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FORBES: Relief After Calamity
25 Feb 2010 Downloads:

Relief After Calamity

Alexandra Zendrian12.18.09, 04:10 PM EST

Nancy Lindborg and Mercy Corps provide immediate disaster assistance around the world.



Forbes: How did you decide to get involved in Mercy Corps?

Nancy Lindborg: That story goes back 14 years. My decision was based primarily on having the opportunity to join a pretty small organization with a big vision. I also liked having the chance to build something and working on problems that were compelling, such as global poverty and conflict. Mercy Corps was in 10 countries when I joined and had a small budget. I joined with the mandate to build its presence in Washington D.C.

How do you work with policymakers in D.C.?

Mercy Corps hadn't been engaged in the policy arena previously. What I found is by being able to translate our experience in the field and make that relevant to people who are considering policy decisions; that enabled us to have a seat at the table and have influence in how people look at these things.

Mercy Corps has the advantage of a very well-rounded experience and can be useful in Washington. Mercy Corps can get out to the countries and even out of the capital cities of these countries.

What's your take on the health care debate?

Mercy Corps is not a big health care agency. We tend to focus on health as part of a critical piece of local capacity. In Pakistan, we work closely to help to increase the ability of health systems to deliver services to communities. We don't provide direct health care services.

How do you determine which areas to focus on where you can make a difference?

We're focused on what we see is greatest value of international non-governmental organizations--to help catalyze social change after you have a disaster or conflict. To help people organize for the change that people want to see. We help people sustain the changes that they want to see. Working in economic realm has led us to be social entrepreneurs. When we look at projects, we look for innovations that can begin in a community but also can have a scale.

How do you find those projects?

It's a longer process to really go to scale. For example, in Indonesia, we have started working on economic development seven years ago, shortly after financial meltdown in 1999. We were looking for what ways could we revitalize economic activity at the local level. We do micro-financing. There's already a widespread micro-financing sector. And it became clear that sector is broad but it was stuck; it couldn't provide credit that would enable growth at the community level. Two years ago, we started the Bank Andara. It's a wholesale bank of banks that tries to transform their microfinance sector. They put together investment packages for people who otherwise wouldn't have this service. That's how you take what's an understanding of the problem at ground level and work with it to identify solutions.

Are you making any micro-financing plans or changes now?

You always look for next improvement. We have worked with microfinance for over a decade and launched 13 microfinance institutions globally.

We're focused on the next level. We're more focused now on access to financial services. We think of it as a vertical chain. Some of its microfinance, and we want to help small lending institutions, but we want to have the chain so that they can move up to larger loans, address cash flow issues, generate jobs, etc. We're trying to provide additional services to a successful business; not just access to credit but access to services to help them use credit well. We have panned back and expanded our thinking and the action we've taken. It's not just about microfinance but what will catalyze economy and unlock opportunity.

What projects are you working on now?

I just returned from the Congo. I'm really excited about program there. We're looking at critical challenges in the Eastern Congo; there's lots of gender-based violence. We're thinking about creative, sustainable solutions there, such as fuel efficient stoves. We're working on training people to make them. The goal is to have a 70% greater efficiency with this stove, as well as to reduce women's exposure to rape and violence when they're looking for firewood. We're also trying to reduce use of rivers as a resource. We negotiated a carbon credit to finance those stoves. We've distributed 20,000 stoves and counting in first phase. In the second phase, which is just about ready to launch, there are conditional cash transfers that people would receive on their cellphones through a cellphone partner. By making a positive environmental choice, a woman would get a credit on her cellphone that she can use like cash in the market. About 90% of people in that area have no access to banks or financial services. So these air credits on cellphones give them access to a savings mechanism. Cellphones new wave of financial services.

How do you come up with solutions such as these--that a stove would reduce gender violence?

We have a team on the ground that has been working with the displaced community in the Congo for the last two years. We sent out from our support headquarters our climate change team and social innovations team. We can work with teams on the ground. So we're trying to determine what are the ways we can take this to the next step. How do we move this from what we're doing now to something that moves the frontier forward? We're trying to find innovative solutions.

You've done work with people in North Korea. How have you been able to accomplish what you have there?

Mercy Corps has worked there in response to the food crisis in 1990s with the broad famine and death. We have continued to work there and looking for ways to build humanitarian bridge; to get a better understanding of each other. We are constantly bringing delegations of people back and forth between the United States and North Korea. This all underscores that you can work on problems that are more technical when you don't focus on the political aspects of them. There are a lot of macro issues but we try to keep the people-to-people channel open.

How do you suggest that people get involved in similar work to what you're doing?

We have started action centers in New York and Portland, Ore. They're connected to actioncenter.org. These groups are predicated on the notion that global poverty and hunger are solvable problems and that all of us have a role to play. Whether it's something you do in a few minutes or dedicate your life to, there's something we can all do.


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FORBES: Relief After Calamity
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