MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

MEDA: Modelling mission and stewardship for the 21st century

Wally Kroeker, MEDA's director of publications, wrote the following to present last week in Harrisburg, PA, at a Mennonite World Conference seminar. Unfortunately, he couldn't make it, so we share it with you here today.

    For more than 60 years MEDA has been a mechanism for Mennonite businessfolk and others to share their skills and resources with the less fortunate. We have sometimes been described as a “mission arm” of the Mennonite business community. Perhaps it is bold to say so, but I believe we have redefined the nature of ministry and whole-life stewardship as we’ve helped people in poverty to build livelihoods that last.
    If you look through our early archives you’ll see photos of white-faced (maybe sunburned) Mennonite men riding around on the backs of pickups, trudging through jungles, and sitting under trees eating watermelon with indigenous Paraguayans. Back home in California and Ohio these men ran large companies and employed hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Ed Peters, our first president, was described by Life magazine as a “shirtsleeve millionaire.”
     We began in 1953, a time when Mennonite refugees from Russia and Europe had been dislocated following the Second World War and had ended up in Paraguay. MCC had generously provided them with food and shelter. But those who had left trades behind could not get the working capital to build businesses to provide goods and services in the Mennonite colonies. The local banks wanted exorbitant interest rates because they had no collateral or credit history.
    Orie Miller, the head of MCC, knew all about business and the need for working capital. He worked for a successful shoe business back in Pennsylvania. He knew how important it was to have productive enterprises to provide an economic foundation for a community. He decided to recruit other Mennonite businessfolk from North America. He organized trips for several of them to visit Paraguay and see for themselves what could be done. These visitors immediately saw the need, and just as quickly saw a way for them to fit in.
     They formed a new organization – called MEDA – that would provide not only capital funds but also personal engagement to develop enterprises.
     Loans and investments were made. Members were assigned to sponsor certain projects and to visit their partners to provide ongoing encouragement. As the loans were repaid, other projects were proposed and new loans were made.
     The first project was the Sarona Dairy in Paraguay’s Fernheim Colony. Native Paraguayan bush cattle produced only a couple of quarts of milk per day. MEDA formed a partnership with local farmers to clear some bushland and import a high-grade bull for cross-breeding. Before long, milk production was boosted to several gallons a day. If you go to Paraguay today, and eat breakfast at a four-star hotel in Asuncion, you may be served yogurt or chocolate milk from one of the numerous Mennonite-owned dairies. Today, two-thirds of Paraguay’s dairy production comes from the Mennonite colonies.
     The next project was to help a small undercapitalized tannery make leather from cattle hides. Erie Sauder recalled that before the tannery was built the people used to stretch out cattle hides to dry in the sun, but wild animals would come at night and chew them up.
    A cattle operation and a tannery led quite logically to MEDA’s third project, a shoe factory to make shoes, boots, saddles and motorcycle seats from the leather from the tannery. You can see they had a few ideas about vertical integration. By the late 1970s the factory was producing more than 600 pairs of shoes a month.
     And so it went.

     The need for MEDA’s brand of help was immense, and invitations came from all over the globe. Soon MEDA found itself working in Africa. Eventually there would be more than 100 projects in places like Tanzania, Zaire, Somalia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, working with the poorest of the economically active.
     Along with its success, MEDA learned important lessons.
     One painful discovery was that loans were often made by local committees on the basis of family ties, or friendship, or even to augment authority. We learned that if you give a village pastor the combination to the safe you are combining spiritual power with economic power. When this combination is abused, it is a very potent brew. MEDA learned to practice sound lending based on business criteria.
     The Africa years also taught important lessons about dependency – lessons that not enough well-meaning agencies have learned. Some borrowers thought North American money was a magic currency that did not have to be repaid. Debts were seen as an imposition rather than as an obligation. Sometimes tough love was needed – “If you don’t repay, we can’t lend to your neighbors.” MEDA had to convey what some of us learned as children – there is no Santa Claus.
     Today we are known worldwide for, among other things, micro-enterprise development, having been a pioneer of this movement. We helped prove that the poor are bankable.
     One of my favorite client stories is of Vincenta Pacheco of Bolivia. I met her twice – first in 1990, and then 10 years later. She had been injured in a kitchen fire and needed money to pay her medical bills. A small loan from MEDA enabled her to buy sewing equipment so she could set up shop as a tailor. The additional income covered her medical costs and eventually enabled her to create some jobs for her neighbors.
     A decade later I went back to Bolivia on an evaluation mission. I asked the local staff if Vincenta was still around. Yes, she was. I went to visit her. Her little shop had expanded and she had created more jobs. I asked if she still needed microfinance loans. “Oh no,” she said, proudly. “Now when I need to upgrade equipment or buy fabric, I use my savings.”
    That is music to our ears. We like to work ourselves out of a client.

Let’s push the pause button here and tell another story.
     While all this was going on, there were other stirrings back home. Some of you will remember the campus unrest of the late 1960s. There was a growing gap between business and the church. In 1969 a group of 90 Mennonite businesspeople and educators met to discuss some of these problems and see if they could find some common ground with the protestors, some of whom disrupted the meetings. In the end, they formed a group called Church, Industry and Business Associates (CIBA) to help business improve its ethical edge and help the church better understand business. This group was eventually renamed Mennonite Industry and Business Associates (MIBA). Its purpose was to provide Christian fellowship, stimulate Christian witness in business, and encourage Christian ethics.
     When Mennonites form associations it seems obligatory that they hold conventions, and both MEDA and MIBA did so. One day some of the attenders looked around and saw that many of the same people were attending both conventions. They got a brilliant idea – why not merge, and save some time and travel money.
     And so in 1981 they did. They kept the name MEDA because of its tax-exempt history in both Canada and the United States. The new hybrid MEDA aimed: (1) to help businesspeople see their work as a form of ministry, and thereby integrate their faith with their business; and (2) to use the skills and resources of businesspeople to provide business solutions to poverty.

     And so we have today’s MEDA. The merged organization operates numerous programs designed to Create Business Solutions to Poverty. These include Financial Services programs, production and marketing programs for rural producers, a trading company, and an investment arm called Sarona Asset Management Inc.
    MEDA has gained distinction for agricultural marketing linkages, for empowering women and youth in restrictive cultures, and for applying a business approach to healthcare, notably in the battle against malaria in Africa.
     If you count everyone whose lives were touched by MEDA last year you come up with 46 million families who were helped to live healthier, more economically sustainable lives. We worked with 248 partners in 62 countries around the world. 

     On the faith formation side MEDA has an annual convention, 16 local chapters and various publications that celebrate the role of entrepreneurship in helping people experience God’s love and unleash their potential.

     What else have we done beyond numbers that can be counted? Let me editorialize a bit.
     One of MEDA’s contributions to the Christian world has been to model a new approach to stewardship. Many programs to help the poor are primarily in the area of WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION – give some of my money to help someone else. MEDA has promoted WEALTH CREATION – whereby we get past the charity model and equip the poor to achieve their own economic destiny. As businesspeople who like to do things efficiently, we see this as a powerful means to get the most out of our resources, and to help bring out the best in people.
     MEDA has also been a force to redefine ministry in daily life, for we see daily jobs as a great place to model what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
     We look at the first page of the Bible and see a God who is at work, a God who creates, a God who innovates, like an entrepreneur. On the second page, God creates people – us – in his own image.
     Through MEDA the Mennonite business community has been able to harness its abundant creativity to bring sustainable hope to people around the world. It has taken the skill-sets of business and bent them to new environments beyond the normal purview of business.
     Who would have thought that these skill sets would play a role in the battle against malaria, Africa’s number one killer, or that it would have implications for something as seemingly non-business related as violence against women. Who would have thought our flashlight would cast such a wide beam.
     You may have heard this quote before, but I can’t resist sharing it again. It’s from MEDA staffer Helen Loftin, speaking of a project that helped homebound embroiderers in Pakistan (many of whom are routinely abused by their husbands) to connect with higher-value markets.
     She says, “We can’t address the issue [of abuse] head-on, but we can offer economic opportunity and this has been enthusiastically embraced by these women. One of the chief social benefits of their financial success has been the greater respect they have gained from their families, husbands and communities.
     “There is no preaching or sermonizing, no criticisms of their culture. We do nothing specifically directed at women’s social empowerment. And yet it’s happening. They are treated better by their families; they channel the funds back into the household through education, better nutrition and medicines. Their children – their daughters – are learning about a future that casts off the yoke of poverty and suppression.”
     So there you have it – good development work becomes a vital ingredient in village healthcare, in stemming the tide of infant mortality, in reducing spousal abuse, and in promoting human rights.

     But there is more to us – even beyond this very creative use of resources. There’s also a kind of synergistic whole-life Christian stewardship for which we are seldom recognized.
     From the start, MEDA people have been personally and actively engaged. Involvement in MEDA was never a spectator sport. MEDA folk are not content to simply sit in the church pew as second-class citizens who “pay, pray and obey.” Their hermeneutic of engagement calls them to be God’s Junior Partners in the ongoing work of creation and redemption – in their own businesses and daily jobs.

     As I said earlier, many millions of families have a better life this year because of us. These are people who, as our Vision Statement says, have been able to experience God’s love in a way that unleashes their potential so they can earn a living, support their families, and enrich their communities.
     But when we do some full-cost/benefit accounting we also have another kind of impact that can’t be as easily quantified and for which we may in fact never be fully recognized. [Albert Einstein said, “Not all that counts can be measured, not all that can be measured, counts.”
     MEDA has been a light to the world – not only economically but also spiritually, even though we are regarded in some quarters as a less-spiritual stepchild in the wider church.
     I contend that MEDA has demonstrated missional innovation.
     We have redefined generosity and stewardship to transcend mere “wealth redistribution,” which is still the prevailing motif in most Christian discourse on the topic. We have modeled a more mature form, namely “wealth creation,” using our resources as a lever to produce hope.
     We have also expanded the understanding of ministry. We have grasped – in a way that much of the church does not always recognize – that real ministry is not confined to the walls of the church or denomination. It involves all of our lives, even our daily work.

     MEDA has been more than a development agency. It has also been like a global petri dish, germs and all, to fashion a new economic face for Mennonites to show the world.
     I contend, therefore, that MEDA has not only been a trendsetter for the poor but also for the church as it has modeled new forms of mission and stewardship for the 21st century.

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