I Saw Poverty for the First Time in the Desert
By Dr. Jean Baptiste Kamate, Chief Field Operations Officer for World Vision International and Board Member for VisionFund International
Our work in fragile contexts is not easy. It carries enormous risks, which I personally faced early in my career. When I worked for World Vision in northern Mali, an area that has seen conflict for more than 100 years, World Vision was the only international non-governmental organization working in that part of the country.
Rebels lived on all sides of me out there in the desert. They knew where I slept, in a small mud hut out in the open. They knew where I drew my water, from an open source well that people and animals shared. We traveled by camel—not exactly the best transport for a quick escape! In more than three years working there, every family I saw had someone with guns, and many people were ready to steal or kill.
At one point, I was left alone among the rebels. The few foreign staff we had were either evacuated or had left due to traumatizing experiences. I relied on God, more than I ever have in my life. When God gives you security, the gun doesn’t take it away.
While countries can easily descend into fragility, they don’t always easily climb back out. In such places, people need three things: food, health, and education. Families struggle to access these essentials without an income. This is where VisionFund International provides a lifeline.
VisionFund is World Vision’s microfinance subsidiary. By offering financial solutions it empowers families, building income and creating resilience. That provides more reliable access to food, health care, and education. It is a “sustainability mechanism” to reduce people’s dependence on aid, which enables them to retain their dignity.
In fragile contexts, World Vision and VisionFund help people to set up savings groups. This enables communities to prepare for the next crisis, which is always around the corner in fragile contexts. For example, our clients in Myanmar were better able to mitigate the impact of the current crisis because they had savings to rely on. Ultimately, children benefit from increased household economic resilience.
The partnership between World Vision and VisionFund is a vital part of our work in tackling the root causes of poverty. Our ministry thrives as both work together. VisionFund is a key part of World Vision’s strategy to empower households to build economic resilience.
When I reflect on my time in Mali, as a young man working in an incredibly fraught situation, I know that God was with me because he had not sent me there to die. This is where I saw true poverty for the first time. It broke my heart and launched me forward on a mission to do something to help. After 27 years at World Vision, I still have that same vision.
VisionFund’s report, “Reflections: VisionFund Mali lessons learned, managing in a fragile, conflict context,” offers powerful testimonies of VisionFund staff and clients who were impacted by the unprecedented crisis in central Mali that began in 2018. Read the report to find out how VisionFund Mali took mitigation measures to support its clients and was the last organization to leave when staff security was at risk.