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Business development where it’s needed most

Mennonite Economic Development Associates celebrates 60 years of putting business practices to work overseas

“It was a group of businessmen – all men, no women involved at that point – who went to Paraguay. They knew of the plight of some refugees. These were Mennonite people that had come out of Russia and Ukraine after the revolution and after World War II and settled in Paraguay. They had been given land and they were basically carving out a living with their bare hands from an area I’ve heard some refer to as the Green Hell.”

It was a meaningful beginning for the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), the start of a continuous and steady trend towards perpetuating peace and economic prosperity. This month, MEDA celebrated 60 years in the business of helping entrepreneurship around the world, said Allan Sauder, the organization’s president.

That first dairy business operation set up with a Mennonite population in South America led to current projects in 17 countries in South America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Ukraine. MEDA has worked in a total of 25 countries to date helping families to fight their way out of poverty using their business skills.

“The unique feature of MEDA was that those first business people that went down to visit said, ‘These people have farming skills and they have business skills, how can we unleash those skills?’ And that’s when they set us on a course.”

Soybean farmers in Ghana, part of MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women project. MEDA’s anniversary celebrations earlier this month raised $86,000 for the initiative. [Submitted]
Soybean farmers in Ghana, part of MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women project. MEDA’s anniversary celebrations earlier this month raised $86,000 for the initiative. [Submitted]
During the anniversary celebrations in Wichita, Kansas, the group raised $86,000 to benefit women soybean farmers in Ghana through MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women project (GROW). It’s a newer strand of the organization’s efforts that has allowed it to penetrate more male-dominated societies to help the women who in many cases were heads of their families, but had little access to resources.

“We’re much more focused on that now. We have a whole area that is devoted to women’s economic opportunities, that’s particularly in places where women don’t have access to markets. Across the board, I would estimate that approximately two thirds of the families that we work with would be women-headed house holds. It takes a different approach,” said Sauder.

Every family helped is different but the pattern of concerns among the poor remains constant: a need for food, education, comfort and stability for children and growing responsibility to local communities.

“People always talk about, ‘Well, I have more income now.’ Oftentimes they’ll say [they] have more assets in their business, or in the family; more land, more productive assets. But what they always talk about is ‘Now my children are getting a better education, they can go to college or university. I have a daughter that’s a doctor; I have a son who’s an engineer.’ I hear that story over and over again, so every time I visit a family they talk about education for their children, better nutrition in the household, better housing, putting money into their local business. They even talk about wanting to pay taxes because they know if they don’t pay taxes roads and other things won’t be built. And they talk about caring for the needy in their own community.”

Looking back just 10 years ago, Sauder notes a substantial growth in MEDA, which reached 250,000 clients in 25 countries, with 50 partners. Since that time, the $6 million operating budget grew to the tune of $41 million in contributions from governments, charities, and private donors.

Since getting involved with that small community in Paraguay six decades ago, the organization has grown to a network helping 42 million families around the world.

From its more patriarchal beginnings in 1953, MEDA has grown in size and extreme cultural diversity of partnerships, clients, employees and programs. Still, the numbers tell only one story, Sauder observed.

“It’s been very exciting – a lot of growth. And yet, as I reminded people, really the groundwork was set 60 years ago for what we still do today: the way we go about serving the poor, using the best of the business world to create solutions for the poor. That hasn’t changed in 60 years.”

The international development organization has operated from several cities and found a new home in Waterloo about 11 years ago when Sauder, who’s been involved for 25 years, became president. In addition, MEDA has offices in Winnipeg, Washington, Pennsylvania, and a small location in Germany to facilitate a growing presence in Europe, part of the group’s future plans to expand operations with the help of partners and the European Union.

Looking to the future, the mountain tops are within reach for the organization, literally, as Sauder hopes to enter the new year with a goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in July 2014 in order to raise $250,000 for MEDA. Volunteers looking to join for the trek can visit www.meda.org and selecting the ‘Get Involved’ tab.

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