Courageous resolutions enabled Finn Church Aid to assist in the world’s most vulnerable areas

Last year, 63,000 children got to go to school in the Central African Republic thanks to the work of FCA. Photo: Tatu Blomqvist / Finn Church Aid.

Ten years ago, Finn Church Aid made a turnaround that allowed us to help more people than before. In honour of our 70th anniversary, we look back on key decisions.

Finn Church Aid (FCA) is the biggest development cooperation organisation and the second biggest provider of humanitarian assistance in Finland. Over the past ten years, its activities have expanded enormously. This is thanks to decisions made ten years ago, when then-Executive Director Antti Pentikäinen took charge.

FCA had long been engaged in development cooperation, mainly by funding projects carried out by partner organisations. However, Pentikäinen considered it important that FCA take responsibility for the results of its work. FCA sent its first aid workers out into the world and soon started to found its first field offices in Africa, out of which it started to carry out its projects.

The work was concentrated on three main themes: education, subsistence, and peace. The FCA workers already had a lot of expertise on education and subsistence. The work on peace was a new theme brought in by Pentikäinen, former advisor of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari.

In peace work, FCA specialised on working with religious and traditional parties. The first target was Somalia, where efforts soon proved fruitful.

”Somalia then was like Syria today. Nobody wanted to go there, and the work was very dangerous. However, we have been able to help Somalia in many crucial turns,” says Pentikäinen.

”The key thing when doing peace work is not to give up and to learn from one’s mistakes.”

Work where others do not go

Another key decision has been to boldly go where others do not want to or cannot go. At the moment, FCA works in the three most fragile countries in the world: South Sudan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. In closed-off Eritrea, FCA is one of few non-governmental organisations.

”For a small organisation, it doesn’t make sense to go to places with lots of operating parties. In the most fragile countries we get the biggest value for our work,” says interim Executive Director of FCA Jouni Hemberg.

Over the years, countries of operation have changed. State cuts in funding for development cooperation forced FCA to discontinue its work in South American countries. Nowadays, FCA operates in 15 countries, with many of its employees working in the countries of operation. FCA also cooperates closely with local organisations and authorities. The majority of FCA employees are local.

”Their local knowledge is valuable to us. At the same time, our projects are better rooted into local communities and some of the know-how stays there,” says Head of Humanitarian Assistance Eija Alajarva.

Swift help in catastrophes

After the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, more than 44,000 children got to study in schools and temporary classrooms built by FCA. Photo: Johanna Erjonsalo.

Alongside long-term development cooperation, FCA has become a swift provider of humanitarian assistance in catastrophes and conflicts. A turning point was the powerful earthquake in January 2010 that caused over half of the houses in poor Haiti to collapse. More than 220,000 people died.

During earlier natural disasters, FCA had supported aid work by funding organisations operating in the area or other members of the ACT Alliance of church aid organisations. However, the destruction in Haiti was massive, and there was a shortage of education personnel.

FCA took action. First, students were provided with temporary school tents, then temporary classrooms, and finally permanent schoolhouses. However, it was clear from the beginning that more than walls was needed, says FCA education expert Minna Peltola.

”We also wanted to improve the quality of education,” she says.

After the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, one lorry was used to transport material for building a school, teaching material, and a Finnish teacher who told local colleagues of dealing with the difficult experiences caused by the catastrophe. Schools and people were mended at the same time.

The results reached in education are impressive. After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, FCA rebuilt 300 schools, more than any other organisation. In 2016, a total of over 132,500 children received high-quality education thanks to the work of FCA.

According to Peltola, it is important to invest in the quality of education in the future as well.

”A particular challenge is posed by fragile regions. For example, in South Sudan there is both a violent conflict and a food crisis underway. Young people are very vulnerable, and emotional support must be incorporated into all education.”

The aim now is to reinforce the connection between education and subsistence. There are more refugees in the world than ever after World War II. It is important for the people on the move not to drop out of school and for official degree diplomas to be handed out for their studies, helping them to secure a job and a new life.

FCA has organised degree programmes in Ugandan refugee settlements, with most of the first classes securing employment well. In Cambodia, FCA cooperated with the local Ministry of Education to develop the first student guidance system in the country and educated the first student counsellors.

An internationally respected aid organisation

70 years of aid delivered

Finn Church Aid was founded 70 years ago to channel aid from churches in the United States, Germany, and Sweden to war-battered Finland. After the years of rebuilding, both Finland and the Lutheran church in Finland slowly grew from recipients to providers of aid.

In the 1960s, the wars in Vietnam and Biafra increased the solidarity of Western youth in particular toward the so-called third world, and even in Finland, support grew for the work of FCA. In the late 1960s, the FCA budget grew thanks to the Common Responsibility Campaign fund drive.

As the Finnish church has traditionally been close to many African countries, development cooperation concentrated on these countries in its early years. In the 1970s, FCA e.g. aided the studies of Namibian students in Finland with a scholarship programme.

A new stage in aid work began in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union loosened its legislation on religion, and churches in the Baltic countries and in Ingria were allowed to commence the formerly forbidden youth and Sunday school work and diaconal work. The region became the focus of FCA’s aid work, educating parish employees, repairing churches, and building church halls.

Finn Church Aid became an independent foundation in 1995. Over the past ten years, the Finn Church Aid personnel has grown from about 40 to nearly 400, and FCA has become the biggest development cooperation organisation and the second biggest provider of humanitarian assistance in Finland.

Thanks to brave decisions, the work of FCA has garnered a lot of respect internationally. More and more international sponsors have faith in the quality of FCA’s work.

In 2013, the UN asked FCA to found the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, and in 2017, FCA was invited to the steering group of international education expert network INEE. In INEE, FCA develops education in emergencies in cooperation with Unicef, Unesco, and other giants of the branch.

”I think not everybody understands yet how much trust the UN, for example, places in FCA’s know-how on negotiating with tribes and religious groups,” says Antti Pentikäinen, currently on leave of absence from his work as Executive Director of FCA, and leader of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers in New York.

”A small Finnish organisation has been invited to renew the practices of the entire UN.”

In recent years, FCA has worked to find innovative new ways to help people. In Greece, for example, thousands of refugees live not in camps but in metropols like Athens.

To reach young refugees, coding workshops were devised, in which young refugees learn the basics of coding and image editing together with young Greeks. At the same time, they get to know each other and become friends, and the gap between cultures is bridged.

In the future, conflicts become more and more diverse and challenging. Climate change will increase extreme weather phenomena, which in turn increase the risk of natural disasters in many countries. Because of the changes, a record number of people have already been forced to leave their homes.

”I’m proud of the church and the Finnish people having an aid organisation that takes responsibility for the real problems of the present moment,” says Pentikäinen.

Text: Noora Jussila