Alliance Stresses Food Security
  • Friday, March 23, 2012

By John Martin

Egypt ought to be breadbasket of the Middle East. Instead a nation endowed with the highly fertile Nile Delta and a heritage in wheat growing that predates the story of Joseph cannot grow enough for its domestic needs. Mexico gave the world maize, yet today it has to rely on imports.

These are just two of many examples of a problem evident the world over and illustrates why food security has emerged as the top priority issue for the Anglican Alliance. The purpose of this initiative launched just a year ago by Archbishop Rowan Williams is to connect and strengthen Anglican development, relief and advocacy.

“The truth is that a billion people are going hungry today when there is no need for it,” says Sally Keeble, director of the alliance and a former U.K. government minister.

Keeble says the problem is not lack of capacity to produce enough food. “It reflects a whole complex of issues: lack of proper distribution systems, international trade in commodities which distorts food prices, emphasis on cash crops rather than food for locals and lack of support for small farmers who grow 80 percent of our food.” The effects of climate change and war take their toll too.

Born in 1951 as the daughter of a former U.K. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Keeble studied theology at Oxford and sociology at the University of South Africa, after which she worked as a journalist, first in South Africa and then in Birmingham in the U.K. Midlands.

Later she worked for the Labour Party and the Inner London Education Authority, and was head of communications for the GMB trade union (600,000-plus members), then entered the first rung of British politics as a full-time council leader in inner London.

In 1997 she was elected to the Westminster Parliament when Tony Blair’s Labour government came to power, as one of the so-called Blair Babes (she laughs). She eventually became part of his government, serving first as a minister in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions and later in the Department for International Development.

In Parliament her voting record reveals concerns about deforestation and climate change, religious liberty and human rights in Tibet and support for debt relief for developing countries and for people with a learning disability. Not one to shirk controversy, she publicly withdrew her support for Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown. She said it was the role of a Prime Minister “to offer a vision to voters, but sadly, this is no longer the case.”

This formidable CV means she is very much at home in political corridors, both in London and further afield. She believes U.K.-based community work, rather than her previous work in international development, better prepared her for the alliance.

The alliance addresses a vacuum evident in the Anglican Communion for many years. After the famous 1963 Toronto Congress, a program arose which became known as MRI (Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ). The aim was not all that different from what the alliance is attempting, but MRI eventually imploded, having become primarily a clearinghouse for projects seeking funding. In the 1980s there were attempts to set up an Anglican International Development Agency, but this failed, not least because some existing players in the field saw it as a threat.

During four regional consultations, the alliance identified nine priorities:

  • Climate change
  • Community empowerment
  • Economic empowerment
  • Food security
  • Governance
  • Migrants and refugees
  • Peace and reconciliation
  • Women’s empowerment
  • Youth empowerment

Keeble says food security is the major theme for the alliance’s global advocacy. The alliance is not the standard relief and development agency. “It doesn’t do top-down international development structures or programs,” Keeble says. “It works from the grassroots up, empowering churches and building on the work they are doing.”

She adds: “It means you don’t have that awful donor-donee relationship. The issue of resources or funding streams comes much further down the line. The major emphasis is on the prophetic voice of the church and advocacy work that’s got access to people in authority but is rooted in the life of the local church.”

What have been the highlights and lowlights of the alliance’s first year of operations? The big task was setting up and finding out what needed to be done. “We started looking at what I call ‘demonstration projects.’ It’s not the same as pilot projects. It was simply looking at examples of what people in the churches were doing.”

One example was how the Australian Board of Missions partnered with the Church of Pakistan to do flood relief work. “Then I spent time in Burundi seeing how we could do advocacy there. The Department for International Development had decided to cut off British government funding to Burundi. We provided a report that brought the Archbishop of Burundi to London to make the case before a Parliamentary Select Committee.

“Speaking there as an Anglican Archbishop in his own right had more clout than being an adjunct to an aid agency,” she says. Even so, the move was not a complete success. The committee supported Burundi’s case, but the government did not relent. “We always knew it would be hard to get the government to change its mind.”

The initiative heralded changes nonetheless. Burundi has reopened its Consulate in London, so lobbying continues. It is seeking membership in The Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 54 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development, and the alliance is assisting with the search for voluntary sector development funds.

Building up the capacity of the churches is important. The alliance successfully applied to the Commonwealth Professional Development Scheme. The upshot was that church-education administrators, collectively overseeing 200 church schools in Ghana, the Solomon Islands, Nigeria and the Caribbean, came to London for a tailored nine-week programme to learn new skills in finance, administration and governance from U.K. people and each other. Negotiations are underway to see if the programme, completed in mid-March 2012, can be repeated.

The alliance has just signed a contract with Britain’s Open University (OU) to provide access-level modules on aspects of community development: consultation, inclusion, work programming, financial management, governance and protection of vulnerable people. It will be available online and offline, piloted in Africa and then rolled out globally. It is an important first step in the OU’s plans to go global. The OU has worked before with companies, but not with church or voluntary agencies.

Keeble is keen to emphasise that while her U.K. connections have enabled the alliance to build bridgeheads into the Commonwealth and the U.K. government, it is not a British organisation. It has enlisted the support of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who has supported the food security issue with a letter to the Obama administration. It is building links with the Primate of Canada’s Fund for World Relief.

It joined with the church in Uraguay to apply to the Inter-American Development Bank for funding services to mothers and early-years children. It is setting up offices in different parts of the world so that development funding can be better accessed.

The core daily work for the alliance is sharing stories of best practice. Churches are engaged in a massive level of unheralded caring work. Wars and natural disasters leave a trail of casualties for local churches to help. In the arid northeast of Kenya the church is bringing help where a combination of civil war in Somalia and the worst drought in 60 years is taking its toll.

In Peshawar, Pakistan, what began as a church response to flooding has widened into a minority church moving beyond its own community in offering literacy training for women and vocational skills training for young men.

In Honiara, Solomon Islands, a women’s refuge run by an Anglican order of nuns is doing highly impressive work, linking up social workers, lawyers and the courts to assist vulnerable women in a context where there is much general hostility towards the church.

In several South American countries people from a small denomination earn respect by advocating for exploited indigenous mine workers or helping local people secure their land against companies trying to drive them off in favour of huge cattle ranches.

All over the world women’s groups like the Mothers’ Union deliver care and press for change. Everywhere there are Anglican priests capable of bringing counselling skills to people traumatised by natural disasters, war or drought. In its own way the alliance is finding ways of joining the dots.

What is the role of faith in the work Keeble observes? “It’s massive,” she says without hesitation. “Yes, faith provides the vision and commitment for people to do this work, often in very difficult surroundings. It’s rooted in Anglicanism’s Five Marks of Mission, particularly responding to human need, seeking to confront and transform unjust structures, and working to protect the life of the earth.”

John Martin is TLC’s London correspondent.

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