Development Work

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The roots of development work by Mennonites are located in the willingness to help those in need. Such assistance, in the form of relief work, was first extended across international boundaries as a part of missionary programs. Examples of organized international relief work are evident as early as 1897, when the Home and Foreign Relief Commission was established to provide assistance to the victims of a severe famine in India. It led eventually to mission work by Mennonites (MC, GCM) in India (1899, 1901).

A significant advance in relief work was the move to coordinate the relief efforts of the various Mennonite conferences. This occurred in the United States among those groups who sought to respond to the need for assistance for Mennonites in Russia after the 1917 Russian Revolution. This act of coordination led to the creation of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1920.

Mennonite refugees after World War II on "The Great Trek", MAO photoMennonite refugees afterWorld War II on "TheGreat Trek", MAO photo

In addition to assisting Mennonites in the Soviet Union, MCC was involved with the emigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union, including assistance to those who settled in Paraguay before and after World War II. The Dutch Mennonites provided similar assistance to the Mennonites who left the Soviet Union in 1929 and settled in Brazil. Subsequent to World War II, MCC became the primary institution for relief and development work by the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in the United States and Canada.

Alternative Service Work Camp, WW II, MAO photoAlternative Service Work Camp, WW II,MAO photo

During and after World War II, these churches continued their relief work and their involvement with refugees. At the same time, several new themes began to appear alongside these two forms of service. An important theme that informed the work of MCC was the World War II experience of conscientious objectors who were organized into Civilian Public Service units (U.S.) and Alternative Service Work Camps (Canada). As a continuation of that idea, in part motivated by the military draft in the United States, a program called Pax (peace) was set up for young American men to serve abroad with specialized skills. Early programs included housing reconstruction in Europe and agricultural rehabilitation in Greece. Subsequently, the program expanded to include road construction, and development, and vocational training projects in a number of low-income countries in Latin America and Africa.

The Ten Thousand Villages program (called SELFHELP Crafts until September 1996) within MCC also has its roots in the period immediately after World War II. The program provided a market in North America for the handcrafted products, initially for women's needlework. From these simple beginnings, Ten Thousand Villages has grown into a significant international marketing venture, creating handicrafts employment projects for both men and women in more than 20 low-income countries.

A variety of forces, both local and global, shaped a general public interest in development work in the period after World Way II. At the global level there were several significant forces: (1) the emergence of a "Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union; (2) the success of the Marshall Plan in the reconstruction of Europe; (3) a move in the 1970s by several Western countries to direct part of official overseas development assistance through non-governmental organizations; and (4) the gradual realization of political independence by most of the low-income countries.

A primary force promoting general public interest in development work was the Cold War. This competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for international influence and control focused on the loyalties of the nations that began to emerge as colonialism was dismantled. Development assistance was intended as an important means to capture the minds and the hearts of the newly emerging nations in Asia and Africa, as well as the existing countries in Latin America. This interest in development work, emerging within the general public, affected North American churches as well.

One of the first concrete influences on Mennonite churches of the development forces evident after World War II was the initiative by Mennonites involved in business enterprises to create Mennonite Economic Development Associates [MEDA] in 1954. This initiative drew on the general public acceptance of the Marshall Plan, which transferred capital from the United States for the reconstruction of Europe, as a model for development work. The members of MEDA identified a lack of capital and limited access to modern technology as the primary obstacles in the way of development. Given the poverty in low-income countries, it was assumed there would not be enough savings available to fund the necessary investment. Hence loans were made by MEDA to organizations and individuals in low-income countries as a means to overcome this perceived shortage of savings.

The first programs were in Latin America, located in some of the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay. For example, a dairy was improved and a leather tanning factory was established. Subsequently, the program expanded to several African countries and to the Caribbean area.

The initiation of the Peace Corps by the United States government presented a new challenge: the international transfer of human skills. in 1961 Mennonites and Brethren in Christ concluded they could not support involvement in the Peace Corps. After an exploratory mission to Africa by Robert Kreider, it was decided in 1962 to establish a program within MCC to send teachers to Africa. The program was known as the Teachers Abroad Program (TAP).

The TAP focus on education was seen as a response to the importance the newly emerging African countries were placing on education. Teachers from developed countries, primarily from the United States and Canada, were placed in secondary schools and teacher training institutions in a number of African countries. In 1974 a shift began away from the formal school systems and toward providing assistance to nonformal education programs in low-income countries.

An independent, but similar, initiative is being carried out by Mennonite and Brethren in Christ medical personnel. Opportunities are created for medical students to receive part of their training in health institutions in low-income countries. In this way medical assistance is provided overseas and the experience of the medical personnel in such service opportunities is allowed to feed back to the churches in North America.

The emphasis in MCC programs has been changing gradually, away from relief to more explicit development work. The development theme has been evident, in some form, throughout MCC's history. For example, as early as 1921, the relief work among Mennonites in the Soviet Union included development work. An agreement with the Russian Socialist Federative Republic called for the transfer of tools and equipment for agricultural reconstruction in that area of the Soviet Union to prevent famines from occurring there in the future. Similarly, the Pax, SELFHELP Crafts, and TAP programs included development components. Gradually, development work was being grafted onto existing relief, education, and health programs.

The shift toward development work by many of the relief agencies in North America and Europe was accelerated with a decision in the early 1970s, by the governments of several developed countries, to enlist the involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the delivery of development assistance. Switzerland, Canada, the United States, The Netherlands, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries have contributed overseas development assistance to NGOs. This new initiative by governments sought to establish a bridge between the peoples of the more developed countries and the peoples of low-income countries. The purpose of the bridge was to enable the two-way transfer of understanding and knowledge between the two sets of countries.

By the mid-1980s, the priorities of the MCC-related churches had shifted to development work. Financed in part by matching grants from Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), plus other grants from several provincial governments, MCC has become primarily a development agency. A number of the mission boards of the various Mennonite churches in Canada are also drawing Assistance from CIDA to fund some development work alongside of their missionary programs.

The availability of government funds has also revitalized the development work of MEDA. Drawing on funds from both CIDA and the United States Agency for International Development, relatively large development projects have been initiated, primarily in several Caribbean and Latin American countries. MEDA is also involved in administering development projects for CIDA and is providing consulting services for development agencies such as CIDA.

For MCC the transition from relief to a greater emphasis on development work was formalized at the 1974 annual meeting in Hillsboro. The "Hillsboro Statement" expressed a concern about the deteriorating food situation in the world, and then identified family planning assistance and agricultural development assistance in combination with continued food donations, as the preferred solution. A contentment was made to strengthen both rural development and family planning programs, especially in those countries where churches related to Mennonite and Brethren in Christ mission efforts are located. This commitment included a resolve to make greater efforts to mobilize personnel, finances, and technical assistance to accomplish these development objectives. In 1984, this Hillsboro resolution was evaluated and reaffirmed. The role of war and North American agricultural policies were mentioned briefly as contributing causes to the ongoing food crisis in parts of the world, especially in Africa.

The increased emphasis on development work within MCC has been facilitated in part by MCC initiative to create a Canada-wide Food Bank. This institution has now evolved into a major relief organization, incorporating six denominations, in addition to MCC. It serves as a primary means of channeling grain directly from Canadian farmers, and Canadian government food aid to areas with pressing food needs. Such a food bank is able to respond quickly to food emergencies as they arise.

The shift from relief to development work within MCC was reversed, at least temporarily, with the major media focus in 1984 and 1985 on food shortages in several parts of Africa, especially Ethiopia. The response, in the form of donations and constituency interest, caused relief assistance once more to become a major MCC budget item. In addition, the Canada-wide Food Bank was moving large quantities of grain to these places in need. The result of this resurgence of relief assistance caused MCC to formulate an explicit food assistance policy.

The new food assistance policy, adopted in 1987, recognizes that North American and European food assistance can cause economic harm as well as provide a temporary means of feeding people. The new policy defines the conditions under which North American food assistance is appropriate. In addition, greater attempts will be made to monetize the donated food within the region to which the food aid is provided, and to use the money obtained in this manner to purchase local food and to promote increased local production of food. Finally, North American food is recognized as one of several resources-along with personnel, finances, and technology -- that are available to MCC to facilitate and fund development work.

The emerging emphasis on development work by the various NGOs, as outlined above, has generated significant effects: on the donors, on those people who were sent overseas, and on the recipients in a number of low-income countries. There have also been shortcomings. NGOs do not spend much time defining what constitutes development work. They view whatever they are doing as development work. In most cases the NGOs are successful at what they are doing, so they see themselves as successful development agencies. This self-assessment does not always stand up when evaluated against an explicit, independent definition of development work. Second, the churches involved have formulated a theology of service, as a basis for both relief and development work, but this theology does not encompass the need for change nor the means to promote needed change. Development requires change: in political, economic, and social institutions; in ways of life, beliefs, and attitudes. Without a theological basis for an understanding of changes required, development work has not been able to realize its full potential. Third, the development assistance provided has been primarily a one-way process, from North American and European donors to low-income country recipients. The intent of donor governments, to channel some development assistance through NGOs as a means to creating a bridge for the two-way transfer of understanding and knowledge between societies, thereby narrowing the distinction between donor and recipient, has not been realized. Again, there is some evidence that the design and delivery of MCC programs were shaped directly by the needs and priorities of the recipients (for example, TAP was based on the priority placed by African governments on education), but most of the development work initiatives were formulated primarily by the donors.

The place of the recipients in the development process is changing. In large part this is caused by the fourth force that shaped general public interest in development: the struggle by many societies for independence from their respective colonial masters. Their immediate concern has been liberation. The peoples involved have a deep longing for freedom, for the ability to shape and control their own political, economic and social destinies. They saw their own poverty as the product of their colonial status. It was assumed that with independence they would be able to share as equals in the prosperity evident in the more developed countries.

Political independence has not fulfilled the dreams of the peoples in the newly emerging nations. Most of these nations remain mere providers of raw materials and importers of manufactured goods. The trade and aid relationships between the more developed countries and the low-income countries have generated significant economic benefits, but more than half of these benefits consistently flow to the more developed countries. As a result, international trade and foreign assistance are now recognized by the peoples of low-income countries as one of the means that increase the economic gap between the rich and the poor nations. Given this ongoing economic dependence on the more developed countries, the people in low-income countries still define development as liberation.

The deep longing for liberation among the recipients of development assistance is having an increasing impact on the nature of development work by Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. Numerous agencies have been created within the low-income countries either to receive some of the development assistance or to work with North American and European NGOs as partners in the design, implementation, and evaluation of development work. The place of women in the development process is gradually being recognized and the women are increasing their direct involvement. Low-income country governments are setting conditions that must be met before NGOs are free to provide assistance. Within the donor countries, there is an increased emphasis on education and on some recognition of the role of the more developed countries as contributors to the ongoing poverty and the lack of freedom in many parts of the world.

The increased involvement of the peoples in the low-income countries in the development process is a hopeful sign. As an effective two-way bridge is constructed between Mennonites and the peoples in a number of low-income countries, development work will mature. Development assistance will still flow and development workers will still be sent, but North Americans and Europeans will cease to be mere donors. Some members of the churches will be commissioned to go forth as development workers, they will be received as co-workers by the peoples in the host countries, and then they will be returned to their home churches by the peoples in the host countries. Together North Americans and Europeans will learn to receive as well as to give.

A partial listing of Mennonite and Mennonite-related development agencies follows: Associação Menonita de Asistâancia Social (AMAS, Brazil); Mennonite Colombian Foundation for Development (MENCOLDES); International Mennonite Organization (IMO), Europe); The Economic Life and Relief Council (TELARC, India); Mennonite Agriculture, Development, and Relief Association, India (MADRA); Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India; Rural Economic Development and Community Health Association (REACH) India; Yayasan Kerjasama Ekonomi Muria (YAKEM, Indonesia, Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa); Mennonite Economic Development Trust of Kenya (1978); Ogwedhi Sigawa Rural Development Center (Kenya); Stichting voor Bijzondere Noden (The Netherlands); Samenwerkingsverband van "de Vier Instellingen" in de Doopsgezinde Broederschap (The Netherlands); Mennonite Central Committee (North America); Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA, North America); Asociación de Servicios de Cooperación Indigena-Menonita (Paraguay); Service for the Development of Agriculture (SEDA, Zaire).


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Additional Information

Canadian Foodgrains Bank

Canadian International Development Agency

Mennonite Central Committee

Mennonite Economic Development Associates

Ten Thousand Villages

Author(s) Henry Rempel
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Rempel, Henry. "Development Work." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 25 Jul 2024.

APA style

Rempel, Henry. (1989). Development Work. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 228-231. All rights reserved.

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