Doing small things well for long-term impact

Convention hears of challenges, agile responses, and new opportunities

For Mennonite Economic Development Associates, the past year consisted of attending to small details and planning for long-term impact.

Dallas Steiner

In a reflection as part of MEDA’s annual convention, long-time board member Dallas Steiner noted that it has done many little things well.

“When we take care of the little things, the outcomes have huge impacts in the lives of many.

God does not despise the day of small beginnings, because he rejoices to see the work begin,” he said, quoting the Old Testament book of Zechariah chapter 4, verse 10. 

“Does that not describe MEDA? Small beginnings are powerful in development. Things we dream of and hope for just don’t happen overnight.”

The pandemic pushed 130 million people into extreme poverty and food insecurity. That has set back global poverty reduction efforts by years and tragically increased the incidence of gender-based violence, noted Derek Cameron, MEDA’s senior vice president of global programs.

Derek Cameron

Civil unrest led to the early windup of work in Myanmar. Turmoil is also impacting projects in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Senegal, he said. “We pray for peaceful resolution and for protection for those who are vulnerable.”

The past year posed many challenges, noted Dr. Dorothy Nyambi, MEDA’s president and CEO. Trying to see the way ahead “was much like peering through a fog.” 

But MEDA’s strategic goal provided a clear path forward, allowing the organization to advance the implementation of its Towards an Equal World plan, she said. “We have been laser-focused on our goal of creating decent work for 500,000 people by the year 2030.”

MEDA had 209,000 direct clients, both individuals, and businesses, in 23 projects throughout its fiscal 2021, which ended June 30.

Openness and agility of team members in negotiating new ways of working allowed MEDA to deliver $22 million of project work and create decent work opportunities for 106,000 women, youth, and men around the world, Cameron said.

Agility sometimes requires a different focus. A Senegal project helped distribute masks, gels, and flyers to raise awareness and combat the COVID-19 virus. It also distributed high-quality seeds and fertilizers to farmers in areas where most could not afford these.

New projects started in Haiti, Kenya, Senegal, and Tanzania. MEDA also signed new multi-year contracts worth $42 million. Highlights include MEDA’s first-ever initiative in the Philippines, targeting over 6,000 farmers in the cacao sector, and a new six-year project in Tanzania that will create the conditions for 20,000 women entrepreneurs to thrive.

A new investment fund will strengthen some efforts. MEDA submitted a proposal to a Canadian-based foundation for a $50 million fund to support small or medium-sized businesses in sub-Saharan Africa to grow and create decent work for youth.

Those conversations have progressed. MEDA is now working on a $200 million plan to support African enterprises with capital and business services. That expanded effort may launch in 2022.

Substantial donations from MEDA supporters, plus less than expected dampening impacts from the pandemic, resulted in the organization reporting better financial results than budgeted, interim chief financial officer Wendy Clayson said.

MEDA saw a deficit of just $300,000 for fiscal 2021 compared to a budgeted loss of $1.3 million. An increase in the value of MEDA’s risk capital fund offset that small deficit.

Paraguayan businessman Ferdinand Rempel is joining the MEDA board, part of its effort to include voices from the Global South in its decision-making.

Establishing a North-South equilibrium by sharing voice and power is one of three guiding principles in MEDA’s Towards an Equal World strategic plan. 

This is “taking a different approach or different perspectives in the way we approach and do our work to improve people’s lives,” said Nadia Guerch, MEDA’s senior director for the Latin American and Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Pacific regions.

“Those people are the best positioned and placed to know what they need.  It is about … enabling them to be active participants and not only beneficiaries in designing and implementing the solutions to their problems.”

Other guiding principles in MEDA’s strategic plan are refocusing on agri-food market systems, the area where it can have the most significant impact, and partnerships to have an impact at scale. 

Decent work for all is something that MEDA is committed to, Cameron said. Up to 76 percent of people in the Global South work in vulnerable, marginal, or informal employment.

That affects the quality of life and the ability of households to withstand shocks, and the tax base and capacity of local governments to invest in services for their citizens, he said.

Pierre Diegane Kadet

Globally, family farming is the most prevalent form of farming, noted Pierre Diegane Kadet, MEDA’s senior director for West Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East. More than 90 percent of farms, about 500 million, are run by families.

Family farming produces over 80 percent of the food and represents the largest employer worldwide. It accounts for almost 30 percent of global jobs and nearly four percent of gross domestic product.

That makes MEDA’s refocusing on agri-food market systems one of the most promising business solutions to poverty, he said.

On the other hand, agricultural expansion in sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 70 percent of deforestation. Only six percent of agriculture in the region uses irrigation, so farmers are exposed to the effects of a changing climate.

This recognition has led MEDA to make sustainability and mitigation efforts a core part of each project.

Expanding MEDA’s partnerships will be critical to future efforts, said Helal Ahsan-Ul-Haque, MEDA’s senior regional director for the Eastern, Southern, and Central Africa regions. “If we really want to make deeper impact, we have to work at the system level,” he said.

“We can’t do it alone. We have to do it together.”

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