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Development institute founder describes work

Ashley Charnley | Friday, October 5, 2007

The problem of poverty is “immense,” Father Bill Christensen, who founded the Institute of Integrated Rural Development (IIRD), said at Saint Mary’s Wednesday.

Strengthening and aiding the people of Bangladesh was the topic of Christensen’s lecture Wednesday evening, titled “Working for Change: Empowering the Poor of Bangladesh.”

Christensen, who is also the consultant to and treasurer of the Institute, has been working in Bangladesh since 1986. On a global scale, 18,000 children and 12,000 adults die every day as a result of poverty and malnutrition.

“I knew as an individual, I could not do much,” Christensen said, “so I was most interested to start an organization that would be committed to the poor.”

The IIRD works in 1,250 villages with 75,000 families.

“We help the poorest families to get housing,” he said. “The simplest housing for them costs $60 per family.”

The Institute has 300 young Bangladesh volunteers between the ages of 15 and 18 who work directly with the families.

“They have all the connection with the poor people,” Christensen said. One hundred professionals, who are experts in agriculture, finance, engineering and many other fields, help organize and run the Institute.

The services provided to each family are dependent on their income and the number of meals the working members can provide per day. The IIRD has set up a model.

“We have the bottom poor, called one-meal-a-day families,” Christensen said. “The next level is two meals a day. The next level is three meals for nine months and two meals during the difficult season. Then the fourth level of poor are the less poor who have three meals a day but who are on the borderline.”

The number of meals in the model refers to the number the family can provide for itself. Other organizations that use this model include the United Nations World Food Program and government directors from Bangladesh.

The IIRD also provides one-room schools that hold 30 children.

“The children are from the poorest families,” Christensen said. “In order to make them enjoy school, we do poetry exercises. We teach them Bangla, our language, and mathematics in the first year. We then add English and environmental science.”

The schools taught more than 13,000 children in 2005. However, that number is down to 4,000 students this year because of recent donor shifts.

Parents provide the bamboo and grasses necessary to build the schoolroom as part of their monetary contribution. The IIRD then pays for the labor to build the school, which comes to $7 for the whole project.

“The biggest industry presently is the silk industry,” Christensen said. The IIRD also provides jobs for the woman in Bangladesh. The men and women make equal amounts and this allows some families to increase their income by almost 150 percent. The jobs consist of embroidery and tailoring.

The Institute’s newest project is the creation of a worker-owned factory.

“[IIRD] has linked with a group of professionals in Bangladesh, and we call ourselves the Institute of Economics and Social Justice,” Christensen said. “This group has taken up what they consider the main economic problem in Bangladesh, which is the garment industry.”