When Cameron Kennedy began writing about the unique humanitarian work done by A Better World — which gives 100 per cent of all donations to global causes — he had no idea he’d be marking a crossroads for the Lacombe charity.
Kennedy’s book, Journey of Hope, Celebrating 25 Years of A Better World Canada, reveals that Eric Rajah, the group’s founder, executive director and passionate promoter, had hoped to step down as of April 30 to take on a different philanthropic role in the organization. This leaves the non-profit’s steering committee with a big, and rather atypical, hole to fill.
Rajah is not only charismatic, influential and committed to humanitarian projects in Kenya and Afghanistan, he devotes hundreds of thousands of hours to the charity strictly as a volunteer. As the owner of a thriving IT business, Rajah is financially secure enough not to take a salary from A Better World, which does not pay for administrative expenses.
Kennedy’s book also poses a larger question than who will take over from Rajah.
A Better World was started in 1989 under the auspices of the College Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church in Lacombe. Although its mission was always to help others without ethnic, religious or political biases, there’s now a move afoot to make the charity a private not-for-profit development agency.
As Rajah states in the book: “My argument to the committee has been, ‘Look, we cannot have six people, all of us members of the College Heights Adventist Church, representing the majority of donors and constituents who are not.’ At some point in time that has to be reconciled.”
But the question remains: would A Better World’s existence be threatened if its relationship with the church was to change?
In Journey of Hope, Kennedy states the prospect of continuing without Rajah was unthinkable five years ago, but volunteers are now “cautiously optimistic” that, with a steering committee and succession plan in place, A Better World will not only survive, but thrive.
“Regardless of what happens, A Better World will still be around,” he predicted. “Whether it will be the same organization, we don’t know. …”
Kennedy, who is news editor at the Red Deer Advocate, was inspired by the charity’s unusual approach to providing humanitarian assistance during three trips he took with A Better World between 2007 and 2012 — two to Afghanistan and one to Kenya.
Having worked for English-language newspapers in Bangladesh and Vietnam, Kennedy had become cynical after observing ineffective international charitable efforts, in which a huge portion of donated funds were either siphoned off by corrupt officials or spent to cover excessive administrative costs.
Kenya has examples of empty medical clinics and schools that were built by other Western non-profit groups, and later abandoned because the projects did not get enough local buy-in from their communities.
Journey of Hope details how A Better World operates differently than most other development agencies by demanding that locals take ownership of new projects and bring something to the table — usually volunteer labour.
The Lacombe charity operates primarily through support from volunteers (Kennedy said its bookkeeper and part-time operations manager are paid by sponsors who specifically stepped up to provide these salaries).
The group partners with charitable schools and orphanages with established track records in Afghanistan and Kenya to help expand on their successes.
Money is raised for new water wells, classrooms and health clinics. A Better World also regularly mobilizes volunteer North American medical practitioners to offer free travelling health clinics in the developing world.
Kennedy’s book details these projects and focuses on key volunteers who have helped to make them successful. But he doesn’t sidestep controversy, such as an episode in Kenya in which a school administrator was found to have embezzled money meant for construction and upkeep projects.
Local people are introduced who have benefitted from the charity, such as Janet Auma, who essentially became A Better World’s poster child in Africa.
Auma was horribly disfigured and disabled in a house fire. With financial support from A Better World, she underwent nine surgeries and six skin grafts. Although she lost one hand after the fire, she regained sight in her right eye, and had scar tissue removed that once fused her head to her shoulder. She now works as an apprentice to a seamstress in Nakuru.
Auma told Kennedy “There is nothing which I cannot do” — a strong statement from a disabled citizen of a country that often hides people with mental or physical abnormalities.
Kennedy wanted to write about A Better World because he was impressed with Rajah, and the unique model for international assistance presented by his charity. “It’s the fact that 100 per cent of donations go to projects,” he said, that piqued his interest.
Interviews for the book, which is Kennedy’s first, were done during 2011 and during his 2013 trip to Kenya. Other information came from articles he wrote for the Advocate after his earlier Afghanistan trips.
The text was compiled over the last two years in Central Alberta. (Kennedy wryly noted it was a long process since he and his wife have full-time jobs and are also raising two young sons.)
He aimed to paint a picture of A Better World’s past, present and future. Even in 2011, Kennedy recalled discussions about whether the charity had reached its limit or whether it could broaden its scope, “get bigger and try to do more. … That discussion is still ongoing,” added the author, who believes A Better World is now at an important junction.
“Replacing Eric is not going to be easy. …”
Proceeds from Journey of Hope will, at Kennedy’s request, fund the Tulwap Early Childhood Development Centre near Kericho, Kenya. Two classrooms, office and storage space will be built to serve more than 90 students, aged three to six.
In 2013, he saw children about as old as his own sons, studying outdoors. “It’s not conducive to learning,” said Kennedy. “When it rains, they have to go into something that looks like a shipping container, made out of corrugated tin. They had no books or computers, or any of the other things my kids have.”
At his children’s Red Deer elementary school, student art decorates corridor walls.
“These kids don’t even have four walls. I’d like all the money (from the book) to go to that.”
Journey of Hope, Celebrating 25 Years of A Better World Canada will be officially released at the charity’s 25th anniversary celebration on April 25. An $80 full-colour, 200-page coffee-table book can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org or from A Better World, at 403-782-0325. A $30 ebook version is also available from print-on-demand publisher Blurb.com from April 25.