UMCOR Field Offices: A Side-by-Side, Integrated Approach to Development
by Christie R. House
In 1991, after 70 years of Soviet rule, Armenians voted to become an independent nation. In 1992, the US State Department (DOS) began funding projects in the former states of the Soviet Union, including Armenia, in order to strengthen and support the newly independent governments. Many nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) moved into Armenia and other former states to start projects, using funding from the US government. UMCOR opened its Armenia office with DOS funding in 1994. Since that time, it has operated the medical commodities distribution program, as designated by its initial grant, but it has also expanded into other areas of development with other funding sources.
Today, international donor agencies have decreased or ended their grants to projects in Armenia, and many international assistance agencies have left. Yet, 19 years later, UMCOR remains. “With decreased assistance from the international community, UMCOR is the only organization that still continues to assist us,” states Olya Mkrtchyan, director of the Gyumri Elderly Home. “For more than 10 years we have felt UMCOR’s love and support for the marginalized members of our society.”
Mkrtchyan herself is 65 years old, but she cares for the beneficiaries of the home, albeit with a limited budget. UMCOR has been working with the residents to improve nutrition and food security, using animal-raising, gardening, and beekeeping projects that residents themselves can maintain. Funding for sustainable agriculture projects in Armenia has come from the Foods Resource Bank, a voluntary ecumenical project in the United States supported by farmers and communities that set aside land to raise produce. The proceeds from these produce sales fund agricultural projects around the world.
“We are grateful to American farmers and citizens for supporting our residents through the Foods Resource Bank project,” said Mkrtchyan. Her story was reported by Anahit Gasparyan, UMCOR Armenia’s project manager. All staff members of the UMCOR Armenia office, including Gasparyan, are originally from Armenia.
UMCOR currently operates nine field offices around the world: Georgia (20 years), Armenia (19 years), Afghanistan (11 years), DR Congo (11 years), Sri Lanka (8 years), Sudan (8 years), South Sudan (7 years), Zimbabwe (4 years), and Haiti (3 years since the earthquake, with multiple interventions before 2010). Each office has its own unique circumstances, with various funding sources and partners. Each navigates challenging obstacles and seeks to multiply beneficial opportunities. But all share common goals and characteristics that define them as UMCOR entities.
Some of the offices are opened with United Methodist funding after disaster has occurred. A few have opened with large donor grants from US government or United Nations agencies, awarded because of UMCOR’s successes in other countries. In either case, that funding is leveraged to attract other donors and partners to extend programs further, start new projects, and maximize UMCOR’s effectiveness in the countries where it serves.
UMCOR field offices are staffed by both local residents and international expatriates. They coordinate with UMCOR program managers, based in its New York headquarters, on the delivery of respective programs. The country offices may have additional outlets in the regions where they work and local staff who live and work in the communities they serve. This is one of UMCOR’s unique strengths—the face of UMCOR, wherever it is found, is the face of a neighbor. Development starts even before the work begins, as local residents are hired and trained to accomplish the office’s mission.
Nicholas Jaeger is the program manager for UMCOR in Armenia and Georgia. The staff in both of these field offices is entirely Armenian or Georgian. Jaeger says he feels privileged to work with his colleagues because they provide excellent leadership in both missions. “They really know the programs backward and forward,” he confirms. “I think that is an important lesson in general. We are best served if we are looking to our field staff for their input, rather than being directive in giving our input to them. Staff members in the field know best their context and the needs of the beneficiaries on the ground.” Jaeger feels that the goal is to focus on the beneficiaries in the field and help them in the best way possible. For that to happen, the conversation has to flow in a circle.
The main office for UMCOR DRC is in Lubumbashi and a second office operates in Kamina. Amber Kubera coordinates UMCOR’s work in DR Congo, Zimbabwe, and Sudan (Khartoum). Not only does UMCOR employ Congolese staff, she says, but staff members train hundreds of local community health workers. So UMCOR’s reach into remote areas of the Congo is very deep in some regions.
“I think one of the goals in all of our programs,” Kubera explains, “is to do human capacity-building. In all of our distributions of supplies or medicines, in all of our health programs, we integrate the community health workers into our trainings. Those are the people who are in their communities day-to-day. They will continue to work with the government health agencies long after we’ve left. In the end, our goal is to have no more reason to work there.”
In the Haiti field office, the ratio for staff is approximately one foreign worker for every five Haitian workers. Thodleen Dessources, UMCOR’s program manager for Haiti, says building the capacity and knowledge of the Haitian staff members will increase their ability to respond directly to emergencies and to provide relief following disasters in their disaster-prone country. “The immediate plan is not to close the office,” Dessources says, “but to transfer the programs and operation to local staff members whom we have guided and worked alongside in the last few years.”
Putting the time and support into training in-country staff is one of the reasons UMCOR can continue to function in Afghanistan. Although the field office is led by a senior staff of expatriates, all the implementing staff and trainers are Afghani. Meghan Corneal—program manager for Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka—says that practice allows for ease of movement and a base of trust. The Afghani staff members worked in partnership with the local communities, which helps to guarantee security. “We don’t use private security contractors,” Corneal explains, “because we think that actually increases the likelihood of the mission’s becoming a target. We maintain a low profile in the districts where UMCOR works. Yet we are very careful with our staff. If we see an increase of violence in a surrounding province, we shut down our activities there until we think it is safe to resume.”
UMCOR Afghanistan has great relationships with local governments and standing agreements with the Afghan ministry. In the countryside, the government is decentralized. UMCOR’s local relationships are focused on building capacity at the community level. “I think that is what makes us different,” Corneal says. “We are not taking a ‘top-down’ approach. We work side-by-side with our beneficiaries.”
An Integrated Approach
Another tenet of an UMCOR field office is to provide a whole ministry for the whole person. While it is important to assess and identify severe challenges to healthy daily living—such as malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa—approaching challenges in a way that does not address all the contributing factors will not help the population’s recovery.
Using malaria as an example, prevention is important. Providing people with bed nets, therefore, is important. But if most community residents receive nets and few know how to hang them or when to replace them, bed net distributions will have little effect. So a training component must be added that reaches every household where nets are distributed.
If treatment is not accessible to people who contract malaria, the population will not get better and more will die. The need for more health clinics, health workers, and medicines may need to be addressed. Likewise, poor nutrition will defeat a body trying to heal even if it has the necessary medication. So food security, nutrition, and agriculture must all be considered.
Finally, access to clean, safe water underlies all aspects of health and development work. Even if all the other factors that contribute to malaria are addressed, polluted water will make the population sicker, and poor sanitation and drainage will breed more mosquitos to transmit the disease. A significant slice of funding for UMCOR DRC comes from the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Amber Kubera sees this as a good “step forward” in the DR Congo. “We are really becoming health experts for some of these conditions, such as malaria,” she says. “Now we are focusing on HIV/AIDS programs, an area of priority for us and an area of need there.” UMCOR DRC also assists community members in building wells, latrines, and hand-washing stations. Recently, the country office finished a project at a girl’s school in Kamina that serves 3,000 girls. “It isn’t only that the girls now have clean water,” Kubera says, “but when you have better facilities, you see increases in attendance. The project benefits the community at large.”
UMCOR seeks to improve maternal and child health ministries by training birth attendants, and also by improving the nutrition of whole families. The Sustainable Agriculture program, funded by the Foods Resource Bank, works on the nutrition aspect. “We look at health from all sides,” explains Kubera, “not just by providing a clinic but through health education and nutrition.”
In Afghanistan, most of UMCOR’s work centers around one program funded by the US Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM). But the program involves multiple sectors for an integrated approach. Meghan Corneal says the work focuses on education, health, water and sanitation, and agriculture. “We do a mixture of all these components,” she points out. In UMCOR’s Afghan water projects, local labor is used to provide short-term work opportunities. A traditional Afghan water system, Karizes, are used, rather than less familiar technologies.
In Haiti, Thodleen Dessources says the office has partnered with a number of agencies to construct housing, provide clean water, and increase access to health resources. But for the long-term well-being of Haitians, work is now beginning to focus on sustainable development. Increasing opportunities for education, food production, and livelihoods are the next phase. Providing the means for Haiti’s farmers with small family farms to increase and diversify their yields, feed their families, and have some produce to sell at markets “would have a multiplying effect in their communities,” Dessources says.
The Community of Faith
When asked about UMCOR’s role as a faith-based humanitarian agency among thousands of NGOs in the world, the program managers emphasized UMCOR’s work with people of all faiths, not just United Methodists, in the countries it serves. In some countries, there is no UMC connection. But approaching humanitarian work from a faith-based perspective adds a layer of accountability.
“In the DRC,” said Kubera, “we work with pastors and imams to prepare sermons—to integrate health messages into their discussions and conversations with their congregations. Other organizations that are not faith-based might be able to do that, but it is something we do very well.”
The Methodist Church of Haiti, one of UMCOR’s main partners in that country, allowed UMCOR to have immediate access to many communities with Methodist congregations. Dessources described a long history of Methodist presence in Haiti, dating back to the 1800s. She believes that building on that historic relationship among Methodists—Haitian, European, and American—UMCOR can have a broader reach and a wider and deeper impact in Haiti.
“I’ve heard that there is a level of respect accorded to UMCOR in Afghanistan because it is a faith-based organization,” Corneal said. “You would think, as a Christian organization in a Muslim country, that UMCOR would have great difficulty.”
Into every country, deep in its core, UMCOR carries its Methodist DNA and its heart for mission. To many in need, that motivation is refreshing. UMCOR touches the lives of ordinary people, like the senior citizens of Gyumri home for the elderly in Armenia, and it stays for as long as it can to complete its mission among them.
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook. This article first appeared in the New World Outlook March-April 2013 edition. Used by permission.
Syomik Kadunts, a student, with two pigs at an agricultural training center in Norabak, Armenia, sponsored by UMCOR. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
On-the-spot training at the beekeeping farm of Gyumri #1 Child Care and Support Boarding Institution in Armenia. Photo: Courtesy UMCOR Armenia
A man in Khaki Jabbar District inspects a kariz tunnel in Afghanistan. Photo: UMCOR Afghanistan
A woman helps construct a building to store the community’s grain, part of an UMCOR community agriculture project outside Kamina, DR Congo. Paul Jeffrey