Although some may argue – and it is true – that poverty and injustice is felt in every country and community in the world, it is also true that the impacts of injustice, captivity and brokenness are felt more among some communities than others; injustice and poverty traps take the form of regions, gender, ethnicity, race and caste, among other forms, which we refer to as hard places.
Communities in these hard places unsurprisingly cycle through poverty all their lives. They consistently navigate hard complex intersecting issues that make it hard for them to find a pathway out of the quandary that they find themselves in, and even when they start to make progress, they can find it harder to bounce back once faced by a shock such as a flood, drought or as we recently saw, a pandemic.
According to the World Bank (2022), the world’s poorest people bore the steepest costs of the pandemic and their income losses were twice as high as the world’s richest. The title of an article by Gillian B. White summarises this well: “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years with Nearly Nothing Going Wrong”. Unfortunately, communities in hard places have things going wrong all the time! And ways of getting out of these situations therefore should not be oversimplified; it is not about a three-, five- or even 10-year project that helps people transform their situation, but rather a choice to walk with these communities as they seek to find sustainable pathways of unravelling ongoing complex challenges that often, they have not played a role in creating.
It’s about appreciation that it takes a long time to escape the intersecting injustice trap. It is also about walking and working with partners as they walk with communities to build resilience – “the ability … to absorb and recover from shocks, whilst positively adapting and transforming their structures and means for living in the face of long-term stresses, change and uncertainty”.*
I must admit that sometimes I struggle to reconcile the senseless injustice and suffering in hard places with God’s story of redemption and restoration. Ironically, I get ongoing glimpses of God’s redemptive and restorative nature oozing from reflections by communities confronted by the same senseless injustice, poverty, and suffering. Their stories of faith, hope, sacrifice, and resilience point to God at work amid darkness. It is remarkable that even when change has not happened, they stay hopeful that better days are coming. Their description of how God is seeing them through a famine, how things are getting better because of the work of organisations such as our local partners, or how simple Self-Help Groups are changing their lives, point to God at work. Therefore, Tearfund’s strategic priority of working in hard places is not about saviorism or heroism but rather a response to partner with God in His mission of redemption; a response to the call in John 20:21b: “As the father has sent me, I am sending you”; and in Luke 4:18-19, to “preach the gospel to the poor; heal the broken-hearted; preach deliverance to the captives; preach recovering of sight to the blind; set at liberty them that are bruised; and preach the acceptable year of the Lord”.
Mary Gaitho (fourth from left) and Tayech, chair of Woten Federation in Hawassa, Ethiopia (fourth from right) with fellow Federation members, and staff from Tearfund Ireland and their partner COSAP.
In my recent visit to Ethiopia, I was privileged to listen to the story of a highly passionate woman called Tayech. Tayech is a Self-Help Group member and current chairperson of Woten Federation in Hawassa (Woten Federation is supported by a local partner, COSAP, supported jointly by Tearfund Ireland and Tearfund Australia). She shared her story of transformation – her family disintegrating when her husband died, being homeless, joining a Self-Help Group, starting a small business and 15 years later – yes, you read that right: after 15 years – she is leading a federation that has become known for advocating for the rights of the poor in the community. Under her leadership, they have advocated and got justice for a woman who had lost everything to her husband after divorce, reconnection of water for a community that had access to water only once a week, acquisition of jobs for 85 women among other causes. We should not lose sight of the long-term investment made by many organisations for Tayech to be a change agent and a voice to the voiceless today – this is what it means to work in hard places.
The story of Tayech flows well within what community development practitioners refer to as the empowerment continuum: empowerment that flows from personal, relational to collective change. At the personal level, we see individuals become empowered and able to meet basic needs, but this is only the beginning. Sustainability and the ability to respond to shocks happens when individuals continue to build social capital and collaborate with one another in building movements of change; movements that continuously work on improving their abilities and opportunities in a way that NGOs cannot. This kind of work needs persistence, presence, understanding of context and ongoing support and that’s why we work through local partners. Working through local or locally-based partners is informed by the conviction that communities are the experts of their situation; they know their problems best and know how the best solutions would look. On the other hand, if functioning well, locally-based organisations are driven and committed to a strong asset-based approach that emphasises and values the experience of the community in a way that empowers them to act.
This kind of work needs persistence, presence, understanding of context and ongoing support and that’s why we work through local partners. Working through local or locally-based partners is informed by the conviction that communities are the experts of their situation; they know their problems best and know how the best solutions would look.
What then is the role of Tearfund in this? We believe that change happens or fails at relationships – our part in the story is to build nurturing partnerships with local partners that are characterised by mutual respect, reflection, care and participation. Listening, prompting, facilitating and asking the question “How can we support you to do what you’ve set out to do even better; how can we support you as you support communities to explore ways of creating opportunities to address their challenges?”
Our other part is to tell the story with and on behalf of local partners and communities; stories that bring the body of Christ in Australia and around the world on a journey with those that are doing it hard. A journey of friendship, prayer, speaking against injustice, giving sacrificially, and choosing to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).