Peter Verbiscar-Brown: Beginning of Direct Project Work In Africa

In 1989, a group of World Runners, namely Lisa and Ted Ruffner, Jani Ashmore, and me, traveled to Nairobi, Kenya to meet up with Dr. Barry Levy who was working there in an occupational health capacity.  The idea came up a year before when we were all at the Moscow International Peace Marathon. Barry invited World Runners to come to Africa to see for ourselves what donations going to alleviate hunger and poverty in Africa could achieve. World Runners had provided funding to numerous international development and relief organizations over the previous decade.

Our small group had raised money back home as pledges for our running the Arusha Half Marathon in Tanzania. We wanted to use these funds to fund a small project or two relying on Barry’s contacts and recommendations, as he was aware of capable people and good project potentials.  We visited a small primary school near Nairobi and Crescent Medical Aid Kenya, which provided basic health care and pharmacy services at minimal cost to the poorest people in several Nairobi slum areas.

Crescent wanted to start a children’s feeding program in the Pumwani slum area as so many children there suffered from malnutrition. As single parents, the mothers of the children struggled to feed their children by buying and selling some small items or through commercial sex work. The children and mothers typically lived in groups of 6-8  in a single slum room, with rampant health problems due to lack of sanitation. Crescent staff saw that by having the children in their care for a daily meal, they could oversee the children’s health and provide education to the mothers about HIV-AIDS, maternal and child health services, hygiene and nutrition.

Our group decided to provide funds (in the hundreds of dollars) to start the feeding program. Crescent gratefully received the funds, went to the marketplace to buy a big pot, ladles, spoons, bowls, the ingredients to make a healthy gruel, and the program began the next day. It continued for about 20 years and fed 30 children a day, the kids aging out and younger children always taking their place.

Every World Runners and Global Partners trip to visit projects in Kenya included a stop at the Pumwani feeding program to see the delighted children enjoying their meal. And we always received a useful briefing from Crescent staff educating us about the health and poverty challenges faced by slum dwellers. We learned so much and it helped shape our involvement in many sponsored future health projects. The program was dependent on our annual funding, which was modest in scope, and thus did not meet the criteria of our future project work, which included avoiding the creation of dependency. However, because of our initial involvement in the program, and because working with Crescent staff was always reliably based on trust, financial transparency, educative, and meeting a very basic need, we continued for decades.

In seeing what could happen with funding a project directly, and having such a exemplary relationship with Crescent Medical Aid, we made the decision to turn the World Runners (and then Global Partners) organization toward becoming a development organization.  We could cut out the big administrative middle of channeling funds through large NGO’s and thus be much more direct and efficient with our funds, which became a key organization philosophy. The practical experience of funding great, capable, and service-oriented partners on-the-ground in the Africa communities where we work continues to this day.


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