Timor Leste and has resulted in a drastic change of lifestyle for many.

After travelling 70km, which took three hours along terrible roads (when does a road lose the right to be called a road?) with some stunning views, I arrive in the district of Baucau, in the sub-village of Caicua. The greeting is warm and the coffee is sweet, and as we sit speaking about the challenges and the past, Luis, the Caicua village chief, expresses thanks to World Vision and the Australian people for the (literally) lifesaving interventions that have meant, among other things, that water is available for some within ten meters of their homes.

In years past, the majority (80%) of Timorese people were engaged in agricultural livelihoods, with most of these working their own subsistence farms. (In 2009), about 67,000 households grew coffee, with a large proportion being the poorest. Before the drought, when there was water, many in Caicua grew rice which fed their families and supplied some extra income. But when the rains stopped, so did the paddy field yields. Today most of the village relies on gathering firewood to sell in larger markets and the harvesting of palm tree products for building materials and consumption.

Life has changed for the villagers; those that stayed have adapted their lifestyles to the new reality, but many have left and moved to larger towns where water is still available.

World Vision, with Australian Government (DFAT) funding began operating in this district in 2009, before the drought, but in the last two years together with the community World Vision has established new water points, trained people in appropriate farming methods, value add food processing, and financial management through savings groups.

The impact of the supply of water should not be underestimated. Following one of the possible
‘impact chains’ reveals that the results of the water include: adequate water supply for household needs (drinking, cooking and cleaning) and home garden use: resulting in increased and diversified garden yield: which improves family consumption and health (increased vitamin A, iron and protein) and provides surplus yield available for market: which increases household income: ‘extra income’ can be invested in village savings groups (70% of members are women): meaning that children can attend school because parents can pay for school uniform and school resources. Impact? Children are educated: children are healthier: Children and their parents have better likelihood of living life in all its fullness.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Inexplicable Kaleidoscopes of Emotion

I was standing on a rise overlooking line upon line of domed blue and white tents connected by a maze of narrow rocky roads and a spiders web of electrical cables hanging symmetrically and swinging rhythmically from metal poles. Outside some of the tents small satellite dishes pointed hopefully to the sky some sitting atop 44 gallon drums of kerosene – a families fuel for cooking and heating. Water connection points dotted the campscape and communal bathroom facilities rose above the tents marking out the symmetry and revealed an allegiance to international standards of IDP camp design. In the distance a water tower the size of a small apartment block interrupted the picturesque mountain-scape that dominated the far distant horizon. 

There is a harsh permanent beauty to this place that has been overtaken by uncertainty, fear and incomprehension. In the far distance snow capped mountains guard the valley and feed a small stream that meanders around the mesh and razor wire fence. Contained within the fence, thousands of families – most arrived within the last 5 months, some in the last days – are trying to make sense of the latest, and what looks like a more permanent eviction from their homes and neighbourhoods.

Mosul is about 20 kilometres away, and as I sit listening to another story of displacement I ‘feel’ and hear the whump of exploding air ordinance. The people around me don’t even flinch. They speak of running from homes as bullets explode in walls around them and as aircraft scream overhead firing rockets into the neighbourhood. Some had a day or two to get out – reading the signs, watching the news – hoping that it was not as they heard – but eventually and reluctantly getting out before all hell broke loose. Others got caught in the crossfire or the unpredictability of a war – escaping as soon as they could and mostly by cover of night. Many, many were not so lucky. 

I met families (and church leaders) who spoke of thousands of Yezidi women still held captive by Islamic State – including their relatives – girls as young as 7. I heard stories of bravery in the face of fear, of neighbour supporting neighbour and of people from surrounding cities such as Erbil driving their own cars toward the fighting to pickup strangers who had fled on foot – bringing them to safety and temporary housing in their own communities. 

I wonder how I can describe the scale and the ‘feeling’ of these fenced off places; but more importantly how can I convey the stories of the people who survive here? How can I convince the world, or more realistically the people in my sphere of influence that this is not right, this is not something we can ignore, this is not ‘other’? One of my roles is surely to communicate the unfairness and injustice; the overwhelming and insatiable need; the disappointment, the anger, the frustration, the gratitude, the fear, the hope, the confusion? Theirs is an inexplicable kaleidoscope of emotions and response. But, I don’t have the words to do this description justice. 

I sit with a family in their (tent) home: there are twelve people, three families in these two tents. A new baby was born to the family just last night, in the tent next door, without proper medical support, (Mum and baby are in care now doing alright but the baby is jaundiced). A one year old cries for Mum; two beautiful teenage girls sit quietly, almost on top of their dad; an 84 year old grandma sits in the corner wrapped in blankets, she says nothing; a young man and woman arrive to join us – announcing that they have just got engaged – they offer us sweet tea, and lunch, hospitality they can hardly afford. 

But when asked about their feelings about the future – they have little hope that they will go home anytime soon. If they had the money they would get out of Iraq – “to America or Australia” where they have relatives – and what was there to go home to anyway? 

Mosul was a big multi-ethnic city. A major economic, educational and cultural hub. One person I spoke with (who has family in Australia and has visited them) called it the Melbourne of Iraq. Can you imagine if Melbourne was attacked in the same way? If the East of the Yarra was systematically and deliberately destroyed by heavy artillery and street by street warfare, if snipers located on roofs on the West bank were shooting at any movement on the East. If over three quarters of the population had to flee east and north and live in tents throughout winter? 

I honestly can’t imagine it, it seems inconceivable - and yet to these displaced residents of a once proud Mosul it was equally unlikely - and yet that is the equivalent.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Azraq Refugee Camp - The Jordanian Desert

When he lived back home in Syria, Faisal was a semi-professional basketball player, a personal trainer and a sports coach. With his wife and three children he lived in a nice house, in a normal neighbourhood. He had work, he and his family were doing well. But that was 4 years ago – then one night the bombing and the fighting started. And it didn’t stop for days. When it did, (temporarily as it turned out) one of Faisal’s brothers was dead and he was injured. It was that night he, with 5 of his brothers and their families decided it was time to go. 

What followed was a journey that Faisal says he will never forget. His wife and he, with their 4, 3 and 1 year olds, walked away from their home, taking only what they could carry. For six hours, through the night for fear of being attacked, they walked through the desert to the Jordanian border; they were then lucky to be picked up by a passing trucker who let them ride in the back of his truck for a further 6 hours before they arrived at the border where they were ‘welcomed’ by the Jordanian military. 

It was much easier back then, Jordan was open to Syrian refugees – after all it was only going to be for a few weeks, maybe a few months, and then they would all be going home. And so, after two days of processing, they were transported to Zaatari Refugee Camp where they lived in a tent for six months before deciding to rent a place in the community. 

Unfortunately, not all Jordanians welcome the Syrians, and so after 18 months Faisal moved his family into Azraq Refugee Camp, where his fourth child, a little girl was born. This is like no other camp I have ever seen before. Mainly because it is located in the most desolate, isolated environment imaginable. Literally in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, the Jordanian government, learning lessons from Zaatari has, with UN and international partners, built a fit for purpose camp. 

38,000 people live here now, in row upon row of white corrugated iron sheds, in four ‘villages’, but there’s room for more. The camp is approximately 8km x 4km of barren, dusty desert. There are no trees, and the only (artificial) green in the whole place is three small, enclosed soccer fields that World Vision has built. These are the home of a very well organised soccer league, coached by premiership coaches and under the patronage of HRH Prince Hussein of Jordan – these games are serious business. (One of the fields in enclosed in maroon tarps for the girls and women to play.)

World Vision has been working in Azraq since its opening in April 2014 when, with local partners, it built the roads, and laid the original water and sanitation infrastructure. Today World Vision funds and operates a kindergarten for 5 year olds where 300 children a day (for a semester) are given tuition and basic life skills to assist them in preparation for entry into school. In parallel with the tuition the children are carefully monitored and basic psychosocial support is given, or if needed they are referred to partners for more specialised care. 

In addition to this, and funded in part by World Vision Australia, we partner with the World Food Program to distribute school lunches to over 7,000 children in six schools, every day. This is a vital part of the health program in the camp – and the kids love it! 

I sit on the floor in Faisal’s home after visiting these programs in the camp. His wife has brought us coffee and sweet cakes, and we sit talking about life here in Azraq. Obviously he wants to be back home, in his house – if it still exists – but since that’s not possible he says, “you have to make life, you have to be happy”. Two of his children are at school and happy, his wife has friends around her and they support one another, he has some work (which subsidises the UN allowance) with one of the UN agencies. He is coaching sports and this coming weekend he will run his second marathon in Aqaba – a refugee entrant. Outside his house he has plastic containers with green plants hanging off the walls – this garden is his statement of hope in a restricted world. 

Don’t misunderstand me, this place is not nice: just a few weeks ago it was freezing cold, wet and muddy, in a few weeks as summer kicks in it will climb up to 50C outside, but for too many people this (and places like it throughout Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq) is home. 

The Syrian conflict enters its seventh year this month and there is no end in sight. The selfish politics and greed of too many stakeholders seems endless and uncaring of the cost on ordinary Syrians. Faisal doesn’t believe he will be taking his family home anytime soon, and is thinking of how he can get them out to another country where there are opportunities and hope for the children. In the meantime, they continue to need our support to ‘make life and be happy’.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Shining a Light on the Future for Vulnerable Children

The classroom was bright, colourful, ordered and alive with energy – a stark contrast to the vast dusty beige and confusion of the environment outside the high concrete walls of the school.

Ahmad, with 24 other children, was sitting at a brightly coloured table sticking felt eyes on a plastic plate forming a smiley face. Lifting it up in front of his face he smiled shyly from behind the mask at his Mum, Aaliyah, and she smiled back. Life had changed dramatically for Ahmad and his classmates in the last 4 years. 

Three and a half years ago, as a result of the war coming to her home town in Syria, Aaliyah and her husband had fled their home with a one year old boy. ‘We were scared, our family and friends were being killed by bombs, we didn’t understand what was happening, but we had to leave’. They left everything they owned except what they could carry and crossed the border, (nit as easy as it sounds) with thousands of others, into Jordan.

Today, they live in the Rusaife community, life is difficult, Aaliyah rarely has enough food for the family, which now includes a little girl, but the issue that concerned her most was the wellbeing of her little boy. Ahmad may have only been one when they fled their home in Syria, but Aaliyah believes the things he had seen and heard affected his life - he was withdrawn and quiet. 

But when, twelve months ago, World Vision commenced the NOUR project in Atika School Ahmad was one of the lucky ones. With fifty other children from a waiting list of hundreds Ahmad was selected to join the 2016 intake. Today he attends the preparation classes that will give him the best chance possible to be ready for grade one in the next school intake. In parallel with the Jordanian school curriculum he receives some support through a children’s psychosocial program, and Aaliyah is enrolled in ‘parenting classes’ where she learns some tools to help her support her children to flourish.

Many Syrian refugees live in host communities throughout Jordan. With the huge influx of Syrian’s into Jordan (More than one million people) over the past 5 years, the education system has been overwhelmed. Together with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, World Vision has begun the “NOUR” programme: Arabic for Light, the program will seek “To shine light on the future of vulnerable children, their families and communities”.

The Education component of this multi-sector program will will assist 2,000 refugee and host community girls and boys to access gender and child friendly education. We have established four Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centres in four governorates of Jordan, building forty classrooms and renovating facilities in six schools. World Vision will train 200 teachers in child friendly methodologies and will form ten child parliaments. 

As Aaliyah speaks with us today, she says thank you, over and over again. Her boy smiles, he plays and he is learning – ‘I cannot ask for more’ she says.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

I Can't Help Everyone: But Everyone Needs Help!

How many of you remember this image?  For those not as chronologically mature as I am this was a state of the art electronic arcade game. For many, it was the scene of many misspent teenage hours.

I’ve been in Amman for a few days now, working alongside colleagues in the Jordan, Syria and Regional offices. Each day my day starts with a short walk from the hotel to the office. It’s not far, but due to the absence of footpaths, the apparent disregard for road rules, and the chaotic traffic, it reminds me of Frogger. Except that Frogger was ordered and there was a pattern! There is no pattern here, there are lanes, but they are ignored — but when you cross the roads it is like you have been transported (ala Tron) into the (badly) pixelated world of dodgem cars. (You know how they tell you “do not intentionally hit the cars”, but let’s face it that’s why you drive a dodgem car– there’s no dodging, there’s only revenge!)

But I noticed this morning that where there was hesitation on day 1, there is now an inherent confidence almost an arrogance in my stride as I step out boldly into the traffic to cross the road. If you wait on the side for a break in the traffic, you will go nowhere; but calculate your best chance, step out with confidence and it’s almost as if the cars bow their heads and say — well done, you win!

These random thoughts were milling around in my head this morning as I was contemplating the state of the world and trying to work out how I balance the seemingly unending needs of the world with the resources available. Part of my role is to advise the organisation in its response to complex humanitarian crises; to weigh up the needs with the resources, to understand the organisations global response, identify the gaps and determine if there is a part that we can play.

Today we have famine declared in South Sudan, potential famine in Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. Ongoing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. We have drought and weather crises in Southern Africa; earthquakes in Haiti and Solomon Islands; floods in Sri Lanka and Peru, wildfires in Chile, and a historically unprecedented number (65M) of displaced people. (And that’s not all!)

It feels like Frogger: all shapes, sizes and conditions of vehicles bearing down on me, on us, and not in nice neat lines, but from random directions and with varying velocities. No sooner have you dodged one than another lines you up for the strike.

In my role, perhaps my hardest decision is trying to work out who to help. How do we decide whose need is the greatest? I appreciate that we need to prioritise and strategise; I understand that we have limited resources and we need to focus on where we can have the greatest impact. But in making these subjective choices (albeit informed by our best data and knowledge) it still means that there are desperate people (asking for help) that we choose not to help. I can define my value proposition and I can couch this ‘prioritisation’ in all the best strategy speak I like but in the end it is a choice I make (we make) - do I help her, or him?

When I am given a dollar, how do I choose that the priority is to help the boy who fled Mosul and now has no home or prospect of education rather than the Somali girl who is desperately hungry because the rains have failed and the crops are dust? And what about the child that lives in the country I can’t even access because the risk is too great because of war — how is that fair, or right?

As I thread my way through the 5 ‘lanes’ of traffic I eyeball the guy that inches forward just as I step in front of him and I hear myself saying: I can’t help everyone; but everyone needs help! I can’t do everything; but everything needs doing!
And so today, I sit with colleagues hearing again of the immeasurable and unfathomable cost of the Syria conflict, the children who are frightened, hungry, alone and their need for more — more cash, more time, more food, more water, more advocacy, more hope... and at the same time my inbox fills with pleas for help from others who feel hopeless to respond to the growing needs in Somalia, in South Sudan and... 

I am called to be a change maker — that call came for me a long time before I joined World Vision, but today my thoughts are with the multi-millions who need our help. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t spend time developing our best strategy and choosing our priorities — we need to be smart otherwise we risk being ineffective — but I am saying it is never that easy. I wish it were as easy as making a strategic decision and enacting it — but then I remember that child: the one I met in a freezing cold tent in Lebanon; the one I buried in Sri Lanka; the one I played soccer with in Mongolia. When I translate the strategic decision into a face, a name, a story, when I look behind the data to the person—then it becomes raw and real.

My experience is that being a change maker always comes at some cost! There will be a cost to me personally, but it is only as, and if, I make the decision to be an agent of change in my sphere of influence that the organisation stands a chance of being influential and transformative and it is only then that I can honestly stand before those that support us and say — we are doing our best.

But before you think that it is all cost, gloom and hopelessness — let me hasten to add that there are also times of amazing fulfilment and joy as you see lives transformed, communities empowered — children laughing, smiling and dancing - because of the work and the choices that you are part of.

We stand on the side of the road watching the traffic stream toward us; we can choose to stand there paralysed by the chaos and risk, and in so doing be impotent to effect change, or we can watch for the ‘gaps’ and step out tentatively, confidently, arrogantly — we can risk doing something or nothing, we can risk messing it up or making it good — but one way or another we will be Change Makers.

[Daryl Crowden: February 2017]

Saturday, 23 July 2016


His eyes filled with tears as he spoke passionately about the impact of reducing Aid budgets. He spoke of the effects of the worst drought in 30 years; of one community rationing themselves to 1 litre of water a day (which the women and girls collect in 25l jerry-cans from between 500m and 3km away); of another where 99% of children under 5 are malnourished, about 60% chronically; of another where conflict has surfaced because one has a shallow well, and the other an open source.

Let’s face it, no matter how you do the maths, no matter what data you use, no matter what the method of analysis used to make the decisions and choose priorities, the outcomes and the life choices are “sub-optimal” – or just plain lousy!

How do you tell the mother of a vulnerable, hungry child that you can’t help support her with nutrition supplements anymore because Australia’s funding has been reduced and from now on we are only able to support the most vulnerable, the chronically malnourished? How do you tell one community that you cannot support them with water source rehabilitation because at least they have some water, (even if it is shared with their livestock) and with the money available we have to narrow our focus to the neighbours who have less water and more people? How do you decide to close out of education programming in favour of water and food – because they are lifesaving as opposed to life-skills?

How do you tell the people with whom you have been working, and to whom you have made commitments that as a result of funding reductions you can no longer deliver on those commitments because the donor has reduced the funding - instead you will narrow the focus of your programming? How do you break promises, without breaking relationships and hope?

“We build relationships with the people, we make promises, we deliver and they trust us! Now, I have to break my promises. I don’t care so much about what the government thinks, I care about the children and I feel like I will let them down.”

From the distance of my comfortable office in Australia I can tell these passionate and committed community development workers that they should never make promises (Community Development theory 101). But, let’s be realistic – development practitioners make a promise of commitment and relationship when we walk into a community. We pride ourselves (as we should) on a development model that demands we build relationships of trust with our community partners, we work hard to ensure that they own the process, that their voices are heard and that they make the decisions of priority – we make a promise to be an along-sider.

Let me be clear, my colleague is a smart man, he appreciates the political and economic landscape in which we are operating, and he recognises the complexity of our decisions. He gets the theory, he knows that governments make political decisions, he understands the fiscal realities. But, in the end, it’s he and his team that have to make the tough decisions about who and what they will focus on, and communicate those decisions to the people with whom they work – a people who (for the most part) do not care about the politics and financial positions or forecasts.

“Right now, our government is investing the least we ever have in Australian #AustralianAid

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Most High God

Ethiopia is a religiously diverse country, but a majority Christian country - with about 45% Ethiopian Orthodox, 20% Protestant and 30% Muslim.

The Orthodox majority is obvious with temples of all sizes spaced regularly throughout the country side. But, apparently the church likes to build it's temples on high ground, in places difficult to access. On top of inhospitable rocks. In places that require huge effort to reach.

Even if, with great effort and dedication, you managed to reach the temple, it is only accessible when a Priest is available. And then, when the Priest is present to allow you access to God's house, the worship, prayer and teaching are conducted in an archaic language, Ge'ez, (the root of Amharic and Tigrinya, the major Ethiopian languages) reserved for the Church, and one which the vast majority of people do not understand.

I wonder what that says about how God is perceived and approached? These are just my thoughts, but it seems to suggest a God that is omnipresent, but distant, unapproachable, inhospitable and protected. A God that can only be accessed by an elite class of educated men, who interpret and represent the mind of God to the masses. A God who can only be approached through an elect intermediary.

Even when there was an (ornate) church in the middle of a town the doors were closed, the surrounding fence high and outer gates closed. People stood outside the gates facing the closed church and prayed through the iron barriers. It seems that the church has gone to great lengths (it must have been a nightmare to build churches in those locations) to keep itself, and by extension God, at a safe distance from God's people.

I often wonder where God is in my line of work. When I hear people's stories of unfair circumstance and see the conditions they live in and their lack of resources I wonder how God can allow such inequity - or at times in fact whether in fact God's attention has been diverted elsewhere.

It is usually in these same times and places and when I stop looking for explanation and rationalisation, that I see God most clearly. I see God in the generous hospitality of the family that has little or nothing and yet shares everything; I see God in the smiling eyes of the 10 year old girl that carries 25kg of water 3km twice a day; I see God in the eyes of mischief of the 6 year old boy learning to care for the sheep and goats. I see God in places and people that are far from sanitised and elite; I see God in the muck and the commonplace of life.

Today I saw God as I shared bread and (organic white) honey with a community of Tigrinya people from a common plate, sitting awkwardly under a cloth shelter beside a rock and mud wall in the middle of nowhere Ethiopia.

God is very real, an ever present help in times of drought and scarcity; God is not distant, aloof and unapproachable - God is all there is!

The church (that's you and me) needs to come down from the high places, break down the fences, open the doors and come out of the safe sterility of our comfort and sit in the dirt alongside others to share bread and honey.

[By contrast; the local Mosque is in town, the gates and doors are always open and people are welcome. The common water point is accessible to all and the grounds around the place of worship are a community meeting place. Just saying!] 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

El Nino, Rain & Hope

Negash Water Tank
We climbed the steep road out of Mekelle, (the Capital of Tigray, the most Northern region of Ethiopia) passing camel trains, horse drawn carts and donkeys carrying heavy loads. The mountains are steep and harsh here, the ground is rocky and barren – although areas of green ground cover breakup the barren landscape.

Farmers follow behind their oxen, ploughing the land they rent from the government, and stop regularly to dislodge the rocks caught in the wooden plough. It is hard to believe that this land, as much rock as dirt, is fertile enough to grow anything, and yet – if there is rain – the crops will grow. And therein lies the problem for this, and many other regions of Ethiopia and the African continent.

For two years now there has been no rain, no crops and plenty of misery. El Nino, while as a scientific-seasonal event, is technically over, the impact of the lack of rain carries on. There was no harvest in the 2015-16 year, and whilst it is now the rainy season, and farmers are ploughing in hope - there has not been much rain here yet.

As I walked amongst the rock and mud houses of the town of Negash and talked with female headed householders who have been supported to establish small dairy herds, the sky is ominously grey and heavy, the thunder echoes across the valley and bounces off the mountains, but the rain does not come.

Negash is a community literally built on and of rock. It is one of the harshest environments I have visited, and yet amongst this inhospitable environment the children laugh, play and wave. One of the most urgent needs here is safe, drinkable water. There is a bore hole and a 10,000 litre tank, but nowhere near enough.

World Vision, with UNOCHA support, has built a 50,000 litre concrete tank and rehabilitated the pipes, pump and bore – and for AU $26,000.000 – soon there will be safe, drinkable water to communal water points – enough for 1,100 households and two schools (of about 1,700 students) in the community. The community leaders have formed a water committee, (7-8 people, including 50% women) and have decided to institute a water levy; all households will pay 10.00 Birr (about 60 cents) a month for the maintenance and operation of the water supply.

Negash is by no means alone in this crisis: in all of Ethiopia, 10.2 million people require emergency food assistance to meet their basic food needs, and some 458,000 children are projected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and 2.5 million children from moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) during the year. (UNOCHA)

Ethiopia and many other countries need help.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016


“Mr. Daryl Crowden, please make yourself known to the Emirates service desk at departure gate 11”. I was just about to board Emirates flight EK407, that 13.5 hour non-stop flight from Melbourne to Dubai. And this, this was the announcement that births a glimmer of hope deep in the soul – albeit unfounded and highly unlikely – but nevertheless a pleading hope that this was the day, this was the flight. I approached the desk telling myself, don’t get your hopes up, it never happens, but still a small candle of hope had been lit.

“Mr. Crowden? We forgot to give you a meal voucher when you checked in!” Not only was it not the hoped for upgrade, but it was just rubbing salt in the wounds – not only do you not get an upgrade, but by the way you have such a long layover in Dubai that we will give you a free meal at McDonalds (just one of the choices).

The insignificance and obscenity of my hope ashamed me as I sat listening to my colleagues in Nairobi. They were providing me with an update on the unfolding crisis in South Sudan where over 200 people have been killed; the drought affecting 10.2 Million people in Ethiopia; the increasing capacity of Al Shabaab to terrorise Somalia and neighbours; the increasing displacement of people from Burundi. And armed with that knowledge what was my response?

The idea of hope haunted my thinking. As I sat listening to one catastrophe, created by humanity, after another, I wondered where, if, there is hope in these contexts? Do the people of Juba (South Sudan) hope anymore, or have they given in to despair? Can the people in Ethiopia hope for food, can they imagine a day when the kids are not hungry?

Hope is fragile, it can be dashed in a second by powers outside our control - and yet it is the one thing that, where it can be found, has the power to sustain life and overcome reality. I have seen this illogical hope in so many faces and places.

As I begin my work this week in Kenya, and next week in Ethiopia – I can imagine what I will see and hear – but I hope that I will see a flicker of the candle of hope burning in the eyes of the people, and I pray that in some small way I can tend that flame of hope.