Building Sustainability in the Third World
By David Ibsen, Associate Director
For the past several years, I have been involved with the Congo mission team at my church, having just returned from my second trip to the country. A friend of mine from grad school started talking to me about his time there, the needs the people, and the level of poverty throughout the country. To give you some context, let me give you a few statistics from the Congo.
- Approximately 80% of the population is paid less than $2 per week (that is $104 per year)
- 15% of the population does not reach the age of 5
- 71% of the population live below the poverty line
- The average life expectancy is 49 years
- Only 29% of the rural population has access to safe drinking water
I could continue with statistics around HIV, violence toward women, literacy rates, etc. but I hope you understand that this isn’t only a country with a tremendous amount of need, but I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I tell you it’s literally the poorest country on the planet.
When I first got involved, I felt pulled toward the education subcommittee. The committee works with a variety of schools within and near the city of Kananga. One of the projects they were working on was utilizing money from our church to help build and create a sustainable plan for a girls’ school. The school was specifically targeted toward girls in order to provide better educational opportunities for this population, as girls are sometimes minimized and abused by teachers and male students alike.
Along with being the poorest country in the world, they have one of the highest rates of violence against women, including rape. Providing these girls with educational opportunities will hopefully arm them with more opportunities in life where they don’t have to fear the possibility of any number of abuses.
After two trips, I’ve spent a total of four weeks in this country. What’s striking to me each time I go is twofold: first, despite seeing buildings that are literally crumbling at your feet, you can see what was at one time beautiful cities. The country was colonized in the early 1900s by Belgium and the country was thriving. After the country achieved independence, however, civil unrest and corruption led to an economic collapse. Minerals that are utilized in many of our technological gadgets (cell phones and laptops) were most likely mined from the Congo. However, high ranking officials have allowed other countries to prosper from these minerals.
The second thing that strikes me is that the people, while they need so much, are a very happy people. As I tour schools or simply walk through the villages, I talk with children who mostly have smiles on their faces. I’m not sure if I would be able to have the same type of attitude these people have in the face of such incredible poverty.
While I was there, I visited several different schools. In general, the children did not have books, they were learning in a classroom with no electricity, and many classrooms had 40-50 students per every one teacher. But students still had an incredible desire to learn. When teachers posed a question to the students, they were literally climbing out of their seats to answer the question. While the level of education may be different than what we see here, the desire to learn is certainly encouraging.
One of the most difficult parts of the trip was meeting with the teachers. Many of them, despite coming to work each day, were in some cases, not paid for weeks if not months. It is difficult to understand people who would continue to work despite not being paid. In our country, it would violate labor laws to continue with such practices. In the Congo, for many people, it’s almost expected. The hard part is looking at these individuals and not going straight for my wallet to hand them all the money I have. Sure, I could probably hand each of them $5 and they would have enough to feed their families, but would it actually solve the problem?
My hope at the end of each of my trips is to determine how to best help these schools. With the nonprofits we work with here in the United States, PMA strives to provide a map to become stronger and successful for years to come. The mark I want to leave behind for the schools in the Congo is a model of sustainability.
What do I mean by this? I want to help the administrators and directors of these schools understand how to develop a plan and execute it so teachers get paid on a regular basis, while having room to raise salaries and understand how to raise enough money to bring in books and technology to these schools. While it may require financial subsidies from the United States to get this started, I would love to see a day where we visit and I don’t feel the need to reach for my wallet, but rather see these individuals own and take pride in the schools they’ve built.