A Discussion with Landerson Santana, Country Director of ADRA Bangladesh
With: Landerson Serpa Santana Berkley Center Profile
August 10, 2014
Background: Landerson Santana is the country director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Bangladesh. In this interview with Nathaniel Adams at ADRA’s offices in Dhaka, Santana describes a wide range of topics including the history of ADRA’s work in Bangladesh. He focuses on women’s empowerment and explores concerns over financial sustainability and the need to strengthen the role of Christian organizations in national NGO networks. Finally he discusses his youth in Brazil and the transition to life in Bangladesh with his family. He highlights the inspiration he takes from his faith and the need for all people regardless of religious tradition to spend time in reflection.
How long has the Adventist Church been engaged in development in Bangladesh?
The Adventists have been working on relief and development in Bangladesh for 42 years. This was even before ADRA was created (ADRA has only existed for 30 years). Before that there was a faith-based organization funded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church called SAWS, Seventh-day Adventist Welfare Services.
To give you some idea of the roots of our relief and development work, the Church started with relief in 1890, just on a small scale. After the First World War, we started to focus more on development, particularly in some African countries. After the Second World War, SAWS was created. Finally in 1964, ADRA was created. But in Bangladesh we essentially started right when the country was founded and we have been building ADRA Bangladesh up over the past 42 years. ADRA stands for Adventist Development and Relief Agency, so around the world ADRA mainly focuses on development and relief and it is the same in Bangladesh.
What types of relief efforts is ADRA engaged in in Bangladesh?
As you probably know, Bangladesh is very natural disaster-prone. Every April, we have some deadly storms and we work a bit on relief efforts. It might be surprising, but Bangladesh even has severe cold snaps. Just this past January 80 people died from the cold. We have some emergency response for these events. We respond to the storms, the cold snaps, generally by providing supplies. Also we are implementing a risk reduction program. In some areas near Khulna in the Sundarbans (large area of mangrove wetlands in Southern Bangladesh), you see increasing salt water invasion. These communities are having serious problems getting potable water, so we are implementing a project there. In that area we are providing 16,000 people with a source of good water and training them in emergency preparedness, such as how they should get organized and what they should do in the event of a natural disaster. We create community organizations for emergency response and provide training.
From what I understand ADRA has a strong focus on women and children in Bangladesh. What does that involve?
Yes we do focus strongly on women and children. We have six projects that focus on children; four projects in Dhaka and two outside—one in Mymensingh and one in Khulna. We believe in giving children a chance to study so they can have a bright future. Of course you understand the reality of Bangladesh, particularly for slum children. Many of them have to work, collecting garbage, etc. They are not studying. So we have six projects that attempt to address the needs of these children.
Our biggest focus in terms of budget and in terms of years the program has been active is our women’s empowerment projects (WPs). We are working with 9,000 women in the Mymensingh area. The project involves providing training and advice. For example, when many women get pregnant they don’t want to go see a doctor. They give birth in their homes. So we train community leaders and equip them with basic medical supplies and training so that they can safely deliver babies if the need arises or encourage women to go to the doctor in the case of complications. We believe these efforts are essential to overall development in the country. If you have a high rate of maternal or child mortality that is a huge burden on society.
We also have some women’s savings groups. In this culture women are often not allowed to go outside of their houses much. They are rarely allowed to make financial decisions. In these groups, every week they bring 20 taka ($0.25). After some time, a year maybe, the group decides what they will do with the money. Sometimes ADRA will collect the money put it in a bank and return it to them. They can buy a car, goats, or a sewing machine. We also provide sewing training. We are delivering 100 machines to women in these groups. They pay 50 percent through the saving groups and we provide matching funds from our donor. So they pay 50 percent and we pay 50 percent. The sewing machines are only about $100, but for their income, it would be very difficult for them to afford on their own.
We believe that if you invest in women and children, you can develop the nation because the children are the future of the nation and the women are its roots. Women always invest in their future. If they have some extra income, they will improve the house, they will renovate, they will buy books for their kids, they will send their kids to study in another city, like Dhaka. They always try to push their kids to do better.
In the past ADRA has had a lot of trouble working on women’s empowerment. Now things have improved because men and religious leaders are beginning to understand that women take care of the whole family. They need to learn how to read, how to write, and need to develop themselves. This benefits the entire family and the entire society.
Are most of ADRA's projects based off of these groups that you are forming, like the women’s savings groups?
Each of our women’s groups has around 25 women who have monthly meetings. There is a leader who we train. We also have our women development agents, who act as facilitators. They take their bikes to each one of the groups to facilitate the meetings. They carry a big plastic tarp and spread it out. This is where the meeting takes place. Sometimes it’s raining, so they have to improvise and use some area of the community to get the trainings done.
I think these groups can be very important. They have many roles at the same time. You save money and generate income, but the benefits are also psychological. You can come and meet with women who have the same struggles. Maybe your son has a drug addiction. Others may have a similar problem and you can share experiences and help each other.
And you use mosques as focal points and meeting centers for these community groups?
Yes, in this context you have to do that. They are the main leaders in the region. Some areas are a bit disconnected from the rest of the country because you have to take a car for six or seven hours, then you have to take a boat, then a rickshaw, then another boat, and finally you get there. In these areas, mosques are some of the only institutions.
Has ADRA experienced some backlash from Islamic leaders?
Yes, particularly around 15 years ago, not during my time here. I have reports telling me that it was really tough. Some workers were treated very harshly—“Hey what are you doing here? Why are you are taking my wife out of the house?” They would say things like this.
When you initiate work in a community, how do you do a needs assessment?
Let’s say we don’t have any project in a community. We would come and do some research with the community leaders, including religious leaders and government leaders. We do the research and look at the reality on the ground. We look at how we can address the community needs, but also address the priorities of our donors. Sometimes we cannot address all of the needs of the community if they don’t match the priorities of the donors.
Does ADRA have a microcredit program in Bangladesh?
We used to have microcredit, but the government cancelled our registration. We didn’t want to run illegally, so we stopped it. But we are applying continually to be allowed to get it running again. Somehow, we hopefully will get the rights. We have the funds to do it, but we cannot due to the regulation. Microcredit in Bangladesh is huge, a lot of organizations have started microcredit programs, but a lot are not really microcredit. Microcredit should always be matching the community investment. ADRA is not really interested in earning money through microcredit. We are just interested in sustainability. We want to reinvest the interest and then we don’t need to come to the donor all the time, saying, “Please give us more money.” So hopefully we can do that.
Then you would also be able to choose your focal areas a bit more, rather than being donor driven.
That would be great. We also run Adventist schools that help generate funding as well. We are starting schools in the cities, like Dhaka. For example, on our campus here we have a school with around 1,500 children enrolled. Maybe 1,200 or 1,300 are Muslim. This school is not free. They pay for the education, but with these funds, we can sponsor other children in rural areas where we have boarding schools. We will try to replicate this model. We are planning to expand our school in Tongi. We have the land and we will try to get some funds to build a computer training center. This will be the best computer center in the region and we will charge for that. We will charge half the students and this will allow us to provide the other half with free tuition. This way we can run the activities without the necessity of funds always coming from abroad.
How many Adventist schools are there in the country? Does ADRA run those schools directly?
ADRA only runs one school in Tongi, with 323 children enrolled. We run it in partnership with an organization called ARBAN. The Adventist church has 155 small schools, seven of which are boarding schools. Most of them are very small schools—20 or 30 children. Sometimes there is only one teacher and pastor. So the school is in his house. He opened the dining room and he holds class is there. The meetings of the church are also there. The total number of students we have is around 10,000. We have one college in Gazipur. Even though we don’t run these schools directly I know some information about them because we often work in partnership. For example there is a boarding school called GAPS. They have around 600 students and recently had a serious problem of water. They had water but it was not suitable for consumption. ADRA Korea sponsored an internet fundraiser to get them access to potable water through a new pump and filter system. So in cases like this, we work together. Sometimes we will give them some funds to renovate and this kind of thing. But they run on their own through another NGO. For the church, it is very tough to run activities in Bangladesh. There are a lot of regulations. We have another NGO, which runs the church and the schools.
What platforms do you use for information sharing or networking. Do you belong to one of the NGO networks in the country?
Regarding the church in particular, I don’t know too much about that. I know we have a very good relation with other denominations like the Presbyterians and the Baptists. Sometimes we participate in their events. They come here and give us some trainings. This is usually not dealing with doctrine of course. We invite each other.
ADRA participates in the various clusters. Clusters are groups of NGOs under the leadership of the UN. There are eight areas—education, relief, etc. We participate in these clusters and it is a good opportunity to meet and dialogue with other organizations, like the Red Cross. There are faith-based and non faith-based organizations. I think we do need to improve our networking, since we are a minority. As Christians, we should have a better understanding of the context and should make an attempt to partner.
Could you tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be working with ADRA in Bangladesh?
I am 41 years old. I am Brazilian. I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. I didn’t exactly chose to come to Bangladesh, but I believe that wherever God calls me I will go. In the Bible we have many stories such as that of Abraham. I believe that God guides us.
I was born in northeast Brazil, in Recife, right on the beach. It’s a beautiful place. At 8 months, when I was just a baby, my father, who was also a pastor, moved us to Bahía. When I grew up, I first worked in business. I worked in business for 12 years and then worked for NGOs, including ADRA, for another 12 years. I think it has been very helpful to have that business and management experience. It’s very good to mix both; NGO and business background. Because on some level we have to run as a business although we are not profitable. We have to at least be sustainable as an organization.
Why did you choose to make the transition from working in business to development?
When I was 17 I wanted to study theology. I liked to travel to small cities, singing and preaching, and helping people. For 12 years I followed my father in business and many other things. Eventually we had a big crisis and went bankrupt; my father and brother decided to start a new business, but I thought it was time for a change. I wouldn’t say God threw me into a bad situation, but he permitted the situation. My conscience told me maybe it’s time to help others. My spirit was worn down. It was tough to be vice president at a company of 3,000 people that was like a truck going downhill, and you’re trying to do your best to save it. I was reading the Bible more, but also I started spending two hours a week working at a drug rehabilitation center. During that time, I realized that even though I think that I have all these problems in my life, look at these guys. They don’t even have a family anymore. Some of them had beaten their mothers, beaten their spouses, and even killed family members.
So now they don’t have anyone, and not even food sometimes. I started mobilizing people. We sometimes had 50 people visiting, bringing food, singing for and giving love to the addicts. I said, “Wow! I want to start an NGO like this.” Then I decided to come back to my first plan to study theology and at the same time, I would run the NGO. It was a little bit crazy because after bankruptcy I didn’t have any money. Luckily it was a God idea, not a good idea, that’s a big difference. I was able to rent out my apartment and through these four years that I spent studying, I was able to survive and still help the NGO, which we called Provida.
Then in the middle of the theology course I started volunteering at ADRA, and I started to understand how it started, and how it is based on the teachings of the bible. If you take Matthew 25:31, God says, “I was nude, you gave me clothes. I was hungry, you gave me food. I was thirsty, you gave me water. I was in prison, you freed me.” In this bible verse we really have the roots of our beliefs. That we really are not only helping people, but we are doing what Jesus was doing when he was on Earth. He spent most of the time not preaching, but giving food, healing, and helping people. Then I got inspired and fell in love with ADRA’s ministry. After graduating we donated the drug rehabilitation NGO to ADRA. So now ADRA is running Provida and it’s doing great work. They have around 40,000 square meters of land in Bahia, Brazil. Many people have gotten off drugs and have become lawyers and pastors.
Six months before graduation they invited me to be an ADRA director. Since that time I have been working with ADRA. God has made miracles. When I started out in ADRA Bahia we had two employees, and one $30,000 project. When I left Bahia to go to Recife we had 204 employees and $4 million in projects—affecting thousands of lives.
Eventually, ADRA invited me to come to Bangladesh. They had been one year without a country director here, so I accepted and came. I came for around five years. I’m open to be anywhere that needs my help.
So this is your first time working outside of Brazil?
Yes, this is my first time outside of Brazil. It’s very tough. We are accustomed to be very close to our parents. I lost my grandfather, and could not return for the funeral. My wife also lost her mother. It’s very difficult, but our family believes that God calls to me here. It’s been a pleasure to serve. My wife is a physiotherapist, not practicing right now. There are fewer than 15 Brazilians in Bangladesh and very few Portuguese speakers. We have some Portuguese-speaking donors, so she is communicating with them, writing reports. We are happy to see how God can teach us many new abilities that you never thought you could do. For example, she is a trained physiotherapist, how can she be working in marketing and communications? But since we are here someone has to do it. My daughter stayed one year with us; she is ending high school now. My son is autistic. It was very tough because some physicians told me; “There is no way you can go to Bangladesh. It is such a crowded country. You will have a problem with him.” Of course autistic people do not want to have relationships, but he is doing fine. He is building relationships. He has friends that he plays with. He is happy to be here serving the Lord.
Yesterday, a volunteer from abroad asked me, “Does your wife like Bangladesh?” I said, “I’m going to take this question and tell you another story.” A friend asked the same question to my son. He just looked in the eyes of the guy and said, “You know God called us to be here. Did you know that?” It’s the place we want to be. It’s not a matter of like or dislike, it’s a matter of being in the place God wants you to be. That’s my point because let’s just take Abraham’s story from the Bible. If Abraham did not have the courage to leave his parents and leave his home, I’m sure he would not be so blessed. He wanted to adapt to new cultures, meet new people. God showed him many things and he built a great nation.
Of course you don’t need to leave your country to receive a blessing from God. That’s not what I’m saying. If God calls you, and you feel you can serve, at least for a while, then why not? You have to understand that ADRA and our church doesn’t work like a normal job, it’s a mission. We are happy to serve.
Where do you draw inspiration for work that you do?
I gather that inspiration through the Bible and through prayer. Alone, by myself, I couldn’t do it. I would want to be close to my mother and father. It’s so comfortable—whatever you need, you get their help. But I understand that we have a short life. During our life we have a mission. The main focus of our life should not be to serve ourselves. I had 12 years where I was serving myself. I had a high salary. Business was very good. Life was comfortable. But what is the point? We don’t believe that we will get all the rewards in this life. We believe that Jesus is coming soon, and we will have a new heaven and a new life, that’s what we believe. That’s the Seventh-day Adventist Church—it means you are waiting for the second coming of Jesus.
I get the inspiration from the Bible and that really refreshes my soul and my spirit. I even started writing. I never thought I would be a writer. Never. I started writing small things inspired by bible verses and it’s grown. I’ve just posted them in collections on my Facebook page. Now we are translating them to English, and we will translate them to Bangla. We just share some wise points from the Bible to give you strength and direction. I would say that whatever I say regarding the Bible, a Muslim can understand and find in the Qur'an, a Hindu could find the same ideas in the Gita etc. I feel that people from all the religions—I am not talking about Christians only—need to spend time with our beliefs. If you believe that the Qur'an is the truth, why not spend time every day to get the inspiration? I am learning many things from the Muslims, like praying five times a day. It’s very beautiful. They stop whatever they are doing and they pray.
I do believe that we would be blessed if all the religions and even the agnostics and atheists—if they spent time for reflection. “What did I do yesterday? I hurt my friend with my words. How can I resolve that? How can I be a better person? Or maybe I didn’t help the beggar in his time of need. How can I spend 10 minutes a day doing good?” These are small things in life—helping other people. This is not religious, this is humanitarian. This is a humanitarian issue. This is the kind of thing I write in my devotionals. Of course I mainly read the Bible. I cannot mention many things from the Gita or the Qur'an, but I believe that we all need to spend time in reflection, trying to become a better person. Even if you believe your mission will end when your life ends, at least you can improve the time you spent on Earth.