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Last Sunday, somewhere between Atlanta and Milloshevë

Kosovo, October 14, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    David Snyder for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A stretch of road in Kosovo without sidewalks. Photo: David Snyder for Mercy Corps

Sitting at our dining room table and reading the local paper the other day, I came across a story that immediately made me think, "Hmm. That sounds familiar."

There was an article called "Sidewalks, not streetcars" in The Sunday Paper that criticized Atlanta's city government for ignoring the issue of decrepit or non-existent sidewalks around town. Some of the city's biggest and busiest thoroughfares lack sidewalks. And there is definite peril as a result: a few years ago, a little girl was killed on a southwest Atlanta street that lacked a sidewalk.

I've walked along stretches of road in this city — and other towns — where I've had to step onto the street with my five-year-old son because the walkway was wrecked or otherwise impassable. Those uneasy moments were brought up when I read that article over the weekend.

And then, like I said, something else rang familiar.

All of a sudden I was back sitting in a tiny, battle-wrecked classroom in Milloshevë, Kosovo in 2006. It was wintertime, and the walls were soot-stained from an antique coal-burning stove in the corner. I was there to learn about Mercy Corps' Municipal Infrastructure Support Initiative, which helped towns rebuild schools, clinics, roads and other infrastructure that the Kosovo War had damaged or destroyed.

The villagers of Milloshevë were meeting with a Mercy Corps Program Officer to discuss the municipal water system they'd been planning together for months. But, recently, things had changed in the village — and so had their priorities.

The week before I visited, a ten-year-old girl had been killed by a car speeding through the village, which lay on one of Kosovo's busiest highways. That tragedy shook the entire community.

So they decided it was more important to build a sidewalk. And the Mercy Corps Program Officer didn't hesitate in helping them change their focus and get started on this new project.

"It will cost more, we know, but we'll find a way to raise the money," one of the villagers told me as the meeting was adjourning. I believed him.

The parallels of these two stories — and our current national debate about the responsibilities and limits of government — got me thinking a lot. Even in democracies where things are supposed to work better, the gap between concerned citizens and government is often huge. It takes something, someone, to fill that space and get people talking, then get things happening. Otherwise, even the most critical needs can disappear into piles of paper and politics.

That's one of the biggest reasons that I'm proud to work for Mercy Corps: we help fill that gap in places where things don't work that well, places like Kosovo. We give communities the chance to put their ideas into action. And then, together, we make it happen.