Community2Community Giving: from Eastern Iowa to Eastern Rwanda

While in Rwanda this week for an assignment to help prepare for a $25MM Agricultural Investment Program, I had the privilege to be invited to witness a much smaller-scale example of economic and community development.  In the Eastern Province of Rwanda, about an hour from Kigali, lays a hillside community called Bihembe.  Here subsistence agriculture is the rule.  Families produce bananas, maize, beans and intersperse their mud-brick homes with coffee to help supplement their incomes.  For many years, this community had limited access to fresh water (with women and children often walking miles a day to the nearest source of fresh water), no electricity, and rudimentary elementary school education many miles away.

Bihembe village boy outside of the local church, March 2013

Bihembe village boy outside of the local church, March 2013

While I have had little exposure to faith-based economic development programs as a technical advisor on USAID programs globally, through my hometown of Iowa I was exposed to an interesting example.  Through a serendipitous series of connections through the Presbyterian Church, a small Eastern Iowa church in Cedar Falls learned that a rural parish in Rwanda needed goats for milk, meat and manure.  Sixty two goats were funded and the families had manure to enrich depleted soils. A follow-on request came for several thousand dollars to help connect a nearby water source to their village.  Through their existing mission fund, the Church decided to send the money.  The photos they received and stories they heard about what access to water meant to this community prompted them to ask:  what next?  The community, through the leadership of the local church leaders, mentioned that electricity would really help the community so that the school and children could be eligible for the One Laptop Per Child program.  Another round of funding, this time including some individual donors to supplement the Church's contributions, and the church, school and surrounding village now has power.  More ambitious yet, the community responded that with electricity and water, they could build a secondary school to enable students from the surrounding hills to continue their education.  The Iowa congregation did not blink, despite the fact that the funds needed far exceeded any philanthropic funds their Church had raised.  Instead, they knocked on the doors of neighboring Churches, pitched them the idea of joint philanthropy, and created a buzz around progress and impact that they were able to have with just a few thousand dollars in a country that had suffered so much violence and where 80% of the population lives on subsistence agriculture.

Today I took a trip to this village for the first time to report back to my parents who are active members of the Iowa church community, and who have spent considerable time and energy encouraging the project and raising funds.  While there is no formal Performance Management Plan, or Monitoring & Evaluation report like in so many large-scale international development projects, I was blown away by the gratitude, enthusiasm for possibilities, and sense of momentum in this community.   

For many of us who work on global development, impact investing, or economic development, we sometimes forget that impact is not always captured by metrics, indicators, indices or massive systemic change.  With technology enabling direct email, wire transfers, photo/video sharing and a sense of connectedness, the impact of a simple act of kindness from one distant community to another becomes feasible.

Local Bihembe children and church members singing and dancing at conclusion of a discussion of the philanthropic efforts from Cedar Falls Iowa, March 2013

Local Bihembe children and church members singing and dancing at conclusion of a discussion of the philanthropic efforts from Cedar Falls Iowa, March 2013

Today, the measure of success I saw was in the smiles, songs and dance of this rural community that took the time to celebrate life, all that they have, and all that the future will be.  Here's a photo of a spontaneous song and dance that is a better testament to progress than many of the many M&E (Monitoring & Evaluation) and quarterly reports I have read.  

Scalability is of course a huge concern for Community2Community development projects.  That, however, should not diminish their importance for both communities involved in this incredibly generous and personal exchange.