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.