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If you've ever traveled to a developing country to provide aid or relief, you know that life in the local community you are serving can be complicated by all sorts of factors – drought, violence, pestilence, government bureacracy.
Your goal may be to provide food, clean water, mosquito nets, or – in our case – loan capital, business training, literacy and spiritual development opportunities, but making a measurable and sustainable difference requires more than just good intentions.
You need to have, among other things, relationships in each community – as well as sensitivity to all of the forces that have put that child with a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, or that mom with a missing limb, in your path.
This is one of the reasons Five Talents partners with local organizations and dioceses in the 11 countries that host our programs. From our offices in the US and UK we can only know so much, no matter how "flat" the world has become.
"You see so many different organizations making decisions about what people need and what is the appropriate way that people and communities need to develop, and then they bring those ideas and try to implement them," said Robin Denney, an agricultural consultant who we interviewed recently about farming in South Sudan.
"They can have a certain amount of success, but there is also some arrogance in that approach. Whereas the Church and women's groups, like the Mothers' Union [a Five Talents partner], are already on the ground doing things because they are the local people. They have that vision and commitment for their community's development because they are the community leaders and the community organizers."
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A farmer named Abdalla poses next to his harvest of sesame in a church-run community garden in Abara, Eastern Equatoria State, South Sudan. We recently interviewed Robin Denney, an agricultural consultant to the Episcopal Church of Sudan, about micro-entrepreneurial farming in the country. Abdalla is not a Five Talents client, but we thought we would share this photo as an example of the kind of work that the church is doing in local communities.
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A recent article in The Economist highlighted a form of microfinance that Five Talents has been practicing for nearly a decade. The story, published on December 10, 2011, praises the savings-led model of microfinance, which involves groups of women and men who pool their savings before drawing out small loans from that pool in order to sustain and develop their micro-businesses.
We at Five Talents were delighted to see The Economist's coverage of savings groups, but we would like to make a few additional points that show how savings groups can also be an avenue for community transformation.
Five Talents has been working with this model for nearly a decade – especially in India, among communities that were devastated after the tsunami in 2004. What is most compelling about the savings group model is that it can reach – and empower – the very poor. In other words, those people who are too poor even to have access to mainstream microfinance organizations that are giving loans of $60 or more.
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A group of men and women congregate under a tree for a community event held in the village of Lietnhom, South Sudan, where Five Talents and its partners helped to create the country's first community-led bank in 2007. There are few buildings in places like Lietnhom, and the brutal heat makes the shade of a tree one of the coolest locations to host large gatherings.
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Imagine: A land still scarred by years of conflict turning to its very roots for a chance at healing, for an opportunity to grow and thrive.
That is exactly the sort of vision that is being cast for the country of South Sudan, which will be just six months old on January 9. Decades of civil war and ethnic violence have left their marks on its people. But after formally declaring its independence in 2011, the nation has begun, slowly, to march towards hope, and out of despair.
There are several sources for this newfound optimism, but one of the most important is the country's agricultural resources. To date, South Sudan's only industry to speak of is in oil. But its large swaths of fertile land have people inside and outside of the country believing that South Sudan has the potential to become "one of the breadbaskets of Africa".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as much in December at a development and investment conference for South Sudan in Washington, D.C.
Around the same time, the Guardian reported that USAID will guarantee $7 million in bank loans to the country's spindly agricultural sector. Some of that money will be reserved for individuals who run small farms.
More importantly, however, it's the people on the ground in South Sudan – both churches and citizens themselves – who are starting to buy in to this vision.
Robin Denney worked as an agricultural consultant with the Episcopal Church of Sudan and said this vision makes a lot of practical sense, if only because so many Sudanese farm to put food on their own tables.
"Probably 95 percent of South Sudanese are subsistence farmers or livestock keepers who get everything for themselves," she said.
Denney, who recently returned to the States, visited 25 of the 26 dioceses in South Sudan, conducting agricultural assessments and talking with the bishops about their vision for agriculture, programs, and what assets were already on the ground.
"It is an incredibly diverse country," she said. "In some areas you have only livestock keepers, and in other areas you have only farmers who don't keep livestock."
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Throughout 2011, we have sought prayer and collected donations for a matching grant focusing on our program in Malakal, South Sudan.
Today, I am delighted to announce that we have met our goal.
We raised $45,000 in donations from primarily new donors and from those who increased their gift from last year. These gifts will be matched by a generous, US-based foundation later this month, so we now have a total of $90,000 to fight poverty, create jobs and transform lives in the war-torn, impoverished community of Malakal, South Sudan.
I feel incredibly blessed because of the energy and commitment shown by our friends and supporters. We couldn't have done it without you – whether you prayed, gave or encouraged others to contribute, as did the Rev. Michael D. Kinman, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, Missouri.
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In a few days, most of us will eat from platters of turkey and ham, and bowls of mashed potatoes and carrots. There will be cranberry salad, hot rolls, and, of course, a slice – or two – of pie for dessert.
A meal like that is plenty to be thankful for just by itself.
But if we take a little time, we will likely come up with a list of other reasons to be thankful – for Christ's love for us, for our health, for our family and friendships, for our job, for the colorful leaves that lay in our yard. Our blessings are many.
Not so for the one billion poor living on less than $1.25 a day. While we are carving the turkey, many families will be sifting through garbage dumps or going to sleep hungry.
I want to thank you for your commitment to help us fight such extreme poverty. Without your prayers and support, we could not carry out our mission – a mission that is truly transforming lives in some of the poorest areas of the world.
Take, for example, Priscilla, a 52-year-old woman in Wau, South Sudan. As a girl, she never had a chance to attend school, and so Priscilla struggled through much of her life seeking sense of purpose and dignity. Twenty-five years of civil war -- and countless other factors -- had locked her out of a world of opportunity.
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At last week's annual board meeting in Vienna, Virginia, Five Talents cast its vision for the future and celebrated its most recent successes.
Earlier in the week, Five Talents was named "one of the best" non-profits for 2011-2012 by Greater Washington's Catalogue for Philanthropy. The organization will once again be featured on the Catalogue's website. Click here to read more about the honor.
On Friday, Five Talents President and CEO Craig Cole (pictured on right with Five Talents International board member Graham Carr) published an essay for the Communities at WashingtonTimes.com describing the organization's holistic approach to microfinance in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and how it helps women and men to recognize their God-given dignity.
"The most precious resource in the world's poorest countries is not oil or diamonds ― it's a sense of dignity," he wrote. "Our organization has found that a small loan -- when coupled with accountability from a savings group, business training, and spiritual development opportunities -- can give survival-business owners the boost they need to grow their work into a sustainable enterprise and foster a sense of dignity that is integral to the social well-being of a community."
And on Tuesday, November 15, Five Talents UK's program manager Anna Pienaar will be participating in a panel discussion titled "Does Faith Matter: Exploring the Role of Faith-Based Microfinance Initiatives" at the Global Microcredit Summit 2011 in Valladolid, Spain.