Saturday, January 17, 2009

Speaking of Faith, Carl Blogs from Kenya

The following is a guest post from my colleague and friend, Carl Hammerdorfer, who is director of the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise Program at Colorado State. Carl has spent much of his career in the Peace Corps as well as being involved in several entrepreneurial endeavors. In his first post, he jumps right into the fray with his thoughts on mixing religion and development.

"I spent the better part of the day with an amazing Kenyan entrepreneur, Haron Wachira, who I had the good fortune to meet, briefly, in Fort Collins. He's built successful businesses in computer assembly and sales, software development, consulting and publishing, just to name a few. He also worked for Price Waterhouse Coopers in their IT practice, and he appears to bring that same disciplined systems approach that one gets at the big consulting firms to his new passion: development and poverty reduction.

I see Haron as a great potential partner for our program, and he's been very gracious in setting me up with potential students and partners here. Yesterday he brought me to Africa Nazarene University, just outside of Nairobi, to meet with their Vice Chancellor, Dr. Leah Marangu, herself a remarkable woman. If I'm not mistaken, she is the first Kenyan woman to receive a PhD, has lived, studied and worked in the U.S., and has made huge impacts on higher education in Kenya. Still, I went to the meeting with some unease. As an employee of Colorado State University, a public institution, I wondered if it would be appropriate, or even possible, to partner with a religiously supported university. The U.S. government's increasingly bold embrace of faith based development organizations notwithstanding, I've never felt comfortable with aid programs that contain an implied requirement that the recipients accept Jesus, Allah or any other God or belief system. This is not a matter of my own belief, but rather a concern about fairness, freedom of thought and ideological litmus testing entering the aid equation. Not that I believe that secular, publicly funded foreign assistance has a stellar, or even mediocre, record of accomplishment. But that's another discussion.

Despite my concerns, the meeting with ANU was terrific. The subject of faith or religion did not come up during three hours of meetings. Rather, we discussed history, poverty, the drought and, most extensively, how a business approach to development could change the game in Africa. Among many other things, we discussed how the intergovernmental aid establishment has been unable to propagate a highly effective and inexpensive water filtration system over the past five years. Haron, having learned that less than 100 units had been installed, is working with ANU on a program to commercialize the technology via village entrepreneurs. He expects his network to be installing as many filters every week as the multi-billion dollar aid establishment has been able to install over years. We spoke about Envirofit, a business born at CSU, and how they were poised to move more improved cook stoves than had ever been sold before, primarily due to a commercial consumer products approach.

Clearly, we were on common ground here as we began talking through a potential partnership. Yet, my concern about mixing public and religious organizations still nagged at me. And maybe it showed, because towards the end of our discussion, Haron changed the subject to an article he'd read in the Times online edition. He wondered if he'd remembered to share it with Dr. Marangu who, laughing, said she had a copy of the article in her desk. Written by an avowed atheist who'd grown up in Africa, the article argued, apparently, that faith based efforts did more to develop Africa than governmental efforts. I had to read this.

Back in my hotel room, I sent Haron an email thanking him for his help and asking him to send me the article, which I just finished reading. It provides a very compelling personal argument for the benefits of faith based development efforts in Africa.

Although the Bush administration has been at the center of the controversy over public funding of faith based charities, it's worth noting that Barack Obama is squarely on record as supporting a continuation of these efforts. He does acknowledge that some of the Bush efforts were overly ideological. It's also worth noting that World Vision and Catholic Relief Services have been long time major recipients of public funding, so this is not a new controversy.

Finally, I'll close with an observation on church based development that ought not be ignored. It is not possible to evaluate the pros and cons of this issue without understanding the broad range of approaches and philosophies. There are numerous efforts funded by religious organizations that promote much the same enterprise approach that our program promotes, although often with significantly more focus on profit, than on people and planet. There are other efforts that focus primarily on religious conversion, on saving souls rather than lives. And still others promote a liberation theology approach which, far from the enterprise model, argues for essentially Marxist solutions to poverty.

While I'm on board with the free enterprise focused efforts, I have very serious reservations about the latter two."

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