A Discussion with Fred Nyabera, End Child Poverty, Arigatou International

With: Fred Nyabera Berkley Center Profile

November 13, 2014

Background: Rev. Nyabera focuses on “the least of these”—children living in poverty. Drawing from years of experience working with faith-based, civil society, government, inter-governmental, and multilateral organizations on various development issues, Rev. Nyabera now works globally to mobilize faith-inspired resources to end child poverty. In this discussion with Crystal Corman on November 13, 2014 in his office in Nairobi, he explains his initiative’s distinctive focus on children and how it addresses the human and structural causes of poverty. He addresses the issue of corruption and how his initiative responds to situations of “embedded” corruption. He also discusses his extensive interfaith career in general and reflects on how global political factors influence interfaith relations in Kenya, especially among Christians and Muslims.

Please tell me a bit about your work on child poverty and Arigatou International’s approach.

The Interfaith Initiative to End Child Poverty (End Child Poverty) is a multi-faith, child centered, global initiative of Arigatou International that mobilizes faith-inspired resources to end child poverty. We aim to achieve this by addressing both human root causes of poverty and by challenging the structural causes of poverty.

In our child-centered work and service, we seek to integrate positive religious values, we promote faith-inspired initiatives, and we cooperate with like-minded organizations.

Arigatou International, our mother organization, is a non-profit organization with the headquarters in Tokyo. The organization works to bring people from all walks of life together to build a better world for children through four initiatives, namely—one, the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), a platform for interfaith cooperation on children’s issues, with the secretariat in Nairobi. Two, Ethics Education for Children—this initiative is based in Geneva. Three, Prayer and Action for Children—this is a global movement that responds to violence against children, based in New York, and four, End Child Poverty. Our office is also here in Nairobi.

How does End Child Poverty engage with interfaith leaders and communities?

In order to be effective, End Child Poverty has to go beyond conventional economic approaches in addressing poverty and consider both systemic and moral and human causes of poverty, such as greed, ignorance, hatred, and fear. We therefore encourage faith communities to employ spiritual tools and take up sound theological reflection, prayer, and action to arrest human and spiritual causes of child poverty.

Our approach puts into action three main strategies. One, we respond to the human and spiritual causes of poverty through theological reflection, prayer, and action. Two, we combat structural causes of poverty through interfaith advocacy and lobbying, and three, we undertake replicable and sustainable grassroots projects that alleviate poverty.

What does your grassroots work look like?

When it comes to our work at the grassroots, we accompany promising, sustainable, and replicable grassroots initiatives that enhance quality education and retention of vulnerable children, transform violent conflicts that cause and intensify poverty, and promote income-generating activities for women caregivers from low-income families.

Regarding access to quality education for vulnerable children, we mainly focus on orphans and children affected by war and conflicts. We believe that education is required to get out of poverty. In many cases where we work, education does not only benefit the educated person, it also benefits the whole family and sometimes lifts a generation out of poverty.

In transforming conflicts, like in South Sudan, or even here in Kenya, we try to prevent and manage existing conflicts so that they do not escalate. Where possible, we work to resolve and transform them. To clarify, we don’t always engage directly, but we work with faith or religious leaders to do so.

Thirdly, in accompanying income-generating activities for low-income care givers and families, we mainly focus on women caregivers. This includes leveraging the small funding that we have in partnership with others and providing knowledge, skills, and tools of trade. It is not that we ignore the men, but we feel that the resources we have will go further in more vulnerable circumstances if we target women caregivers.

You use the word “caregiver.” Can you describe the diversity of who you see providing care for children?

Yes. I have used the word “caregiver” very deliberately. I didn’t say mothers because in a number of places we’re working, we find children who are orphaned by conflicts, HIV/AIDS, or by other reasons. This means you might find a grandmother, an aunt, or even a neighbor taking in the children and, in many cases, they struggle to provide sufficient care.

These women caregivers need livelihood skills to be able to support children in their care. To mitigate this, we are currently developing an economic empowerment program that consists of three pillars for lasting impact. Through this program, caregivers learn to establish their own businesses, become literate, and establish and learn to operate their own village banks. Ultimately, these families are able to become self-sufficient, meet the needs of their children, and avoid reliance on external support. The objective is to empower the women while strengthening their parenting skills, lifting up their families, and enabling them to better care for and protect both their own children (all identified as vulnerable) and those of others in the community.

Why does your work on child poverty involve faith actors?

We believe that children and their wellbeing occupy a central place in all faiths and religious communities. Religion expends considerable resources and capital to promote the wellbeing of children, the young, and the poor. Religious institutions also have a long history and proven capacity to tackle poverty, be it materially or spiritually. Their access to individuals, the family, and children, in the most intimate spheres of their lives, have given them unique insights into the minute dynamics of poverty, often invisible to global policy makers.

However I must point out that, despite this historical engagement and proven competencies, faith communities and their institutions have not fully maximized on these comparative advantages. Now, this is what we are trying to catalyze. These faith-inspired tools and assets that we are encouraging them to use include the already-existing social infrastructure, mobilization capacity (since faith communities gather regularly on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday), the authority and influence the religious leaders have, worship places, sacred texts, liturgies, sermons, and institutions that can be mobilized to mitigate child poverty.

What does your work look like in Kenya?

In Kenya, our work is both intra-faith and interfaith in design. We work with faith-inspired organizations to empower vulnerable youth and poor women with income-generating and social skills, partner with other like-minded organizations to provide scholarships to selected vulnerable children, accompany faith communities as they use the spiritual tools towards ending child poverty, and prepare religious leaders to engage in policy advocacy when required. We also partner with Child Life, which has a community radio to focus on child poverty eradication issues.

So far we have collaborated with Amani Village of Hope, Islamic Relief, Bare Care, Catholic Youth Network, Nairobi Baptist Church, Chemichemi Ya Uzima, Child Life in Kibera, All Africa Conference of Churches, and National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), among others.

Can you explain why you focus on children when addressing poverty? What about their families?

Our entry point in fighting poverty is children. That’s our niche. And as you may be aware, c
hild poverty is perhaps the most brutal and unforgiving form of all poverty. Children constitute a large percentage of the world's poor, and poverty is the main underlying cause for millions of preventable child deaths each year. It is also the cause of tens of millions of children going hungry, missing out on school, or being forced into child labor. For girls in particular, poverty entails limited access to healthcare, adequate food, and basic education. It often translates into exposure to violence, abuse, exploitation, or separation from family without recourse to protection or justice. Once devastated by poverty, a child may be scarred for life, and often will pass his experience onto his or her offspring.

Arguably, little can be done to dent chronic poverty unless the focus is first placed on getting children out of it. As it is, investing in a child's health, nutrition, education, as well as social and emotional development, is an investment in a healthier, more literate, and ultimately, more productive and spiritually stronger population.

Of course we also realized that you cannot end child poverty in isolation without considering the family and sometimes even the community. Our end goal is to see a child coming out of poverty. This may mean we will work with their parents, communities, and with their religious leaders. At the same time, we deliberately involve the children in seeking solutions to their problems. We don’t just do it for them, we do it with them.

Poverty is also caused by structural and systemic problems and can be exacerbated by corruption. How does End Child Poverty address these types of issues?

In addressing structural causes of poverty, we encourage the faith communities we work with to engage in interfaith advocacy and lobbying against structural causes of poverty facilitate the creation of interfaith and intra-faith advocacy platforms, challenge the faith leaders to lead by example and integrity, and ask them to use the faith-based advocacy tools such as the sacred texts, preaching, and the prayers to transform the thinking and values of people in their congregation.

End Child Poverty also facilitates in advocacy campaigns against these structural causes around three annual global events—the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (IDEP) (October 17), the International Day for Children (November 20), and the International Day for Peace (September 21). End Child Poverty is also using the Day of the African Child as an advocacy strategy for Africa. These annual events provide a major platform on which to rally communities and mount local and global campaigns and activities to draw attention to child poverty that stems from structural causes like corruption, bad governance, wastage, unequal distribution of resources, and violent conflicts.

How do you see faith leaders in Kenya trying to end corruption?

Corruption is one of the biggest problems in Kenya today. It is very much embedded in our culture and I believe that multiple responses are needed to root it out. There is no one way to deal with it.

First, you cannot ignore the need for tough legislation. Some say that what is in the heart like corruption or greed cannot be legislated. That may be true, but I believe that it can be regulated, and for that, we need stronger laws. Our problem is that some of the people who are supposed to enforce the laws are themselves corrupt. Even with tougher legislation in place, without political will, it won’t go very far. Faith leaders therefore need to hold the police and state institutions to account for their actions.

Another approach is to change hearts and minds. Africa as a whole is a religious continent and Kenya is a religious country. People go to the churches, mosques, and temples, yet they remain corrupt. The question is: How can the religious leaders help bridge this gap? I believe that faith platforms including churches and mosques should inform the public about corruption in a way that makes them angry about it and motivates them to tackle it personally. This kind of education must include children. The children need to be taught positive values and alternative beliefs and practices that encourage honesty, fairness, and justice.

Thirdly, religious leaders need to disassociate themselves from corrupt behavior. They need to lead by example and provide positive role models in fighting corruption and in encouraging others to do the same.

What approach do you take when working with orphans and vulnerable children?

We try very much to remain faithful to the positive spiritual values and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in our work. As you may be aware, the Convention provides children in all societies the right to a childhood in which they can learn, play, be healthy, and develop. According to this Convention, every child has a right to “a standard of living adequate for the child’s mental, spiritual and social development.” However, nearly three decades later, the situation of millions of Africa’s children remains trapped in multiple and deeply running poverty that makes a mockery of this right and its promise.

Now, I don’t think there is a universal way to look at orphans and vulnerable children, because there are different faiths and different cultures that approach the issues differently. We therefore focus on the positive values and principles but contextualize the application.

Take the example of early marriage or child marriage. We work with some faith communities and cultures that don’t see any harm in this practice. I don’t think the best response is to reprimand them because it’s against the UN Convention. You enter into dialogue by discussing consequences of such a practice including chronic poverty and health risks. We tell them that the younger the girls get married, the less likely it is that they will come out of poverty. Most people, despite the religion or culture, would like to come out of poverty, so they might listen to our argument. We also show them the physical dangers of early marriage and round all these up into the spiritual value of dignity of a human being.

Where do you work? In what countries?

Our work is mainly implemented by the Global Network of Religions for Children that is present is about 80 countries globally. So, our advocacy and campaigns can reach most of these countries through the Network. However, given our limited resources and capacity, we have about 25 priority countries, mainly in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Balkans, where we intensify our work.

Our main focus is on where there is extreme poverty without ignoring relative poverty. Where there is relative poverty we focus on advocacy, but most of our efforts are focused on absolute poverty especially places affected by violent conflicts.

Your strategy is interfaith. Are most partners open to it or are some suspicious or unwilling?

Yes, some people are suspicious to interfaith collaboration. However, in my experience, if interfaith collaboration is rooted in activities and the needs of the community, it’s largely accepted across the different faiths and people don’t focus on their differences. This is true when there is a pandemic like HIV/AIDS, in a conflict situation, or in a democratization process that is taking place in the country.

For example, when Kenyans were demanding for a multiparty state system in the ‘80s and ‘90s, different faiths came together under the platform of the Ufungamano Initiative (an interfaith platform) and gave the country an exemplary leadership towards the constitutional review and eventual overhaul. A lot of positive energy came from this, and some barriers were broken. People focused on the mutual concerns and collective solutions. Challenges come when interfaith dialogue is forced, and when interfaith dialogue is not anchored in the needs of the people.

Another area where there is resistance is where there is no honesty. I’ve been in interfaith spaces where people ignore their faith identities and adopt uniformity. Such engagements are normally insincere and don’t achieve much. The moment you try to pretend that doctrinal differences don’t exist, you’ll have challenges. Each group has elements of its faith identity that it will try to protect. But I think if we accept our unity in diversity and build on connectors and not dividers, then positive interfaith collaboration can thrive.

What trends do you see among interfaith actors in Kenya?

Most of the interfaith collaboration and dialogue in Kenya takes place among the moderates who believe in a peaceful interfaith coexistence and cooperation, or what I call the “converted.” There is a positive aspect to getting together with the “converted” interfaith actors, but I think we need to start stretching the boundaries to start engaging the radicals on the far end of the scale.

Secondly, I believe that beyond “soft” interfaith, I think there is more work to be done on the intra-faith level where Christians and Muslims have a safe space to deal with their own divisive issues and develop some cohesive positions regarding their dealings with the other faiths.

Thirdly, toward the tail end of the process, the constitutional-making process bred some mistrust and suspicion between the different faith leaders. This came very visible during the 2007-2008 post-election violence. There was a credibility gap between the faith leaders, because they were partisan and played partisan politics. That did not go well. There was no unified interfaith process, so when the violence took place, there was a gap in response. With time, I think the different leaders are attempting to reach out to each other.

How long have you been working in the interfaith world? And do you see some changes in interfaith in Kenya?

I’ve been doing interfaith work in relation to peacebuilding for around 10 years.

Generally there’s latent tension. The interfaith tensions in Kenya have evolved significantly in the last few years, more so after the Kenyan army's incursion into Somalia in 2011. Older disputes, like how religious rights of Christians and Muslims should be enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution, and the perceived discrimination against ethnic Somalis and Kenyan Muslims, have increasingly given way to a context in which extremist groups like Al-Shabaab are using religion to target Christians.

In their propaganda campaigns, Al-Shabaab has framed the conflict along religious, ethnic, and territorial grievances. In an angry reaction to the current high level of insecurity in Kenya, especially after the Mandera attack, some Christians have responded in anger and disassociated themselves from any further interfaith engagement. These have heighten interreligious tensions and raise the possibilities of religious violence in the country.

It is also true that the religious tension in Kenya today does not exist in a vacuum. It is conditioned by the geopolitical factors and conflicts, especially in the Middle East—perceived by some to be between Muslim and Christian cultures. This perception has been imported to Kenya.

My fear is that with the increasing emphasis on religion as a source, or potential source, of conflict in Kenya, the role of religion as a force in peacebuilding may be easily overlooked, yet at both intra- and interfaith levels, religious leaders and communities have, in the past, promoted peace and reconciliation, mediated in conflict situations, served as a communication links between opposing sides, and provided training in peacebuilding.

How does that impact the way you think about child poverty and youth and their vulnerability?

The spread of extremist ideologies among youth and children of different faiths in Kenya today may lead to exclusive religious identities, intolerance, aggressive behavior against each other, and even violence. This radicalization of youth of Kenya is to some extent because of poverty. There are push-and-pull factors involved, and some of the pull factors are monetary; Al-Shabbab pays their recruits well! When you are poor, uneducated, and unemployed without hope, promises of money from Al-Shabbab may be appealing.

In this case, mitigating child poverty can be a connector across faiths. Poverty does not differentiate based on religion. When you’re living in poverty in the slums, whether you’re Muslim or Christian, if you don’t have water, you don’t have water. If you don’t have toilets, you don’t have toilets. If you don’t have food at the end of the day, you simply don’t have food. Faith leaders can then bring people together by engaging in creative ways to address these issue irrespective of faith persuasion. We are currently developing a program that will provide some children and youth at risk with economic and social skills as a deterrent to them being recruited to the violent extremist groups. It is definitely a challenge, but I think we need to show that we are dealing with the major issues, not focusing on the religious divide.

Can you tell me more about your partnerships?

As I mentioned before, we work primarily through members of the Global Network of Religions for Children. We also seek to establish partnerships with other faith-inspired groups, development organizations, civil society organizations, governments, UN agencies, multilateral organizations, and like-minded individuals who work toward a world free of child poverty.

In all our partnerships, we try to maximize on our faith-inspired comparative advantages.

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