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Building a future in the wreckage of war zones

Somalia, June 5, 2009

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Sandi Doughton

The Seattle Times
June, 2009

Somalia is the "most dangerous place on Earth," says Matthew Lovick.

That's why it's one of the African nations where Portland-based Mercy Corps is expanding operations, Lovick told a small group of Seattle supporters Thursday.

"There's not a single person in this room who could go to Somalia and not be kidnapped and ransomed," he said during the informal briefing on the aid organization's Africa programs.

Even Lovick stays out of the country, though he's Mercy Corps' regional director for East and Southern Africa. All of the organization's work there, including cash-for-work levee construction to protect villages from seasonal floods, is run by native Somalis.

Mercy Corps specializes in conflict zones, where it moves in quickly to help fill immediate needs, like clean water -- but also to build roads, establish jobs programs and take other steps to get beyond the immediate crisis and push development forward, said Phil Oldham, director for West and Central Africa.

"We're not going to tread water for years on end," Oldham said.

As the need for outside help has dropped in places like the Balkans, Mercy Corps has quadrupled its work in Africa over the past 3 years. Ten African nations now account for more than a third of the group's budget.

But decades of work can be wiped out by conflict, and Mercy Corps is riding the new wave in aid work: Promoting reconciliation and peaceful conflict resolution.

Programs go beyond training communities in conflict resolution, Lovick said. Most conflicts originate in poverty and competition for jobs, money and resources. So in Kenya, for example, Mercy Corps hires young men from warring factions to work together on road-building and other infrastructure improvements.

Mercy Corps is also unusual in incorporating global warming in its programs.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 850,000 people displaced by conflicts live in sprawling camps, the demand for fuel wood is decimating forests. Mercy Corps has distributed more than 20,000 fuel efficient stoves, which use half the wood of traditional stoves. And they've sold credits from the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on the European market.

At the same time, Mercy Corps is helping villages plant tree farms, to provide a sustainable, future source of firewood and protect native forests.

Mercy Corps was one of 13 NGOs expelled from northern Sudan recently, in response to the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir for war crimes in Darfur. (Some leaders of humanitarian organizations, such as InterAction chairman Charles MacCormack, thought the indictment might do more harm than good.)

The groups met last week in Khartoum with Scott Gration, the US special envoy to Sudan, but Lovick said the concerns of the NGOs are only a small part of Gration's mission.