Cynthia White serves as coordinator for the Presbyterian Mission Agency's Self-Development of People ministry.

In the following interview, she talks about the West Africa Initiative (WAI) ― a Self-Development of People, Presbyterian Hunger Program  and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance–led partnership with several U.S. denominations, including the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Disciples of Christ, and ecumenical partners in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Agricultural Mission was identified as the U.S. partner to provide training for the food-production initiative. 

WAI was one of 800 programs from 113 countries recently selected to receive the prestigious Equator Initiative Award in June 2012 during the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. 

Why and how did Self-Development of People become involved with the West Africa Initiative?

Initially it was Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Presbyterian Hunger Program that came up with the idea and to develop the initiative. Self-Development of People was added later.

The goal of the initiative was to strengthen the capacity of rural community groups to develop self-reliant food production.  The method to be used was to provide training for facilitators and for them to then go back to their communities to provide training to community groups and for those community groups to do something to change their communities.

What is the WAI?

Working with the National Council of Churches, persons were identified to receive training by Agricultural Mission. Training included sustainable agriculture, bookkeeping and how to run a meeting ― really practical training on how to assist community groups. The persons receiving the training are called facilitators. The facilitators then go back to their specific communities and provide the training to community groups in that area.

In what way are the local churches in Liberia and Sierra Leone involved with the initiative and are there other organizations involved?

In Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone Council of Churches is very involved. That is not the case in Liberia. Because of internal struggles in the Liberian Council of Churches, it was determined that another working method and way of operating was needed in Liberia. Particularly in Sierra Leone they have established partnerships with other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and foundations as well as other organizations doing similar type of work.

Liberia is beginning to establish other partnerships.

The WAI is a partnership amongst SDOP, PHP and PDA, why did the three ministries decide to work together on this initiative and in what way are they working together?

The ministries decided to work in these two countries because civil wars in both resulted in destroyed infrastructure and lack of social services, shattered economies and rampant poverty. The three agencies agreed that the joint initiative would be aimed at supporting reconstruction by providing communities with tools and credit to help them start a new life.   

The three PC(USA) entities as well as our ecumenical partners are working to strengthen the technical and management capabilities of the Councils of Churches, working to improve food security and economic status of communities, and developing and strengthening community based organization.

 At the very beginning of the Initiative it was agreed that funding would be based on the SDOP funding criteria. Consistent with those criteria, the project must come from a community group and be clearly owned and controlled by community people. In Sierra Leone groups are mostly rural while in Liberia they are more urban in nature.

The majority of projects are primarily farming. Most people grow cassava, groundnuts and rice and they are now also beginning to cultivate moringa, a medicinal tree. They also do beekeeping for honey. We are entering the third phase of funding. In this and in the second phase groups have engaged in economic development activities. This has included selling palm oil and learning medicinal benefits of moringa.  It is used it to lower high blood pressure and it can also be used on snake bites. Used as a tea it gives one energy without caffeine, it also lowers cholesterol and helps with eyesight.  Phase 3 will extend the program to new groups, provide technical training in agricultural production, training in micro credit management, and disaster preparedness and mitigation training.

Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have undergone several years of tremendous civil conflict, could you talk about your initial impressions of both countries and the major issues they appear to be facing?

In Sierra Leone you do not feel the tension as a result of the war. Sierra Leone appears to have worked through most of its war issues. The government recognizes that there is a lot of corruption and  seems to be trying to deal with it. In the cities the infrastructure, particularly roads, are quite good unlike in the rural areas where it is harder to get around.

In Liberia the first thing that you notice is that the population is very young. In talking with people and in talking about the issues and the war, everyone said “we will not have another war” When we were there they were in the midst of the process of presidential elections, it was the feeling of most people that (President) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would have a second term.

Since Self-Development of People only partners with community groups that will directly benefit from, own and control their project, how does this fit in with the work of the WAI?

Some of the community projects are doing amazing work. I was last there three years ago and on this recent trip I saw the difference in the health of the children. Some of the communities were cleaner. You saw that people had pride in their country. One gentleman said to me “I remember you when you first came. I was embarrassed to talk with you because of the way that I was dressed. Now I can afford clothes, how do you like my outfit?” I loved his outfit.  The communities are visibly better because of WAI and it is a humbling experience being with these people and seeing how they had progressed and how thankful they are.

What were some of the highlights of your most recent visit earlier this year to both countries?

My highlight in Sierra Leone was seeing a set of twins that I saw three years earlier and how unhealthy they looked 3 years ago and how healthy and pretty they are now. A highlight in Liberia was walking to the farm with the community people and seeing how proud they are and seeing the farm which is about 10 acres of cassava.

Another thing that I was impressed with on my first trip and continue to be impressed with is that most of the groups are comprised of Christians and Muslims and each open their meetings with the Lord’s Prayer and the Al-Fatiha (the opening of the Quran and how Muslims begin everything). It is a way of life for them. They do it without any thought.

What are Self-Development of People’s future hopes for the WAI?

In Liberia the hope is that  WAI  will spread to more communities, particularly in the south, and for both countries that they will grow sufficient food to feed themselves, their families and communities and that the groups will create economic development projects that will keep them going.

Margaret Mwale is associate for community relations with Self Development of People.