Hope and Development in Azerbaijan

There’s a worn adage in the relief and development community that if organizations like Lutheran World Relief are constantly working to end poverty in a sustainable way, then we are, in effect, working to put ourselves out of a job. Such a goal is explicit in our Mission Statement:

“Affirming God’s love for all people, we work with Lutherans and partners around the world to end poverty, injustice and human suffering.”

Of course, ending poverty is a tall order, and LWR anticipates keeping our work active, faithful, vibrant, creative, and innovative for decades to come.

Too often, the international relief and development community sees setbacks in achieving our vision. Such setbacks might include natural disasters, conflict, economic recessions, unjust policy shifts and other untimely issues that can frustrate our efforts to reduce or eliminate poverty. For example, last December in the Philippines the rains from Tropical Storm Washi caused severe flooding on the island of Mindanao, negatively affecting the livelihoods of communities with which LWR has worked for many years. We are committed to restoring those livelihoods, and reducing the risk posed by future floods to the extent possible.

Dress a displaced Azeri woman made from an LWR Fabric Kit.

While such events can be unpredictable and frustrating, a recent letter to LWR from a long-standing partner, the UN refugee service (UNHCR) in Azerbaijan, offered a ray of hope that some communities are on the verge of transitioning from endemic poverty to a more self-sustaining future.

Azerbaijan was devastated, economically speaking, by the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. An armed conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region from 1988 to 1994 displaced hundreds of thousands, exacerbating the economic and humanitarian challenges.

LWR began its partnership with UNHCR Azerbaijan in 1997 through its Quilt and Kit ministry, and has supported nearly 700,000 people over the course of this 14-year period, according to UNHCR estimates.

At the end of 2011, UNHCR sent a letter to LWR, thanking Lutherans all over the United States for their kind support during this period of need. UNHCR wrote,

An Azeri woman proudly displays her LWR Quilt.

“The commitment, continuity, value, and timeliness of the assistance has been repeatedly acknowledged and appreciated not only by the direct beneficiaries and UNHCR, but also by our Government counterparts, local authorities, and other humanitarian organizations in Azerbaijan.”

I received similar kind words during a visit to the region in late 2007, during which many displaced persons and others noted that Lutherans were committed to supporting the Azeri people, even as many others in the world forgot about their economic plight in light of more recent skirmishes.

With those thanks in mind, UNHCR also states,

“During the period of LWR assistance, Azerbaijan has experienced a significant transition in terms of development and economical growth. Increased revenues and a firm political commitment have resulted in a more direct Government involvement and takeover of the needs and assistance programmes to improve the overall situation of the displaced population.”

Effectively, UNHCR ended its long collaboration with LWR, but on the most positive possible note: a community is slowly emerging from a state of turmoil and poverty and is now in a transitional phase. The challenges faced by the displaced populations are not over, but the Government of Azerbaijan is taking strides to address their needs and invest in their future. The time for distributing humanitarian relief supplies has come to an end. At least in one case, LWR and the relief community as a whole has put itself out of work, and we can now focus our resources to other countries in need.

How do you think relief and development professionals should determine when a humanitarian crisis is over?

What steps should organizations like LWR take to support transitional stages of development, during which people re-establish their livelihoods?

Is our vision of ending poverty and injustice part of what inspires you to participate in LWR’s ministries?