Development

A Crumbling Infrastructure

Between 1950 and 1970, the U.S. spent 3 percent of its gross domestic product maintaining America’s infrastructure; since 1980, the country has spent “well less than 2 percent,” according to a report by the New America Foundation. As the August collapse of Minneapolis’ Interstate 35W bridge reminds us, this backlog can have fatal consequences. While Iraq war appropriations exceed $456 billion, America’s highways, bridges, waste and water facilities, harbors, and airports are poorly maintained (and public education and affordable housing are seriously underfunded)—and predicted to become significantly more so by 2015.

3.5 million public housing units could be built with $456 billion.

27.1 percent of U.S. bridges are listed as structurally deficient or obsolete.

30 percent of annual highway fatalities result from inadequate roadway maintenance.

45,800 elementary schools could be built with $456 billion.

1 percent: amount that annual expenditures to maintain the U.S. power grid have decreased since 1992.

8 million public school teachers could be hired for one year with $456 billion.

Sources: “Ten Big Ideas for a New America” (New America Foundation, 2007); “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure 2005,” (American Society of Civil Engineers); the National Priorities Project; “The Bucks Never Stop: Iraq and Afghanistan War Costs Continue To Soar” (The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation).

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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A Shelter for the Soul

El Centro Episcopal is located in Sampson County, a sparsely populated region of southeast North Carolina where farming is still the dominant industry. This small community organization, run by Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFM), serves the “invisible” laborers who earn the lowest annual income of all U.S. workers—workers who hand-harvest 85 percent of the produce we eat. Accessible only by a rural road, the facility provides services to more than 6,000 migrant and year-round farm workers each year. Seventeen acres of cotton, bell pepper, soybean, and strawberry fields surround a health clinic, a Head Start day-care facility, a community services building, and a church, La Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia.

It’s not a place you’d expect to find innovative design, but two unique building projects are underway: a community garden and a flea market. With the help of Design Corps, a Raleigh-based architecture organization whose stated mission is “creating positive change in communities through design,” EFM has developed a 20-year plan to respond to the immediate and future needs of the people it serves. The garden will offer workers extra food while the flea market will help bring in extra income. Using research from Wake Forest University about how to address “food insecurity” within the migrant farm worker population, Design Corps’ partnership with EFM provides a design solution to an economic and social justice issue.

Architecture and design experts have traditionally served the needs and interests of those able to foot expensive bills. Bryan Bell, executive director of Design Corps, recalls trying to talk with other architecture professionals about individual design for low-income families during the era of multi-family complexes in urban centers. “They thought I was serving lobster and caviar at a food bank. They just didn’t understand what designers could do to help.”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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No Turning Back

This August I had the great blessing of participating in World Vision’s Triennial Council held in Singapore. It drew together almost 500 people—World Vision’s country directors and many staff, board chairs, and members from every region of the world, as well as the international board of directors who will guide and govern what has become one of the largest relief and development organizations in the world. World Vision has grown enormously, especially in the last several years, and is seeking to determine its future direction. The organization serves 100 million people in almost 100 countries, with 23,000 staff members and an annual budget of $2 billion. It was indeed a privilege to deliver the opening and closing addresses and to have many opportunities to interact with this extraordinary group of people each day of the conference.

I saw an organization in the dynamic process of moving from alleviation to transformation. I felt the passion of an international community of humanitarian faith-based workers who care deeply about the poorest children of the world, and who clearly yearn to embrace a God of justice, not only a God of charity. That was the call they responded to in Singapore. The response was especially powerful from those who came from the global South, where the churches are growing dramatically and the conditions of life for so many have forced the people of God to address the issues of global justice.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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Jesus of the Cul-de-Sac

In my 20s, I had suburbanites figured out. With a few exceptions, they were status-conscious white folks who had fled the cities because they couldn't stomach sending their children to school with black and brown kids. Radical, justice-seeking Christians, on the other hand, lived either in the city—thus throwing their lot in with the poor as Jesus did—or on farms—thus tending the earth, God's good creation. Suburbia, that rather tedious space between the two, was the home of uncritical and consumptive creatures, with a propensity for megachurches and holiday-themed porch flags.

Then in my 30s I moved there. At first I pretended that my new town, charmingly called a "village" on one sign, wasn't actually a suburb—and it's not, if you don't count the countless small towns being gussied up (and gutted) by sprawl. I convinced myself that my neighborhood of mostly 1960s ranches was fundamentally different from the new subdivisions springing up around it—even though, a few decades ago, my development would have been the offensive new kid in town. "Sprawl is where other people live, the result of other people's poor choices," architectural historian Robert Bruegmann has written.

If suburbia is the largely residential area within commuting distance of a city, however, then here I am: smack-dab in the middle of what has been called "the geography of nowhere." The story of my move to nowhere is a long one—and a rather tired one, actually—about romantic ideals of living in the city knocking up against the realities of raising three small children there. Some would challenge that it's also a narrative of subconscious racism and class privilege, both of which are distinct possibilities. Whatever the truth, suffice it to say that I now know something of the swiftness with which self-righteousness can bake itself into humble pie.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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Big is Beautiful?

The Annual Review of Development Effectiveness, a major report by the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group released in early December, criticized World Bank policies and project design as leaving tens of millions of people, especially the rural poor, "suffering stagnating or declining living conditions." The group's conclusions were no surprise to the poor or to those who accompany them in their daily struggle for survival.

For 25 years critics of the macroeconomic model unwaveringly promoted by the World Bank and its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have called for a fundamental shift away from top-down policies and mega-projects to allow space for more appropriate approaches to economic life that respect the local social and ecological context and the socio-economic and cultural human rights of the poor. The work of 2006 Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank has been one example of an alternative approach.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the World Bank's "structural adjustment policies" had initiated the shift to "neoliberal" economies in poor country after poor country. Although structural adjustment aimed at laudable goals such as controlling inflation and stabilizing out-of-control economies, its policies left the poor even more vulnerable as social safety nets disappeared and health care, education, transportation, and utility costs rose dramatically.

The 1990s saw an increased pace of neoliberal reform and the globalization it was helping to shape. Production shifted from food staples and basic goods for domestic use to commodities for export.Whole sectors of economies in which the poor were able to participate—especially subsistence farming and small businesses—were destroyed as cheap imports flooded local markets.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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Girl, Interrupted

The young schoolgirl is in the front row of the dusty auditorium. Her feet don’t reach the floor. She swings her thin legs and shifts in the large wooden seat as the presentation to foreign visitors drones on. She could be any child anywhere. There is one notable difference: If her community had not intervened, she would not be a schoolgirl, but a wife.

She lives in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where 50 percent of girls are married by age 15, and 80 percent by age 18. If current trends continue, 100 million girls—some as young as 7 or 8—in the developing world (predominantly South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa) will be married in the next 10 years.

Motivations for child marriage vary from region to region, and include custom and sometimes religious beliefs. But poverty is almost always a major factor. Sometimes, in a poor family, child marriage is seen as a way to eliminate one mouth to feed. Conversely, sometimes marriage is seen as a means of improving the girl’s or the whole family’s lot, by linking them to a family of greater means.

The cruel irony is that child marriage holds back entire communities in their socioeconomic development. Girls are pulled from school to be married, truncating the skills and options for both the girls and the children they will bear. As the International Center for Research on Women’s report Too Young to Wed puts it, “Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and remain poor.”

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Celebrity Activists

An aid-worker friend in Darfur has sent e-mail updates during the past year about the escalating crisis there. They often included the worried questions: “Is this on the radar in the States? Does anyone care?”

I always answered, sadly, that despite some notable exceptions (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for one), Sudan largely went unmentioned in the mainstream press—that is, until mid-May of this year, when the issue consistently made it into the headlines. According to the Associated Press, the three network evening newscasts had devoted less than a combined 10 minutes to the conflict in 2006—and in under a week, that airtime skyrocketed. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Darfur.

Why? Certainly years of activist work was finally paying off. But another factor was star power. Actor George Clooney traveled to a Sudanese refugee camp armed with a video camera and his celebrity, then returned to speak at a well-attended rally in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, NBC’s medical drama ER aired a special episode featuring two attractive doctors getting their hands dirty in the African nation, with the actors appearing on news magazine shows to speak about the crisis.

Clooney and the ER docs aren’t alone. Chances are that by the time you read this, several other international hot spots will have had their moment in the limelight—thanks to a phenomenon Time columnist James Poniewozik calls “charitainment.” In Hollywood, it seems, philanthropy is the new black. From Meg Ryan to Angelina Jolie to the ubiquitous Bono, A-Listers are promoting a slew of humanitarian causes, from the fight against AIDS to the alleviation of Third World debt to trade justice issues, fueled by the knowledge that, as Poniewozik notes wryly, “in this world, nothing matters that does not have a camera pointed at it.”

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Will The Desert Bloom

In an arid valley of northwestern Afghanistan, diets used to consist of little more than tea and bread, and women remained in the home. But today, widows such as Tazaghul (left) and Ghuldista (center) are learning to keep vegetable gardens outside the home, watered by special drip irrigation kits supplied by World Vision, to provide nutritious food for their families. Shamesdin (right) admitted the men were surprised by the women’s efforts. “But now we see it’s good,” he said. More than 1,400 women have started similar garden projects in Badghis Province.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Milk, With A Twist

Hagar Soya, a soy milk company in Cambodia run by Christian development agency Hagar, recently started offering two fortified soya milk drinks for retail purchase. The beverages are designed to combat micronutrient deficiency. So!Soya Gold, for adults, is a vitamin-packed alternative to soft drinks, while So!Soya Kids includes significant amounts of 11 micronutrients crucial for child development. Hagar Soya both sells So!Soya Kids and donates it for use in rural schools.

Soya milk is popular in Cambodia, where the Hagar factory is the first to produce it with ultra-high temperature equipment and aseptic packaging—enabling a long shelf life without refrigeration. The project provides jobs for local graduates of prevention and rehabilitation programs run by Hagar, which works with women and children in crisis. “Our business exists to help women recovering from extremely difficult circumstances,” Hagar CEO Talmage Payne told Sojourners, but it is also “a commercially viable beverage company” developing products that promote nutrition and “add value to the Cambodian agricultural sector” via sustainable business practices.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2006
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