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Keeping it practical

June 30, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    These are also tools that help people recover from disasters, like Hurricane Katrina. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Often when I'm talking with someone about Mercy Corps, they ask me, "So what makes Mercy Corps different?" And there are a lot of answers to that: 95 percent of our staff around the world are citizens of the countries in which they work. Our programs are built from the ground up using local ideas. We take the best lessons from successful businesses and teach communities how to pull themselves from poverty.

But I think the answer I use most is this one: Mercy Corps listens to communities' needs and challenges, helps them come up with solutions and follows through. We're hard-working, we keep it simple and we do what we say we'll do.

A couple years ago, I wrote about how needlessly complicated humanitarian assistance can become. Today, I thought of the moment I first realized that.

It was about ten years ago, and I was in my first week of working for another humanitarian organization. Dozens of the organization's staff were called into a meeting to discuss strategy for a new HIV/AIDS awareness program. The first topic brought up was the creation of an HIV/AIDS toolkit.

"What would go into an HIV/AIDS toolkit?" the meeting's moderator asked.

I was eager to prove myself — and fairly naive about the workings of humanitarian assistance — so I raised my hand and piped up.

"A workbook for facilitators. Flash cards. Posters for health clinics. Maybe something that families could take home and put on their walls," I said.

There was silence. Awkwardness. And then the moderator said something I'll never forget: "No, we're not talking about practical items, we're talking about ideas."

"Wow — really?" I thought. Why not talk about practical items, things you can put into a box? Wouldn't those things help, say, an HIV/AIDS educator in a place like Zimbabwe?

It's dangerous to get to caught up in ideas at the expense of action. And so, a few years later, I found myself at Mercy Corps — and it seemed different right away.

Here's how different: when I was working as part of Mercy Corps' Hurricane Katrina emergency response team in Louisiana, we had a meeting to discuss strategy to help survivors whose homes were wrecked, but recoverable. Someone brought up the idea of a "recovery toolkit."

Oh no, I thought. Here we go. So I asked: "What would go into that toolkit?"

"Cleaning supplies, gloves, a shovel, a saw, a hammer, things like that," a colleague answered. "You know — TOOLS."

Ideas are definitely important, and Mercy Corps has a lot of incredible thinkers. But, here at Mercy Corps, those ideas are quickly turned into action. Those ideas and actions become practical, lasting solutions that are easy to understand — solutions that help 19 million people around the world.