A few months ago, I visited a Friends church in Indianapolis. They have a tradition that, for the first few minutes of each worship service, the children go up to the front row for a brief lesson.
On this particular Sunday, the teacher began by saying, “I’m going to give you each one fish cracker, just one, and don’t eat them, please.” A group of five-year olds nodded as they each received a cracker. “Now,” she continued, “I’m going to give Sarah ten more crackers.” She counted them out to a little girl in the middle of the group. When she finished, she said, “Sarah, you can go ahead and eat your crackers, but I want the rest of you to hold onto yours. Don’t eat them yet, OK?”
Sarah immediately began happily enjoying her crackers. The teacher then asked her, “Do those taste good?” Sarah nodded as she continued munching. One of the boys looked at his cracker, then looked at Sarah, appearing rather unhappy.
After a pause, the teacher asked the kids, “What do you think of this situation? How does it make you feel?” Immediately, one child piped up, “It’s not fair!” Near-unanimity was voiced, although Sarah still looked pretty happy.
This Friends church is among the earliest supporters of Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR), a Quaker nonprofit, which is celebrating its Fifty-Year Jubilee this year. My own sense of the general unfairness in the world has led me to join RSWR’s board of directors. The organization supports women’s groups in Africa and India by taking a unique approach to microfinance.
The simple idea that led to the formation of RSWR in 1967 was that Friends everywhere could participate in sharing their resources with others, regardless of their economic status. This is based on the Biblical concept that we all have abundance and are called to the ministry of hospitality and generosity. Unfortunately, during RSWR’s fifty-year history, global inequity has grown, according to most measures. Even so, the organizaiton’s mission remains almost the same, though its primary goals were rewritten in 2016 to reflect more depth of experience:
Goal One: To provide resources for marginalized women in developing countries to improve the quality of life of the women, their families, and their communities, and to empower these women in a sustainable and self-determined way.
Goal Two: To provide opportunities for those blessed with material resources to explore the burdens of materialism, the power of enough, and global responsibility; and to promote balanced, sustainable lifestyles and sharing rightly from abundance.
The first goal focuses on helping others, but the second goal focuses on those of us who are already living lives where our basic needs are always met. Over the years, RSWR has found that both goals are equally important.
Lucretia Humphrey, a former RSWR board member, recently visited our projects in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest nations in the world. After that trip, Lucretia wrote an essay, “How a Seed Grows,” which begins:
Jackie . . . stands before a group of about thirty women in the town “barrie” (a large, open, covered kiosk), centrally located in a village in Sierra Leone, West Africa. A warm, humid breeze blows through the building. Outside, the fronds of palm trees wave high above as children lean in curiously to take in what this white woman is all about. The colorfully dressed Sierra Leonese women concentrate on her words with serious looks on their faces, giving their full attention to the entourage that has descended on their village. Men take their seats in the back row, with the exception, of course, of the chief of the village, who is seated at the front. The translator . . . shares Jackie’s message in the local language. Gently, with her voice soft and strong, she cups her hands at her waist and begins, “We are so glad to meet you and to work with you. We appreciate how hard you work for your families and especially your children. Today we are giving you a seed. This micro-credit grant is a seed that you together, collectively, can grow.” Her hands sweep around the room embracing all the women.
“You will cultivate it, fertilize it, and watch it grow strong. You will harvest the fruits of this small seed together. These fruits will help support you and the education and health of your children. You will be able to help others as you are being helped. Amongst all of you are the gifts, the abilities, and knowledge that will sustain what has been given you. You are learning the skills of saving, marketing, and empowerment to share with other women. Through your hard work you will grow the little seed.”
Each group of women receives a grant of about $3000 to $6000, which they loan to one another in small parcels and oversee. If the group does their work successfully, the money they repay themselves will revolve for another group to use, or additional women will be encompassed by the initial project.
RSWR has a field representative in each country. They visit with the groups of women to understand their stages of development. They might encourage a group of women to learn new skills before applying for a grant. For example, if they don’t have a savings plan set up yet, the field representative will explain different ways they could do that. When the group is ready to start their business and their application has been approved, RSWR provides training along with the grant, to help the group set up and manage their own micro-loan organization. This training is one of the primary reasons that Right Sharing has been successful. Projects approved in our latest round of grants include:
• Twelve projects in India, ranging from selling tea and crunchy rice snacks at the local train station, to organic farming, to vegetable and fruit vending, to tailoring, to photocopying services, and many more. The businesses are only limited by the imaginations of the women entrepreneurs and the local markets.
• Five projects in Kenya, including one with a group of Masai Quakers located near the Tanzania border. This area has been hard-hit by a drought and many animals that the people depend on for their livelihoods have died. The RSWR grant comes at a crucial time, allowing this group to rebuild their herds.
• Six projects in Sierra Leone, including a group of foster mothers who are working to support adopted orphans. Another grant will help restart a chicken farm that has been devastated by the rebel war and the Ebola crisis. Several projects involve the growing of cassava, rice, and groundnuts – staple foods of the area.
There is no question that some microfinance programs in developing countries have run into problems. Many of us have concerns about the effectiveness of our donations at times, as well as concerns about fraud and corruption. Managing programs in another country is complex and difficult, and focusing on underprivileged women in those countries adds another dimension of complications.
We have found that the best way to determine effectiveness is to visit the projects personally. Many donors and board members have done this. Jackie has visited all three countries and plans to return almost annually as part of her administrative work. During her first trip – to India and Kenya – she met individually with over eight hundred women. As she put it, “I have seen without a doubt that their lives are changed – they are able to care for their families better and help their communities.”
The work of RSWR is based on trust in the people who manage the programs at all levels. Even so, we plan to place more emphasis on accountability in the future, with more reporting required from our local representatives, more follow-up information, and more focus on long-term impacts. Since many of our grant recipients are illiterate, our expectations for reporting must take that into account. We seek balance.
I am still learning about our work in our partner countries. However, I have come to the conclusion that investing in these projects is worth the risk. We can’t be absolutely certain that every rupee we donate will be spent perfectly. But the RSWR effort, even if it is imperfect, is transforming the lives of individuals and communities. ~~~
For more information about Right Sharing of World Resources, visit their website at www.rswr.org. You can also read the full text of Lucretia Humprhey’s essay, “How a Seed Grows,” at westernfriend.org/media/how-seed-grows, and you can find Western Friend’s 2016 interview with Jackie Stillwell at westernfriend.org/article/right-sharing-interview-jackie-stillwell.
Doug Smith is a member of Reno Friends Meeting (PYM), and a board member of RSWR and Western Friend. He and his wife, Cheri, live in Carson City, NV, where “Our four grandkids rule.”