Ordinary heroes effecting extraordinary change

Climate change is a massive deal. It’s so massive, it’s pretty difficult to know what – if anything – little ol’ me can do about it. I’m not an oil tycoon; I don’t run the government; and I don’t have a time machine to go back and fix some of the terrible environmental decisions humanity has made. I am simply an ordinary person, leading a (fairly) ordinary life.

Thankfully, Tearfund has hit upon a way in which I – and you – can do something that could help to change the situation. Off the back of their latest report entitled The Restorative Economy, they’ve launched a campaign for people to become Ordinary Heroes. I guess it’s basically encouraging us to become slightly less than super heroes, which must mean a slightly more ordinary costume – maybe a pair of M&S knickers over a pair of black leggings, rather a full-on Superhero jumpsuit? [Apologies, that illustration has possibly gone a little too far!!]

The promotional video for Ordinary Heroes. 

The premise is that if we all, as individuals, commit to making lifestyle changes the combined effect will be considerable. Christians have a good track record for this kind of collaborative action, and Biblically, it builds upon the parable of the mustard seed – even from the smallest of seeds can big things grow. Last night, at the launch event for the report and campaign, we were encouraged to wave coloured paper in response to potential commitments we could make, that could begin this momentum:

  • Fly less. Yes, I travel to the US around once a year and my last 2 trips to Belfast have been flights, but I’ve just made a trip to France via Eurostar (and it’s my preferred route there) and I do take the ferry to Ireland when it’s feasible. Texas is a little trickier, sadly…
  • Use a sustainable energy provider. Once I’m in the position to make such decisions, I will do. My current house – given the environmental passion of its owners – definitely already do this.
  • Eat less meat. This is one I’m already committed to. Ethically, I’m well on the side of vegetarians, I just appreciate bacon and a good burger too much to go fully vege, but my cooking at home is almost meat-free out of habit.
  • Spend money/invest wisely. Yep. I’m the child of passionate boycotters, so I’m well versed in this. I’m also thankful to be living down the road from a Co-Op – an excellent source of Fairtrade produce, especially wine! When I have money to invest, I’ll look into this…
  • Buy Fairtrade. See above! But I’d be up for campaigning to see more products go this way.
  • Take political action. Next month, we’ll have a new government. Later this year there’s a UN Climate Change summit. Both are excellent opportunities to raise the issue. Potentially, I’m even up for the mass lobbying of parliament on June 17th.

A climate change campaign may seem like an odd thing for a Christian development organisation to launch. What do they know about the environment? Actually, an awful lot. The thing is, while we might see the odd effect of global warming in the UK, those in the most marginalised areas of international society – who Tearfund work with – experience it at first hand and it’s a massive issue for them. They want to know what organisations like Tearfund are going to do about it.

Several years ago, while working for the Methodist Church, I had the opportunity to meet with Methodist partner churches from all over the world. I vividly remember a representative from the Church of Bangladesh giving a very emotional speech about the impact climate change was having upon his community NOW! [It resulted in me going off on a rant about why on earth our building had a vicious air-con system.] A friend in the South Pacific wrote a book on the theology of the Ocean and the potential impact of rising sea levels upon the Pacific Islands – as someone born on one of those islands, I can’t bear the thought of those communities being lost due to the ignorance and idiocy of industrialised societies.

Matthew Frost

At the launch, Tearfund CEO Matthew Frost spoke of visits around the world where the question of Climate Change had cropped up time and again. He and his Tearfund colleagues had witnessed at first hand the impact these changes had had upon the poorest in society. From villagers in Peru losing water supply owing to disappearing glaciers; to extending deserts in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, the question is being asked: “What can you do to help us?”

The report is a good read. Theologically grounded, but accessible to all (there’s a shorter summary that does its job well) it makes clear the case for taking action. As Christians, the case is compelling. We were created by God to steward creation and quite frankly, we’ve done a pretty rubbish job of it! I hope we can make a difference, before it becomes too late…

The Restorative Economy(Incidentally, an article about the launch written by me & using the same title as this blogpost will be appearing in the religious press next week. I couldn’t get away with referencing knickers in that piece, so I felt the need to write something else here too!)


Uganda, two years on…

This time two years ago, I was sitting in Entebbe airport, killing a lot of hours before a flight home to London. Thanks to Tearfund’s media team, a small group of Christian bloggers had the privilege of spending a week visiting initiatives supported by Tearfund via their Ugandan partner, PAG. Dave Walker, Bex Lewis and I, plus the fabulous Katie Harrison from Tearfund [follow her on Twitter for insights into the world of international development] travelled together, with the aim that the bloggers would tell the stories of their encounters, pretty much in real time. Evenings were spent writing blogposts, editing photos and generally trying to make sense of all we’d experienced.

The team at JinjaOdiira (& Shane), Katie, Dave, Bex & I.

I would have remembered the anniversary without the help of Timehop (memory of an Elephant…), but re-living tweets, blogposts and photos through the canny app has brought back some very specific memories. For example, that final day visiting a village that had participated in the PAG’s PEP initiative, supported by Tearfund, was a fascinating insight into the misunderstandings that can occur with NGO funding. But, while we waited for the misunderstanding to be resolved, we got to play with some very entertaining children…

Baby & bubbles

The tweets and blogposts have reminded me of names I had forgotten. [If you ever go on a trip like this, write down the names of the people you meet and whose stories you hear, don’t let them become another nameless face.] That final day we met John Julius who had successfully funded his children’s higher education with his ground nut crops – two years on I’m wondering whether he ever did find the money to pay his youngest’s final semester’s fees.

John Julius & ground nutsJohn Julius & his ground nut crop.

In the last two years, I have had updates on some of the stories we heard. Just last month, Tearfund shared an update on the story of Lucy, a grandmother caring for her grandchildren. I’m Facebook friends with Odiira, our PAG guide who travelled with us and earlier this year, it turned out she was the guide on another Tearfund visit that a friend of mine was part of. Every so often, I get surprise glimpses of life in Ogongora and other communities around Soroti – like a video in a college seminar last year that may have moved me to tears.

Collecting LunchNursery school children lining up for lunch in Ogongora

It’s a place that feels very far away, on a sunny but chilly Tuesday in London. The red dust (which gets EVERYWHERE – I had to dye a white shirt blue on my return because it just wouldn’t come out),  the dry, relentless heat and the sounds – children laughing; roosters crowing; churches singing – made it like another world.

Communities like those we visited around Soroti are very much in the public eye at the moment. Every episode of Comic Relief does Bake Off features a segment about projects the charity funds in Uganda. When I watch them, I think of the people I met, and the amazing transformations that have taken place. It shows these communities are by no means hopeless.

We live in a world that, despite modern technology, can be very insular and ignorant of all that takes place outside our own neighbourhood, city, or nation. Charities like Tearfund help provide a window on societies beyond our boundaries – that’s why our visit was part of the ‘See for yourself’ campaign. We’re part of a global church, but it’s very easy to forget that Sunday by Sunday, especially if you live in a community that’s not particularly diverse. Get informed and don’t make assumptions about what those elsewhere in the world might need, or how your occasional giving to a good cause should be spent.

In an emergency…

It’s been three weeks since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines.
Three weeks since 13 million people had their lives torn apart.
It’s nearly three weeks since a DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) appeal began for those affected.

In the British world of international aid and relief, DEC is a very good thing. Founded in 1963, it’s a coalition of aid agencies (currently numbering 14) that joins forces whenever there is deemed to be a disaster that meets its criteria. Usually, these are disasters on a massive scale, requiring huge amounts of resources, and that the coalition of agencies would have been supporting anyway. In working together, duplication is avoiding and funds can be channelled more effectively.

The Typhoon Haiyan appeal is the second DEC appeal of 2013. In March, the Syria Crisis Appeal was launched (and is still going, as that situation is far from resolved), and on the 12th of November, the Philippines Typhoon Appeal began. As part of the appeal, DEC organised a Q&A event to enable supporters and agencies to ask questions about how the funds were being spent and how aid was making its way to those who need it. Thanks to Tearfund, I was asked to go along and participate as a blogger and live-tweeter – a great privilege, which hopefully didn’t annoy my Twitter followers too much. [Actually, as I said at the time, I don’t really care if they were annoyed, as supporting and communicating about the appeal is really important.] As I result, I learnt a lot of things that are definitely worth sharing. (And, in case you’re wondering, I’ve not shared them sooner thanks to a lurgy that struck me down within hours of the event finishing.)

DEC_BTTowerNov2013_0072_smallThe panel in mid-flow.

That photo of the panel says a lot. In that line up we had represented (right to left): Islamic Relief; British Red Cross; Tearfund; CARE International; World Vision and, with the microphone, the CEO of DEC. The beauty of DEC, aside from the work it funds, is that its a place where Islamic Relief sits alongside a Christian agency like Tearfund or CARE. (Other Christian agencies in DEC include Action Aid, CAFOD & Christian Aid.)

A big issue at the moment is how money donated in such campaigns is spent on admin – is the money given in good faith really getting to where it needs to be? In the case of DEC, yes. In actual fact, the cost of admin is massively reduced by the collaboration of the agencies involved, because they’re sharing costs. In the case of the typhoon appeal, less than 4% of donations is spent on administering the funds.

DEC_BTTowerNov2013_0070_smallRight at the bottom of the big screen is a shot of Plan UK’s Phillip Rundell live from Manila. 

A lot of time at the panel was spent explaining how aid was being distributed. One of the reasons why the effects of the typhoon have been so extreme is owing to the remote nature of the islands concerned. It took a long time for aid to reach some of the most isolated victims, but hearing a Plan UK team-member sharing what was happening via Skype from Manila, demonstrated the lengths relief agencies are going to in order to get supplies out there. It’s extreme – in some cases requiring banana boats sailing down narrow rivers that are barely wide enough to get through. Air drops often aren’t possibly, neither is driving. But they are finding ways to manage it.

Don’t forget about these disasters once they disappear from the news. At the time of writing, there is no mention the typhoon on the home page of the Guardian or the BBC website (or their world news sections). It’s been three weeks and time moves on. But things haven’t moved on very far in the Philippines. As the media coverage scales down, the aid ramps up. These agencies are in it for the long-haul, looking to re-build better (a model that was used to great effect in the Boxing Day Tsunami aftermath), and provide assistance according to the priorities of the local people.

The immediate response to typhoon warnings reflected the impact of work done in the area following the tsunami. In many areas, the population was evacuated to safety, in line with a disaster warning plan. It saved lives, but obviously didn’t help to save homes.

All in all, it was an enlightening, reassuring and heart-breaking hour. These agencies are doing fantastic things in terrible circumstances. Humanly speaking, we can’t do a huge amount to stop typhoons causing devastation, but we can do our best to support those left vulnerable afterwards. Here’s how you can help.

DEC Typhoon Appeal

One final thing, when doing a Q&A with the hashtag #AskDEC, it’s probably inevitable that some Brits might assume it had something to do with TV presenting duo Ant & Dec. This resulted in some amusing, yet slightly inappropriate tweets finding their way into the timeline…