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Society of Mary
Institute of Integrated Rural Development,
Society of Mary
Globalization Versus a Common Human Future, Third World ...
More About: FATHER WILLIAM
Missionary Creates Model for Fighting Poverty
By Linda Busetti
"Even though we
have the capacity in the world today to solve world poverty, we are
failing," said Father William Christensen. The thin, soft-spoken priest
described his working model for eradicating poverty in Bangladesh to the staff
of Pact, an international nonprofit corporation, in Washington on Aug. 8.
HERALD Staff Writer
(From the issue of 8/16/01)
Father Christensen is a
former St. Louis teacher and high school chaplain, who is a member of the
Society of Mary.
"The income gap between
the countries with the 20 percent richest and 20 percent poorest populations
is rapidly expanding," he said. "Since 1990, 80 countries are
growing steadily poorer. This growing gap is what is creating the tension
between the poorer world and the wealthy." He said that 1.2 billion
people now live on less than $1 per day. "At worldwide meetings leaders
have said that we would cut poverty in half by 2015. Thatís ridiculous.
Itís not happening."
Father Christensen lived and
worked in India for six years and then went to Bangladesh in 1987, where he
founded the Institute of Integrated Rural Development (IIRD), a Bangladeshi
non-government organization with a focus on women and children, whose goal is
eradication of poverty. Two Bangladeshi government officers helped Father
Christensen set up IIRD, which is run by a Bangladeshi executive director and
managing board of six people.
Although Bangladesh is the
size of Illinois, it is the eighth largest country in population with 132
million. The capital, Dhaka, has 12 million people, 3 million of whom live in
slums. The land is delta, subject to flooding from monsoons.
Father Christensen believed,
"if some model could be created, even a small effective model for rural
development, then there would certainly be a good response to it by the world
community. This was my intention. I didnít have any special training for
this kind of work when I went over, but I had hope."
He approached the U.S.
Agency for International Development for funding, but received no
encouragement from them. IIRD has received a more sympathetic ear from the
European community and the Belgian government and receives private
contributions and support from the Society of Mary.
In Bangladesh, 56 percent of
children are considered "severely malnourished." He said Bangladesh
is the only country where the physical size of individuals is diminishing
because of poor nutrition.
IIRD works in six
sub-districts of Bangladesh, each with "roughly 250-300,000 people."
"We begin in a cluster of villages called unions and gradually build the
project up." The program covers about 800 villages with a total
population of about 1.2 million people." Each sub-district uses local
IIRD has identified 65,000
families for their "poverty eradication program" and overall
development of sub-districts, including flood protection levees, digging of
irrigation canals, sanitation, and tree planting.
Field workers go door to
door to identify families in need, dividing them into the "hard core
poor," "very poor" and "less poor." IIRD establishes
and maintains close, regular contact with these families.
A forestry program employs
300-400 workers, with 600 in the fishery program, and about 500 in the silk
project. Other projects include a small bakery, and candy, soap and chalk
According to Father
Christensen, the field worker system is, "one of the strengths of IIRD
because I have not seen another organization either in India or Bangladesh
that does the kind of detailed work that I think is necessaryÖ. Most
programs do not take the trouble to go house to house, to see the
Each year about 4,000
families "graduate" out of poverty. To be declared graduates, IIRD
workers consider a familyís housing ó usually thatched walls, earthen
floor and a tin roof are deemed "satisfactory" ó number of family
members, education, animals or land owned, and income.
In terms of housing, IIRD
works to provide tin roofs for the poor ó in Bangladesh, thatís the
critical need for protection from heavy rain. The cost is $60 per house. IIRD
has helped 9,400 families to get this improved housing.
More than 12,000 children
are in the two-year school program that feeds into the government school
system. The cost is about $15 per child per year. The goal is for girls to
comprise at least 60 percent of the enrollment.
Parents get the materials
for constructing the schoolhouse. IIRD pays for the labor and parents maintain
and clean the school. More than 400 educated women work as teachers.
Thirty-five women are school superintendents. They learn to ride bicycles so
they can cover 10-15 schools.
Groups of 15-20 women meet
weekly to "understand their role in helping to get their families out of
poverty. They learn about their rights," said Father Christensen. They
learn to save money before they can get loans of from $25 up to $200.
infrastructure" projects include fish cultivation ponds. About 110
families have been resettled around a fishpond. For 10 years they share income
with IIRD. The money that they give to IIRD buys more land. After 10 years,
the settlers will be full owners.
"In our industries we
stress ownership. Our newly designed projects will get 1,500 people employed
and trained over five years including 180 women in small garment units and 200
women in embroidery units. These will be 80 percent owned by the workers in 18
months," he said, explaining that this concept of ownership is
"critical" not only for IIRD, but also for the world economy.
IIRD has received
international recognition including a nomination for the prestigious King
Baudouin prize and selection by the World Bankís Global Development Network
as "one of the most innovative projects in the world with the most
potential for helping humanity."
To contact Father
Christensen, email him at email@example.com or write to him in care of the
Society of Mary, P.O. Box 23130, St. Louis, Mo. 63156-3130.