By Linda Unger*
Stamford, Conn., April 12, 2011—During its semiannual board of directors meeting, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) today approved significant funding to confront emergencies in Japan, Haiti, and Pakistan, and also advanced the process of defining a new vision for the organization.
In addition to the emergency funding, the board of directors approved a large grant to cover projects in the emerging nation of South Sudan, and also freed up funds for use by the annual conferences of Louisiana and Mississippi so that they might continue helping Hurricane Katrina survivors who are still struggling to rebuild their homes.
Bishop Janice Huie, president of the UMCOR board and bishop of the Texas Annual Conference, opened the meeting at the Stamford Marriott Hotel with a reading from the gospel of John about God as a vine grower, of whom Jesus says, “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
Setting up a later discussion on strategic planning, Huie said, “We’ve come to the place where, in order to bear fruit, there are some parts of the vine, as Jesus said, that need to be snipped away. I know how hard it is to do that with a plant; it’s much more difficult when it comes to the wonderful things the church is engaged in but which may diffuse our focus.”
UMCOR staff reports to the board would reveal “a good deal of fruit-bearing,” Huie assured the directors, but they also would reveal “places that may need to be pruned in order that the whole vine might bear more fruit. All of that, at least according to Jesus, is a work of love.”
In her report to the board, UMCOR head, the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, was direct: “We must have clarity of vision and mission in order to catapult the work forward.”
Grants approved: Japan Perhaps the most important area of focus for the 19 directors was that related to disaster response.
They approved a grant in the amount of $150,000 for Japan recovery, the largest single amount UMCOR has granted for this purpose since a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a terrifying tsunami, and the risk of nuclear disaster, which is ongoing, struck that country on March 11.
Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR executive for International Disaster Response, reported that generous donors had contributed more than $1.6 million for this emergency. UMCOR is working with partners Global Medic, United Church of Christ in Japan, Church World Service, and other partners in Japan to help bring relief to people who still are not out of danger, she said.
The $150,000 is granted to the Asian Rural Institute (ARI), a longtime UMCOR partner. ARI trains farmers and others in sustainable agriculture techniques. The organization’s buildings were severely damaged in the quake, impeding the start of classes this spring.
In a twist of fate, agriculturalist Gontran Delgrace, who survived the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, was due to arrive in early April for training, sponsored by UMCOR, but was delayed because of the earthquake in Japan. He is now slated to arrive May 2.
“We have every intention—and the resources—to give more to the people of Japan,” Crutchfield said. She reported that UMCOR will participate in a gathering of international ecumenical partners in Seoul, South Korea, in May to share information about needs and coordinate a response.
Haiti UMCOR directors approved three grants for Haiti, which together total more than $638,000.
The largest sum, $300,000, goes to IMA World Health, for a pilot project to establish a decentralized, integrated, community-driven health and development program in the Grand Riviere de Nord/Bahon area, a rural area far from the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Decentralizing health care is a priority of the Haitian government since the January 2010 earthquake drove many survivors from the capital. “It is important to create a system of medical access and referral –to bring health care to the people where they are,” Crutchfield said.
“Community-based health care is effective,” she said. “Neighbors treat neighbors; they understand local community dynamics, and they’re a trusted source of health care information. Community health workers can have a great impact on behavior change.”
Doctor Cherian Thomas, who heads up UMCOR’s Health unit, said, “Even if there had been no earthquake, this would still be a good model for an impoverished country such as Haiti. The earthquake only makes it more imperative.”
UMCOR is supporting a second community-based health program in Leogane, this one led by partner Global Health Action (GHA) as well as a scholarship program to support 12 college students in their studies.
UMCOR will sponsor a health meeting in Port-au-Prince in early May, bringing together partners in the field with the aim to develop a long-term health strategy in post-earthquake Haiti.
At about the same time, UMCOR will also call together potential partners in the areas of water and reconstruction for two separate forums in Haiti. The upshot of the meetings will be to develop a holistic pilot project in two villages that would benefit 40 families.
At the board meeting, directors also approved the release of up to $1.2 million dollars for repairs to New College Bird, a highly regarded Methodist school that suffered damage to a number of its buildings. Some of the buildings are national historic sites and will need to be repaired or strengthened according to their original architectural plans. New structures will also be built to replace buildings that were destroyed in the earthquake.
Pakistan and Sudan The directors also agreed to release the balance of funds that were contributed for relief efforts following historic flooding in Pakistan last year. Some $400,000 will be disbursed to UMCOR partner Church World Service in Pakistan to develop health services, livelihoods recovery, and food security programs.
In Africa, UMCOR has been preparing for South Sudan independence, which will take effect July 9. Directors voted to provide $250,000 to continue programs the organization has run for about five years in two locales in what will be South Sudan. The funds also will allow the organization to open a national office in the new country’s capital, Juba, where other relief, donor, and United Nations organizations will also be headquartered.
Programming will continue in the South Darfur region of Sudan, as will the related Sudan HQ field office in Khartoum. But the South will face many challenges, including the ongoing return to the new nation of Southern Sudanese from Sudan.
South Sudan is severely lacking in infrastructure and has abysmally low social-economic indicators: only 15 percent of adults are literate and only 2 percent have completed primary school. About 73 percent of Southern Sudanese live on less than $22 US per month.
Thomas Dwyer, director of UMCOR’s field offices in eight countries, indicated that UMCOR would participate in a South Sudan roundtable discussion with other partners in August to discern needs and ongoing and coordinated responses to them in the world’s newest nation.
Dwyer also informed the board of the closing of UMCOR’s field office in Indonesia, which had been opened shortly after the December 26, 2004 tsunami devastated that country. “We made a long-term commitment to the people of Indonesia following that disaster, and now we are doing the same in Haiti.”
The office ran 14 grant-funded programs worth more than $21.7 million. It served 144,627 people. “We are one of the last aid agencies to leave the Banda Aceh region of Indonesia. This is the same strategy we are employing in Haiti,” Dwyer said.
Strategic Planning Strategy was on the minds of the directors for the remainder of the meeting, as they were led through strategic planning exercises that helped them sort through some priority work areas for UMCOR. At the next board meeting in October, a strategic plan will be presented for the directors’ approval.
“As we focus on the mission of UMCOR,” Bishop Huie said, “it will become clearer to us which items can better be done by someone else. This will allow us to spend our energy and resources where the need is greatest and where we are the best at providing the relevant services.”
“There is an enormous amount of work to be done, and expectations are high,” said Rev. Harvey. “The question before us is, how do we advance that work? When the world around you changes every single minute, it is so important to have a clear vision and a focused direction,” she said.
*Linda Unger is staff editor and senior writer for UMCOR.