Q&A: Daniel Speckhard on integrated development and complex crises

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Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health CEO Daniel Speckhard, right, with a cocoa farmer in Honduras. Photo by: Corus International

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health merged in early 2019 and joined their efforts under a new parent organization called Corus International in January 2020. The move was partly motivated by a recognition that humanitarian and development challenges are increasingly complex and interlinked, requiring responses that integrate multiple forms of assistance, such as health with livelihood support.

Q&A: Why traditional development needs more ICT4D innovations

Following Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health's acquisition of a private sector company specializing in information and communication technologies for development, Daniel Speckhard explains the value that private sector innovations can bring to the traditional development space.

Within months, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, with social and political implications that continue to deepen and evolve. IMA World Health was able to feed its technical expertise into Lutheran World Relief’s broader geographic range of programs, and both could tap the constituency of individual donors that make Lutheran World Relief less dependent on government funding, said Daniel Speckhard, president and CEO of Corus International.

“We were able, because of Lutheran World Relief's unrestricted sources of funding, to invest nearly a million dollars in [personal protective equipment] before we even had the programs lined up, because we knew we were going to need it,” Speckhard said in an interview.

He spoke to Devex about how the merger and coronavirus response reflect a faith-based approach to development, the difference between projects and relationships, and what calls to end racial discrimination in the U.S. mean for organizations working for social justice overseas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Has the COVID-19 crisis served as a proof of concept for what you were trying to achieve with the merger of Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health, or has this crisis surfaced additional challenges that will require further change by your organization?

While I wouldn't have chosen the timing, it kind of makes us feel like all the work we've been doing to implement this merger, and the effort we made to build this partnership and the reasons we were pursuing this partnership, all came into sharp clarity with the COVID crisis.

Lutheran World Relief has a broad geographic footprint and a long history, lots of social capital with the communities we work with, but was not known for our health expertise, other than having worked on malaria in the past. IMA World Health is known for its health expertise and actually has been one of a few international NGOs deeply focused on ending the Ebola outbreak in Central Africa, but they didn't have much of a geographic footprint. [This merger brought] together the deep expertise of IMA World Health … with the global reach of Lutheran World Relief and connected us to the constituency here in the United States.

The value of staying connected to people who want to contribute and support solutions to poverty or health in the world is really important. Ending poverty or building healthy communities is not a project. Our sector, which has a great passion for what we do and has a great set of values for why we do it, still oftentimes moves into the wonky space [of believing] that if we just get the components right of this project and get the metrics right and the technical dimensions right and our feedback learning loops so the next project's even better, that we'll solve this.

And it misses the importance of relationships. People have to care about other people. It can't be given over to an NGO or government or somebody else [to say], “Go fix this.”

Now is the time, more than ever, to understand how you need to build a global community to solve these problems. And COVID is a good example of that. That's not the only example. You just need to look to the social justice [movements] happening here in the United States. And that also is not a project. It's about relationships and how we treat each other and the importance of human dignity and respect.

Do you think faith-based organizations play a unique role when it comes to responding to a crisis like COVID-19 or others, as opposed to secular health and development organizations?

Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes. We aim to demystify the role of faith actors in development, and to highlight their potential across a range of critical priorities and regions.

Many of [the countries in which we work] are much more faith-centered than we are in the United States or certainly in Europe. While we've relegated religious institutions here in the United States to just a particular area reserved for Sundays or Saturdays or Fridays, in these countries, it's ingrained in the lives of the communities and the people there.

And when you're dealing with a crisis — for instance, like COVID — the No. 1 piece of capital you need is trust. They need to trust the message you’re giving about what the source of this virus is, what the best strategies for dealing with this virus is, how to protect themselves, what care to get when they do get sick, and how to trust that. And oftentimes, the best places to find that is in religiously supported — locally, indigenously, religiously supported — institutions.

It's not just about — if you're a Christian organization here in the United States — what countries are Christian or what countries have Christian health associations. One of the places we’ve worked the longest is in Muslim-majority West Africa. And what we found there is, again, it goes back to this recognition by the local communities of why you're doing what you're doing and building trust.

They have a long history of not trusting governments or institutions or nonprofits, because they don't trust the motivation, because they have felt taken advantage of and ignored for generations. And so there is a suspicion there.

But when you tell a Muslim community we're doing this because our faith inspires us to serve and love and work and support our neighbors, that resonates with them. That's all they need to know, because it fits with their faith. And then you have credibility, and you have built a bridge. And that bridge then builds the trust for working together because, again, it's not a project.

This doesn't happen because we deliver something. This happens because they themselves find through their own agency, with support from us and others, their way out of extreme poverty and to building healthy communities in a way that works for them. So it starts with that trust and that dignity of that relationship.

“When you're dealing with a crisis — for instance, like COVID — the No. 1 piece of capital you need is trust.”

— Daniel Speckhard, president and CEO, Corus International

You said you’ve been spending a lot of time thinking internally about issues of racism and social justice, which have their epicenter right now in the United States but are clearly also global. What is driving those conversations, and have you come to any conclusions about your organization’s role?

We're an organization that believes that social justice and human dignity is at the heart and center of ending extreme poverty and bringing health to communities and dealing with all these global challenges that these communities face. It starts with social justice, and when that social justice is not there, the systems don't work in a way that benefits individuals, families, communities, but actually the whole country.

There seems to be a dissonance that this is what our role is overseas, but we don't have a role here in the United States. And, you know, we haven't figured this out. So I don't have a magic answer for you right now, other than to say we are coming to the conclusion that you can't ignore the social injustice in your own communities while trying to help another community.

That even starts with just your own employees and staff. They live in this environment. They're affected by this environment. And you should be caring for them. Then, second, you can't model for other countries and be seen as somebody who can address these issues if you are not caring about them in the U.S. as well.

So we're struggling with how to do this. We're not a domestic social justice or development agency, but we're coming to the conclusion that we can't ignore these issues as a corporate being or as a family. And we're going to be looking for ways that we can engage to help resolve the problems in the United States and not just limit ourselves to the traditional approach of the past, which is: Make sure you have a good diversity, equity, inclusion, internal program with your HR department.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.