Lancaster, PA, September 21, 2019: Ask Dr. Dorothy Nyambi why she left the medical field to become CEO of Mennonite Economic Development Associates, and she offers a simple, yet understandable, analogy.
“As a physician in developing countries,” she said, “after about 10 years, it becomes very evident that ... you are downstream. You are waiting for people to get sick and come to you. And that’s what medicine is, it’s very much downstream. It’s not preventative.
“For me, it was ‘What can I do upstream?’ So that kind of upstream thinking pushed me into public health and that’s what led me to international development.”
Today, she heads an international economic development organization with a $40 million budget whose mission is to create business solutions to end poverty.
“If you can economically empower people,” she said, “they will take care of their health ... and allow those healthy systems to strengthen. I see myself as still being a physician but being upstream.”
Added Ruth Leaman, senior development officer and campaign director for MEDA: “There’s more understanding that poverty is the root cause of so many other issues.”
Nyambi is a native of Cameroon. She was in Lancaster on Wednesday to meet with supporters as part of a U.S.-Canada tour. Other stops this week included New York, Virginia and the District of Columbia, where she met with supporters and talked about how the organization can continue to reduce extreme poverty around the world.
MEDA was founded in 1953 by a group of Mennonite business professionals, whose first project was to invest in the Sarona Dairy in Paraguay. While Mennonite Central Committee and other groups provided some assistance to these farmers, it was the business acumen of the Mennonite Economic Development Associates members that enabled the business to process and sell milk products to larger markets.
Today, the Paraguay operation has morphed into a technology transfer industry that is able to meet 60% of the dairy needs of the country.
“If you look at development today, it is the Paraguay story,” she said. The success of that model has changed how MEDA wants people to view development.
“We now need to look at development as an investment,” she said. “That’s an investment in people; that’s an investment in a sector.”
The focus now is on strategic planning that includes innovation, building partnerships and ways to measure the credibility of their work so the return on investment can be demonstrated.
Since the organization’s founding, it has helped more than 100 million families in 62 countries. It currently has ongoing projects in 16 countries and is partnering with organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The organization has long been focused on gender equality. Loans have enabled women to build businesses in developing nations. And she sees that as a growing trend.
“There’s a new generation globally that sees equality that hopefully 10 years from now that level of equity is much more equal.”
Leaman said MEDA has been a global leader in pushing for women’s equality.
“It was impact driven,” she said. “When women earn income in developing countries, much more of that income gets invested back into the family, in health and education or stays in the business.
“So, in terms of looking at how we can have the biggest possible impact, it makes sense.”
Referring to statistics gathered by the World Bank and the United Nations, Nyambi said extreme poverty in the world has been reduced. Her goal is to eliminate it altogether.
“If we get our job done, then we should be out of a job,” Nyambi said.
That would take upstream thinking to an entirely new level.
-- This article was originally published in Lancaster Online