Sunday, April 30, 2017

Remittances - Who Really is Funding Development?

Since I have been involved in poverty alleviation and development for the past 20 years (20th anniversary this year!), I continue to be fascinated by how development works in various contexts.  I remember when we lived in Liberia that we were told the biggest business was Western Union, the company people use to send money into the country.  That was back in 2005, just after the Liberian civil war ended.  Today, 31% of the GDP in Liberia is still made up from remittances.  "Remittance" is the term used for money that immigrants send back to their home country.  While exact numbers are not known, the World Bank Group studies the patterns of migration and development, and publishes a report on remittances.

There has been a lot of concern recently by some about immigrants and the net effect on a country (especially the US).  [Interestingly, while the number of immigrants has gone up in the past number of years, the percentage remains just above 3% of the world population for the past fifteen years.] I think this information about remittances puts immigration in a different light.

In 2015, the total amount of remittances sent worldwide was 601 billion US dollars ($601,000,000, 000.00 - looks much more impressive when seen with all the zeroes).  The top three countries that receive remittances are 1. Mexico, 2. China, and 3. India (the rest of the top ten might surprise you:  4. Philippines, 5. Nigeria, 6. France, 7. Egypt, 8. Germany, 9. Pakistan, 10. Bangladesh.  I have no idea why France and Germany are in the top ten.).  Of the amount sent worldwide, 441 billion ($441,000,000,000.00) are sent to developing countries; 133.5 billion dollars was sent from the US in 2015.  Money that flows to Africa from remittances is 40 billion dollars.

The amount of aid that went to developing countries in 2015 was 131 Billion. According to the World Bank, remittances are three times the amount of aid and can make up to 10% of a nation's GDP. 

So who is supporting development work?  Immigrants or Aid Donors? What do these statistics tell us?

It certainly seems that immigrants are the main people supporting development work.  And of course they are supporting people that they love and trust, they understand the culture, they aren't tripped up by paternalism or condescension, things that continue to plague the aid community. 

Researchers believe that these remittances are a good thing.  They are a lifeline for many families, contributing to basic needs, education, health, and local businesses.  They however do go for personal needs and not for a country's infrastructure.  Taxes are not paid on this money so the country roads, education, health systems, etc, are not supported by these funds.

Some countries complain about the amount of money that is sent out of their country, however migrants on average only send 10-15% of earnings, so they still are making a larger contribution on the local economy.  They also often take the jobs that many others do not want, make a valuable contribution in terms of their work, as well as pay taxes.  If there is anything I have seen from living and working in developing countries is that many people take 1 Timothy 5:8 very seriously:  But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith.  These immigrants, who often work low paying jobs in high-income countries, are sacrificing much of the little that they make, to send money back home, to care for their families.


So by and large, it seems that many more people in the world would be suffering without the remittances being sent by the diaspora to their home countries.  As Christians, we believe that it is important to take care of our families and we also believe that we are called upon to help the poor.  Remittances seems to address both of these challenges with solutions that may surpass the issues of aid that we have been seeing in the past number of years. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Development Malpractice in Ghana

There are times I read articles like this and it gets me so frustrated that I have to repost it.  I just came from staying for two weeks at a mission guest house in Ethiopia that had short-term groups coming and going the whole time I was there, some with similarly questionable approaches as you can read about below.  Christians have good hearts and good intentions and a desire to serve the poor.  BUT this compassion must be coupled with wisdom, good sound thinking, and proven techniques to have long-term sustainable positive changes.  What I often see reminds me of what a former mentor, Earl James, once told me:  "Much of the good work that Christians do is working out their own salvation."  We must go beyond that to truly doing what helps and not what may lead to death for those we seek to serve. 

Please read this article by Kevin Starr and if you or your church are involved in working with developing countries anywhere in the world please forward this to them.  It's a little crass in a couple of places but hear it from the heart of someone who is likewise frustrated.  At the end of the article, I have an "Oath for Helpers" that I would encourage all of us to take and review regularly.

Development Malpractice in Ghana (

~How stuff that doesn't work can screw up stuff that does.

Last week, I went to see a water organization called Saha in northern Ghana. Saha works in hot, flat country where hard seasonal rains are followed by long dry spells. There are few year-round streams, and underground water is impossibly deep, so villages collect and store rainwater in big, open ponds known as dugouts. These ponds are unprotected, and the water people take home is liberally seasoned with the excreta of various two- and four-legged animals. It starts out bad and gets
worse as the dry season goes on.

Saha has a great fix. They find entrepreneurial women in local villages, and set them up with a chlorinating business that uses simple materials and simple procedures. The women collect water in a barrel and add alum, a cheap and easy-to-get chemical that binds with sediment and clarifies the water. The clear water goes into a big plastic tank. When the tank is full, the owner drops in a precise number of chlorine tablets—available in nearby markets—and opens for business. Saha provides every household in the village with a 20-liter plastic bucket equipped with a lid and a tap, and customers pay a little more than two cents to fill it. At four liters per person per day, two days of clean water for a family of five costs about a nickel.

Saha makes it really easy to get clean water that will stay clean. The water is affordable even for the very poor, and the business sits right next to the dugout. Pairing the residual effects of chlorine with the protection of a well-designed container prevents recontamination. The fact that these are profitable businesses using local materials keeps the whole ball rolling. 

And Saha does rigorous ongoing monitoring, with systematic collection and analysis of random water samples from business and homes. They’ve set up businesses in a hundred villages so far, and all are still running. In random checks of all businesses, 99 percent of the water coming out of the tap is clean—free of bacteria—and 98 percent of the Saha home containers have clean water in them. Those are the best numbers I’ve ever heard of in the industry, but the Saha team is not satisfied; they believe they can—and should—do better.

Saha is a not-for-profit. They realized a long time ago that to hit a price that all can afford, they would have to subsidize the cost of the initial business set-up and the ongoing monitoring support. Here’s the thing, though: That subsidy works out to about 13 bucks per person for 10 years of clean water. Jaw-dropping.

When we went out to see the work, the first few Saha businesses looked great: lots of customers, decent profits, equipment in good order, homes with full containers of clean water. Then we got to a village called Kulaa, where the business was on the verge of failing after two years of struggle. I thought we were going to hear about the difficulties of overcoming long-held customs or the challenges of running a business when you’re barely literate, but instead we sat under a tree talking to a slightly dazed-looking woman who told us of an exhausting uphill battle against the forces of good intentions. 

She’d gotten off to a reasonably good start—she’d mastered the business, every household in the village had a Saha container, and her customer base was growing. So far, so good. Then people from the government came through (that’s who people thought they were, anyway) and distributed ceramic filters—a sort of bowl mounted on top of a 50 liter plastic bucket—for free to every household. Everybody started using those filters instead of buying Saha water, but by about six months in, most of the filters had either broken or clogged. The filters could be cleaned, but nobody knew how, and of course there was no way to replace ones that broke. (The buckets remained useful, though—we saw one serving as a nice little clothes hamper.) 

The ceramic filter episode killed Saha’s initial momentum, but the business survived, and things were starting to look up when some American church group blew into town with a truckload of LifeStraw Family gravity filters.  Distribution was hit or miss, but most households managed to get one. The LifeStraw Family filter is a bit fiddly and slow, and the filter must cleaned just so, but villagers seem to have made an effort to use it (“What the hell, it’s free!”). Who knows how much the church group did to train people to use and clean the filter, but it wasn’t enough (it never is).  We managed to find three of them, only one of which was in use. Two had broken and no one had any idea how to get them fixed or find another one.  The one that was still in use had clogged and the owner didn’t know how to clean the filter element.  Somehow he was still getting water through it, though, and while the water was still turbid, he – reasonably – figured it must be clean enough to drink. It wasn’t. We tested the water in the lab – it was positive for E. coli and coliforms, which means there was shit in it.

Then—then—some other NGO came through and gave the village a “backpack” water filtration thingy. It’s a big blue plastic box with carrying straps, a hose coming in from the pond, and a little tap coming out. I think there is a sand filter inside. We trooped out to the pond to see it. The water coming out of the tap was clear, but it came out slowly. It took a full minute to fill a 1500 cc container. That translates to about 13 minutes to supply the 20 liters one family needs to get through the day. That means that the hundred or so households in the village would need about 22 hours to fill their containers, even if they were willing and able to wait in line around the clock. Absurd. Oh, and we tested the water; it was clean coming out of the tap, but when we tested it in the homes, it was contaminated. 

In sum, this village has seen four water interventions. The last three didn’t work, and each of them managed to screw the one that would have. It’s a tawdry story that does all-too-good of a job illustrating some basic principles of development, namely:
  1. There is a huge opportunity cost to failure. When you do something stupid, you either a) wreck something that is working or could have worked, or b) or blow the people’s one chance to get anything ever. Once a well is drilled, a clinic built, or a program delivered, an NGO or government official checks a box, and future resources go somewhere else. Failure is worse than nothing.
  2. Most “training” for end users is useless. Some guy came by my house the other day to teach me how to keep the wifi up and running. The next day, I screwed it up. So it is for things like water filters. If a product or technology intended for consumers requires “training,” it’s probably going to fail. 
  3. It’s all about follow-up. If you can’t provide repair and replacement, if you can’t monitor performance over time, don’t do it. If you can’t make a strong case that, say, two years from now, things will still be working—and in a way that inspires confidence that it will work over the long haul—don’t do it. Stuff breaks in ways you can’t even imagine, people use things in completely unpredictable ways, and unintended consequences rule supreme. The devastation of lake ecosystems in Africa from fishers repurposing fine-mesh mosquito nets is a fine example of the kind of debacle that could be avoided with some decent monitoring over time. 
I could go on, but these are the big rules that were violated in poor Kulaa. This is development malpractice: Kids died because of a series of ill-conceived projects. If you designed them, you’re responsible. If you implemented them, you’re responsible. If you were part of another organization, recognized this was bad, and said nothing, you’re responsible. And perhaps most of all, if you fund crap projects like this, you’re responsible, whether you’re a church group, a foundation, a development agency, or the government. We can’t keep doing this.

So. If you see something, say something. If you become aware of someone planning/doing/funding stuff like this, talk to them, educate them, dissuade them. Do it respectfully and thoughtfully. If that doesn’t work, call them out in whatever forum you can. If they work for you, fire them. Make them accountable. Don’t let these things happen. Don’t let yourself become cynical. Do something.
In the end, what really set Kulaa up for failure was its proximity to Tamale, the biggest town in north-central Ghana, and one where NGOs are the primary growth industry. Kulaa is poor, but it’s easy to get to—you can do your ineffective training and be back for a refreshing Coke by early afternoon. The villages where Saha thrives are the ones farthest out, beyond the reach of other development NGOs. That pretty much says it all.

Kevin_Starr Kevin Starr (@mulagostarr) directs the Mulago Foundation and the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Disembodied Soul? I don't think so.

"He is risen.  He is risen indeed."  Our church resounded over and again with this phrase on Easter morning, as did many churches around the world.  It is indeed a glorious thing.  But it can also be a confusing thing.  What does it mean to be resurrected and to live with Jesus for eternity? 

Yesterday at our Easter service, I heard the worship leader say this, following the end of singing a favorite hymn:  "Can you imagine the day when that is all you will hear?"

I shuddered and involuntarily shook my head.  I remembered when my daughter Hannah told me at a young age that she was afraid of going to heaven.  I was surprised (as most people are afraid of going to hell not heaven), and when I asked her why she said, "I can't stand to think of a worship service that lasts an eternity - an eternity of sitting on a cloud, playing a harp, and singing worship songs."  In response to her comment, our family had many discussions of what the new heavens and new earth would look like, and we ended up painting a mural on one of the walls in our home reflecting Isaiah 65, regarding the new heavens and the new earth.  I wish I had a picture of that wall.

This is a discussion that I often get into in my work with Discipling Marketplace Leaders as well:  what is the purpose of work and is there any relevance to the afterlife regarding the work that we now do?  We often reflect on the meaning of the Lord's prayer where Jesus says, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  I ask, "What do we know of what it will be like in heaven?  What does this phrase really mean?"  For that, we can go to Isaiah 65 which says the following in reference to the new heavens and new earth:
  • "I will create Jerusalem to be a delight." (v.18)  God starts with a garden but ends with a city.  A city with all of its systems and complexities.  In the parable of the minas (Luke 19) the reward for those who use their talents well is to be governor over many cities.  Cities seem to be in our future.
  • "They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat." (v. 21) Sounds like we will be building and farming and enjoying the fruit of our own labor. 
  • "My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.  They will not labor in vain."  (v. 22b-23a)  We will do what we were created to do, as seen in Genesis 1 and 2 in a redeemed earth.  And we will enjoy it!
This past week I started reading N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope.  He has a great section in which he says that if we are only saved to be disembodied souls floating on clouds in heaven, then there really is no point.  He says, "To snatch saved souls away to a disembodied heaven would destroy the whole point."  The redemption has to involve what was created in the first place.  God is to become King of the whole world at last.  He isn't going to give up on the original idea of creation and mandate of work.  He doesn't want to rescue us from His creation - creation was not a mistake or a failure.  He wants to (and is able to) redeem all things.  When we work and reflect His image and His glory, it gives Him great delight.

N.T. Wright says this:
This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more:  what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that is about to roll over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that's shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that's about to be dug up for a building site.  You are - strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself - accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God's new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one's fellow human beings and for that matter one's fellow nonhuman creators; and of course every prayer, al Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the word - all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.  That is the logic of the mission of God.  (pg. 208)
He goes on to say, "I have no idea what precisely this will mean in practice.  I am putting up a signpost, not offering a photograph of what we shall find once we get to there the signpost is

What we do now matters.  And eternity will be spent in joyous celebration of what we have been created to do.  The Hebrew word "Avodah" means both work and worship.  We will spend eternity in worship, but not as many think (or maybe fear, as Hannah did).  It will the act of worship that we were uniquely created to do, made in the image of an incredibly creative God, where we will reflect that creativity through our work.  Some of us may be governors.  Some of us may be farmers.  Some of us may be builders.  Some of us may be song-writers and musicians.  Some of us may be artists.  Just as we are here. 

It is believed that Martin Luther said this:  "If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today."  Something to think about.  And something to rejoice in, in light of the resurrection. 

He is risen.  He is risen indeed.  "And behold, I am making everything new."  (Revelation 21:5)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Being A Paintbrush

The group in Addis
On Thursday and Friday, we were privileged to spend our time with seventy pastors, denominational leaders, church leaders, and large, medium and small business owners.

It was a blessed time with a number of holy moments as we witnessed the Holy Spirit actively working in the minds and hearts of those in the room.

The leaders of one denomination of 160 churches were present and after the first day they asked if they could take us out for dinner at the end of the second day.  The chair of the board shared with us over dinner that he hadn't slept the entire night after our first day together as his mind had to keep processing what he had heard from us and how significant the paradigm change was in how he viewed the church as well as business.  To begin to change the thinking about being a "church with walls" versus a "Church (people of God) without walls" was a significant shift; there was some sadness on his part of the neglect on the part of the church to not properly equip the body of Christ to be the Church from Monday-Saturday.  A second member of the board, a business man, shared with some emotion how he had never even considered viewing his business as an act of worship and had also undergone a significant and important paradigm shift in his view of the purpose of business.  They are ready, as a board, to work with DML to get this to all of their pastors and have temporarily arranged to take the last slot for the year 2017 that we have available - in August - to come back to Ethiopia and begin training their pastors. 

Another overseer of 120 churches, who is also a pastor of a church of 2000 members, brought a long several large business owners.  He too is ready to move forward but now needs to bring along the rest of the leadership of his denomination.  And we were excited to meet a man who has an organization called "Biblical Entrepreneurship" who has been teaching many people about how to do business God's way for some time.  He has a TV program that promotes this as well and we were interviewed for his program.  He is considering being our implementing partner in Ethiopia, with his trainers becoming trainers for DML. 

Dr. Frew, myself, Dr. Walker, and Mel Fox
We are so thankful to Dr. Frew Tamrat from the Evangelical Theological College for organizing this time and giving us the privilege to partner with his team to build the Church. 

I leave Ethiopia for home today after a whirlwind three countries in four weeks. As I reflect on the beauty of the faces, of the countries, of the ingenuity of God's people, of the rich and deep conversations that we have had in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, with brothers and sisters in Christ, I reflect on the analogy that we use to help people understand this important forgotten truth of God's word:

God is the Artist of this world.  The creation is the canvas.  It was created to reflect the glory and image of the Artist, with bright and beautiful colors that sing His praises.  We are the paintbrushes and the work that we do is the paint.  When God created the world, it was a blank canvas and we were called to join in the creativity of the Artist and given the paint to be fruitful with the incredible resources available in this world; we are called to multiply the creativity for individuals and communities to flourish as well, and to govern and rule over the earth by being good managers and stewards.  Because of the fall, the work needs to be done with love (Great Commandment) and with intentional disciple-making (Great Commission), but ALL that we do is done to glorify the Creator.

In several weeks we will head to Guatemala and hope to join in the work that God is already doing in His people there! 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Walking in Addis Ababa

Writing from Ethiopia, Addis Ababa is a beautiful city that sits at a high elevation with a very pleasant climate.  As I am teaching the night class at the Evangelical Theological College (ETC) I am able to take a long walk each morning to get some exercise, often 3-5 miles, up and down hills. 

I love walking through the busy streets, past the shoe cleaners, people hustling here and there, going about their business out in the open as is so common in many parts of Africa.  It makes me feel alive.  For they most part, I am ignored.  Every now and then, children will yell "Ferenji" ("foreigner" in Amharic) or occasionally a child will yell "China" showing what type of ex-pat they are used to seeing.

I watch the men and women tearing up the sidewalks all over Addis with pick-axes and shovels in order to bury fiber optic cables.  I smile at the women, happy to see them involved in such work,
while at the same time noting that they are doing their work in dresses and sandals.

I move around the large mats and shoes that the Muslim men have laid out on the sidewalk as it is time for their prayers. 

As I walk, I think about my students in the Integrity and Finance class.  I have heard heart-breaking stories of challenges as it relates to keeping integrity, stories of both success and failure.  In a culture of high poverty (most of my students have families, and make around $200/month) and a rule of law that can be easily compromised, it is painful to hear the struggles that these men and women have to face.  It is so easy to be ethical when you have what you need.  It is much more difficult in a society where you do not.  These men and women cling to the belief that their honesty in this life will give them rewards in the next.  While we nod and say, "Yes!" the comfort is short-lived when your child is sick or you are losing the little money you have due to a decision to not pay a bribe or if you face incredible pressure from family and friends to compromise your integrity because "everyone does it."

As I walk, I hear the happy conversations of people on the sidewalk, although I don't understand what they are saying.  I think of the freedom of commerce that takes place in front of me on the street.  But I know that just under the surface, not so long ago, that freedom was not there.  And the results of those challenges still show up today as all social media continues to be blocked by the government to stop any uprising of citizens. 

I climb the steep hill which gives a great view of the city, in the wealthier part of Addis, with hotels and gates and parks and pools, and I think of the disparity of income from the place where I am staying, where people are sleeping on the sidewalk every twenty feet or so, covered with blankets in the early hours. 

And I wonder about this world and my place in it.  What am I doing in Ethiopia?  What right do I have to think that I have anything to offer here?  This nation of such rich history, of such rich culture, of such beauty.

But I keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that the things that I don't know are known by one Greater than me.  I am one small person, one face in 7.4 billion, walking the streets in Addis, wondering what my place is...surrounded by others who may wonder the same thing.  And yet somehow, by many interesting and challenging circumstances, this is where I am.

On Thursday and Friday, we will do a two-day training for Discipling Marketplace Leaders with 50+ church pastors and leaders pre-registered to attend.  Please pray for the Holy Spirit to be present in those sessions.