The Common Good
September-October 2003

Treating Systems, Not Symptoms

by Rachel Medema | September-October 2003

The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst.

The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. —Isaiah 41:17

Every Honduran in the capital city of Tegucigalpa and its surrounding communities pays at least $1.50 each month for a city water connection. But those living in the wealthy areas of the city receive water for up to 10 hours each day, while those living in the very poor communities of Nueva Suyapa and Villanueva only receive water once every 30 days. The residents of Villanueva may spend $26 each month, up to 20 percent of their already inadequate incomes, to buy often-contaminated water from a truck and carry it home. Yet there is hope.

In February 1998, a group of Honduran and U.S. Christians with many years of experience in community development in Honduras formed the Association for a More Just Society (AJS). They had seen that while most development organizations and government agencies focus on meeting immediate needs, these aid efforts often failed because many policies, laws, and unethical businesses don't respect the needs and rights of the poor. AJS knew that real justice in Honduras required work at the macro-level of government policy and legal matters.

In Nueva Suyapa AJS began locally, researching water issues and educating the residents. The community elected a new water board, repairs were made, and distribution was increased to a few hours once every 15 days. Then AJS turned to injustices of the broader system, organizing a delegation representing various segments of the community that went directly to the national water company, SANAA, to present a petition. After a year of negotiations, the national company has agreed to nearly all the proposals made by the community and AJS, including pumping more water to the area, improving the distribution network, and assigning a water engineer locally.

"As AJS works with the communities of Villanueva and Nueva Suyapa, we are constantly focused on building—building better water systems, building stronger community leadership, building healthier relationships between government agencies and the people they serve," writes Rebekah Ray, an AJS volunteer. "Nonetheless, it would be foolishness not to recognize that if anything gets built here, it is by the hand of God."

The group targets issues of injustice on a number of fronts. In addition to water issues, AJS is working with the national forestry laws, drunk-driving cases, police brutality, and disputes over property titles and indigenous land ownership.

The AJS investigative Web-zine REVISTAZO has broken new ground with stories of corruption and poverty that are usually underreported in traditional media—especially when the interests of wealthy and powerful people or governmental leaders are at stake. To cultivate community involvement and leadership, AJS works with churches in providing educational materials, workshops, and Bible studies on issues of social justice.

"[Our goal] is not just to execute specific programs," says Leslie Pineda, a church organizer, "but to motivate Hondurans, build awareness about injustice, and to seek equity, as God wants us to live." The AJS staff of seven full-time Honduran employees includes one lawyer, one journalist, an unpaid journalism intern, and two church liaisons/organizers. Two American volunteers also assist the group. The organization is funded by private donations, international foundations, and church groups.

Gilda Espinal, a lawyer with AJS, says, "I believe that God has chosen us as Christians to be his arm extended over Honduras, and very particularly over each one of our neighbors, to put our careers in God's service."

Rachel Medema was executive intern at Sojourners when this article appeared.

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