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Interview: Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, chief executive officer of Christian Aid

07 December 2018

‘Hope has always emerged like a light on a hill. We are resilient’

I’ve been working in international development for many years — over 20 years — both in developing countries, based in Zambia, and with other international organisations. I was ready for a role that combined my faith and my quest for social justice, and work to change the power imbalances that cause poverty and vulnerabilities.

The really pleasant surprise for me has been discovering the number of people out there who really want to be part of a movement for justice, dignity, and equality.

Every working day for me is different. My job entails travelling to our country offices to see our programmes, meeting with my directorate or trustees, and meeting high-level influencers in Parliament and in the Church.

In my first six months, I’ve had to do more travelling, to bring myself up to speed. I also travel in the UK, preaching in sponsoring churches, and sitting down with supporters and listening to their concerns. Connecting the people who really care, give, and pray, and the people they help in other countries, is the sweet spot.

I like to think of us as one big family with different skills, gifts, and parts to play — but all part of this global movement looking for justice, equality, and dignity.

One thing I’ve learned is that there’s a broad definition and understanding of poverty, but each community is different. In Brazil or Bolivia, people live in extreme poverty, but the cultural exclusion is greater for ethnic minorities. In other countries, there might be extreme poverty because of different issues: drought, no control of land, or generational poverty.

If you’re the person who experiences relative poverty for one reason or another, and don’t have access to what is considered the norm in that country, your dignity is affected. Every human being is important before God, and deserves a life of dignity. Christian Aid’s mandate is to work outside the UK: the difference is that, here, something can be done about it; but, in countries where the government is corrupt or dysfunctional, you really need help from outside.

We’ve spent the past few months planning our next seven years’ strategy, and believe we have to look at decision-making structures and speak truth to power. We have to build local agencies who empower people to speak up against governments. Our work isn’t just about meeting immediate need but supporting sustainable transformational change. We’ve done a lot of work on taxation and tax justice — identifying where money for alleviating poverty is going.

Putting human flourishing as the end goal in our world would help us tackle many wider issues, such as climate change. If our driver is always the accumulation of wealth, our policy decisions will be always at the expense of others.

Speaking truth to power has its risks, because there’s the danger that you could be kicked out, or some donor might withdraw their money. We have to do a risk-analysis, but, above all, be true to what Christian Aid is. We need to be bold and brave, but not reckless. One of the things I’d really encourage is to increase the level of support from the British public, because that gives us more freedom to act. And other governments who provide money have to be part of that conversation.

The hardest thing that Christian Aid does is trying to speak prophetically and truthfully about safeguarding and the protection of the most vulnerable. Recent scandals in our sector have made this difficult, but made us more committed to doing all we can to protect the people we serve.

We’re proud to work well with the Department for International Development [DfID] on dozens of projects around the world, tackling climate change, gender injustice, displaced people, and responding to emergencies. We’re particularly glad that the DfID, working with us, has launched a rapid response START fund to release money to emergency situations faster. It’s a world first.

We’re concerned about how the Government is changing the use of aid: blurring it with military, trade, and business interests. DfID is the best department at spending aid, and the Government should ensure that it is fully independent and focused on alleviating poverty.

The real measure of success in this work is when affected communities can speak up for themselves, and have the opportunity to live a life of dignity. As we walk towards it, though, there are other, smaller milestones that keep us going and help us to retain the belief that this is a winnable war.

A community that we worked with for five years with DfID in Malawi is now independent. They support themselves, have solar-powered irrigation facilities, grow their own food, and market their produce; they are not only saving money, but also looking for small investment opportunities.

Agnes took me to her old house: a tiny one-room ruin, and then to her new house — not big, two rooms, but spacious. “Come and see. This is my new house, and I’m so proud. And now I’ve got some goats and some chickens, and can send my child to school.” We would still think she was poor, but it was her confidence in her accomplishments, and her self-belief that she could make this work that was exciting. That’s dignity. That’s what it’s about.

I was raised in a Catholic home; so God has always been a part of my life. My father used to lead us in prayer in the evenings, and we’d all go to church as a family, but perhaps it felt routine. My first in-depth engagement with what it means to be in a relationship with God fully emerged while I was at university doing my undergraduate degree. I’d visit my aunt in the holidays and go to her Seventh-Day Adventist church, reading and searching the scriptures for myself, and joining in their Bible studies, and preparing some of the discussions. I was baptised into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1989, and haven’t looked back.

My faith in God is what opens doors for me, sees me through, is what’s necessary for my life.

I enjoy sharing and listening to others, but preaching is daunting. People don’t come to church for the fun of it: they want to be spiritually fed. You have to pray that these are the right words, the right message. I’m not a qualified preacher; so, to overcome my anxiety, I gravitate to the stories I like, unless I’m given a particular text.

I was brought up first in Zambia. We went to school, and came home and played outdoors a lot. We had singing, dancing, and other games, and a very strong family circle.

We moved to Italy when I was in my teens, because my father was a diplomat. That international environment was much less carefree. I loved sport, and was a very good sprinter for many years. I played field hockey really well, and loved rounders. I did a Master’s degree at Warwick in international economic law.

When I’m not working now, I’m happiest just being at home. I was working with the UN in Germany last year; so this Christmas will be our first year back, living in a village in Surrey. It’s just the four of us. We’re just going to be at home, playing all the games — Scrabble, Monopoly — and watching the Christmas movies. At least, I am. The others will say: “Oh, Mum, not again!” I never get tired of them.

I love the sound of gospel music, and the sound of rain gently falling on to the roof when I am indoors.

I continue to see fountains of hope: individuals, communities, groups of people, churches, and other partners challenging the odds by just doing what needs to be done. It fills me with hope that sometimes overflows. In times of difficulty in the history of our world, hope has always emerged like a light on a hill. We are resilient.

I most often pray for understanding.

If I found myself locked in a church, and could choose anyone to be my companion, it would be Jesus.

Amanda Mukwashi was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.christianaid.org.uk

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