A Country Without Any Government – Good for Children?

Our government is getting back to work after more than two weeks of budget stalemate. One underlying cause of the impasse is the widely different views held by many on the more-government-versus-less-government debate.Whenever I hear that discussed in the news, I always think of Somalia – a country that had no government for more than 20 years.

I lived and worked in Somalia for three years during the mid-1980s. Being cynical, you can say those were the good years for the country, although we didn’t know it at the time. Actually, it was one of the toughest places I ever lived in my almost 20 years in developing countries before joining ChildFund. True, it was a peaceful time. Mohamed Siad Barre, the dictator in power, kept all political opposition under tight control. I remember one of my staff telling me about his visit home to his family’s village – and witnessing public hangings.

But the tight government control didn’t ensure public safety (as it did in some countries I’ve lived). Although violent crime was rare, petty crime was rampant. My house was broken into a few times. What made it a tough place to live was the combination of a poor infrastructure (roads were bad, electricity undependable and health services pathetic) and a disastrous informal economy based on the nomadic rearing of livestock. There was little to buy in the country – even if you had the money.

At that time, a Somali child never came home and asked her mom what was for dinner. Meals were always the same – spaghetti (southern Somalia was a former Italian colony), with a small spoonful of meatless tomato sauce and a banana. Expats working with NGOs bought a lot of the food we needed for our families from a catalogue company in Denmark. Deliveries arrived by ship three times a year. You really needed to plan in advance!

If Somalia was a tough place to live in the 1980s, image what it is like today – one year after the first permanent central government was formed following two decades of fighting. In those intervening lawless years, the country became famous not for its livestock but for its terrorists and pirates, the latter gaining publicity in the recently released movie, Captain Phillips, which chronicles the takeover of a U.S ship by Somali pirates.

The Human Development Index ranks countries based on the development of their people, using criteria such as life expectancy and education. But some countries are too chaotic to even survey. Somalia is one of them. If it was ranked, I’m sure it would be in last place. Although this debate about small versus big government will continue in the U.S., I know that the alternative of having no government at all damages the most vulnerable among us – children.

In Somalia, the prevalence of underweight children under 5 years of age has increased dramatically, from 18 percent in 1997, to 26 percent in 1999, to 36.5 percent in 2006, according to U.N. and UNICEF statistics. Somalia’s children also have stunting rates consistently above 20 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Stunting is a key indicator of endemic poverty and chronic hunger.

For the last 20 years, Somalis have had to endure strife, hunger and suffering. I’m sure there are still many mothers who would be thrilled to again make a meal of pasta, sauce and banana for their families – and many children who would be glad to eat it. A functioning government can help protect these children.

Imagine a World Without Discrimination

On International Day for Eradication of Poverty, the United Nations General Assembly asks us to imagine a world without discrimination. For those of us who live in developed countries, our experience with, and perspective on, discrimination is likely quite different from those who live in extreme poverty. That’s why we must – as the U.N. advocates – recognize people living in poverty as critical partners for fighting the developmental challenges we face worldwide.

Involving children and families in creating solutions to the problems they face is a key tenet of ChildFund’s mission. We know that when people are engaged in the act of change, then that change is much more likely to be sustained over time.

ChildFund works to bring about change and promote equality on many levels, but here’s one child-focused example I wanted to share from the APHIAplus (AIDS, Population and Health Integrated Assistance Plus) program in Kenya. Funded by USAID, this program is implemented through a partnership among ChildFund, Pathfinder International, Cooperative League of the USA, Population Services International and the Network of AIDS Researchers of Eastern and Southern Africa.

A little earlier this year, the project partners put on an art and photo exhibition aimed at helping children and youth imagine a better world. Called Nipe Nafasi’ – a Swahili word meaning “give me a chance” – the exhibition invited children to submit art and photos illustrating issues that affect them in their daily lives.

Weslyne, 13, entered a photo he took of the Dandora dumpsite, which is close to his home. Covering 30 acres, this overflowing dumpsite takes in about 850 tons of solid waste generated daily by Nairobi’s 3.5 million inhabitants. It’s the largest dumpsite in Africa, and was declared full 40 years ago.

Weslyne and his family have to live daily with the stench and the filth. Birds, pigs and people thrive in the dumpsite, scavenging the heaps of rubbish for food and materials like scrap metal and polythene bottles and bags that can be sold. Weslyne explains that the dumpsite also attracts children and youth who would rather scavenge than go to school. His photo shows a young boy drinking water from a bottle found at the site.

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Just by taking this photo, Weslyne has found a way to speak out for change. On International Day for Eradication of Poverty and every day, we must listen.

Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who was recently named as Children’s Ambassador, attended the art exhibition.

Sustainable Change

I can’t stop thinking of my visit to ChildFund’s programs in Sierra Leone last month. As is always the case when I travel, the faces of the children and youth I met keep popping into my head. Yet, one stop we made left a lasting impression. And that was the office of Salone Microfinance Trust, or SMT, a microfinance institution that ChildFund started in 2003 – 10 years ago.

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One of the things we talk a lot about in the world of international development is sustainability – do the good results and programs that NGOs and others produce last over time? It’s a legitimate and complicated question. Yet, sometimes it is hard to quantify results – making it difficult to measure if they are sustained. Other times, the resources (people and money) are not available to go back and see what’s happening years after our programs were initiated.

But in the case of SMT in Sierra Leone, I can proudly say that the work ChildFund started a decade ago – assisting with the integration of the thousands of ex-combatants after the country’s long and painful civil war by providing them access to credit to start new businesses and new lives – has not only been sustained, it is also thriving.

From a humble beginning, the SMT of today now caters to the needs of 8,000 clients through its eight branch offices and 61 staff. For the last six years, it has returned a profit and its assets stand at $2 million! In addition, the SMT has met external standards, twice receiving a positive rating from a European microfinance rating agency.

And their loans have made huge differences in the lives of their clients. When I visited the SMT office, the staff shared with me the story of Yanku Sesay, a double hand amputee, whose story is almost too painful to hear. The civil war reached his village in 1998, when the rebels caught him, cut off both his hands and left him to die. Today, Yanku is married, with four children and lives in a permanent camp for refugees. He is still plagued by what happened to him, but he has also been able to build a life for himself and his family through the eight loans he has received from SMT. He is a pepper trader and a landlord (although it pained him to have to hire others to build his house). Yanku’s hard work and SMT’s assistance made this new life possible.

SMT continues to grow and has big plans for the future. Just recently at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, I met the president of Kiva, the NGO that facilitates small loans to micro-entrepreneurs via the Internet. SMT partners with Kiva to access credit, and Kiva’s president was full of praise for SMT’s work. After my visit to Sierra Leone, I know why.

Has the work ChildFund started a decade ago been sustained? The answer is undoubtedly yes. ChildFund also continues to guide SMT’s work, holding two seats on its board.

Guess what else I discovered during my visit? SMT also has a social responsibility strategy. Last year they provided 20 educational scholarships to students in the communities they serve.

I love gifts that keep on giving.

A Spirit of Optimism in Sierra Leone

It’s been a great week visiting ChildFund programs in Sierra Leone. So I wanted to share a few photos of the wonderful children, community members and staff I’ve met.

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In Binkolo, which is part of ChildFund’s Bombali district program area, I talked with these students who are preparing for the West Africa Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations. They’re holding up scientific calculators donated through ChildFund.

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I also had the opportunity to meet with the paramount chief (community leader) of the Safroko Chiefdom. We sat down and talked with children, youth, mothers, fathers and other community members to discuss how ChildFund programs are working for them.

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And no visit to the field would be complete without spending time with the energetic youngsters we serve through our early childhood development programs. This program is in Kamabai.

Focus on Children in Sierra Leone

I’m in Sierra Leone this week, visiting our national office in this West African nation, working with staff and spending time with children and youth in ChildFund program areas.

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Meeting with ChildFund staff.

Sierra Leone’s maternal and infant mortality rate is among the world’s highest because of malnutrition and lack of access to health care. Although ChildFund has had operations in Sierra Leone since 1985, some of our most important work has occurred in the last decade as we’ve provided programs for children and families recovering from the 10-year civil war that ended in 2002.

ChildFund is guiding a variety of community-based programs focused on child health and child protection, education, youth employment, agriculture and micro-finance. So I welcomed the opportunity earlier this week to meet with Sierra Leone’s President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, and the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Dr. Samura Kamara, to discuss the many urgent and ongoing needs of children in this country.

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Meeting with the Minister of Finance and Economic Development

At our meeting, Dr. Kamar announced the launch of a new national development plan called the Agenda for Prosperity and commended ChildFund for its work to meet the needs of children. In addition to meeting the nutritional and educational needs of children, he also spoke of the equally important soft side of development — restoring the confidence and dignity of children.

That conversation continued when ChildFund Sierra Leone’s National Director Billy Abimbilla and I met with President Koroma, who expressed support for ChildFund’s ongoing work to provide educational and job training opportunities for youth.

"We will continue with such engagements in the Agenda for Prosperity so as to address the issue of teenage pregnancy, and we will always support you in accessing funding as government looks forward to having a permanent structure to address youth employment issues,” President Koroma said.

Health Care for Zavala’s Children

Just got a report that construction of a new health center is breaking ground in the Zavala district of Mozambique. ChildFund is helping guide a newly formed commission comprising eight community members from Chitondo, Gune, Canda and Mazivela.

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The commission’s primary role is to mobilize community members to help with the construction process and support the health center once it’s complete.

It will be a great step forward to have a new health center to provide basic and preventive care for children in these communities, where diseases like polio are still a threat.

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