This series on corruption has focused a lot on issues that arise within or around the target area served. But I’d like to share an example about a problem that arose, causing us to walk away from a lucrative contract with a large donor.
In the 1990s, we were working in the Philippines, with a particular focus on areas most heavily impacted by poverty and an absence of the Gospel. The work was intense, but had yielded success in the arenas of agriculture, health care and community development strategies to gain access, help people, and get to church.
One region we were targeting in a remote mountainous area in the Autonomous Muslim Region of Mindanao (ARMM) was a significantly under-reached and underserved tribal population. To reach them, we had to go through the local Muslim-dominated government.
As we were praying and strategizing, a nice opportunity arose that seemed to fit in with our strategies and goals. Our organization was approached by the regional Muslim government and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to see if we would be interested in becoming a part of a comprehensive program aimed at expanding irrigation in the lowland areas. We were asked to design and implement a watershed management plan so the local government could acquire funds from ADB. This was an area we were already targeting and it seemed like a perfect match.
The project was not small. It would span three years, cost over $300,000 and the initial contract process involved multiple meetings and extensive travel. After weeks of hammering out details, I finally arrived at the ADB offices to sign the final contract. I was treated well, but when reviewing the final paperwork with the project overseer, a very nice Pakistani Muslim, he said, “Mr. Palmer, before you sign these documents, let me ask, what will the local government there (referring to the project area) be getting in return for you doing this project?’” I innocently replied, “They’ll be getting a well-done project, completed on time, with excellent results. And the people in the area will be getting sustainable farming systems.”
The project overseer smiled and said, “Mr. Palmer, you are a simple man. I appreciate that. What I mean is how much of this, say a percentage, will you be able to give back to the local government?”
I was silent a moment and thought about my team and supervisor back in Mindanao. But I said without wavering, “Dr. M______, our organization works on a principle of excellence. Also, we work, as followers of Jesus, on Biblical principles. I cannot and would not ever pay anyone anything for a favor. It’s against our beliefs and principles.”
I then handed the papers back to him, unsigned, and said, “Thank you for your time and your consideration of our organization for this project, but we would like to withdraw our names at this point.” I shook his hand with maybe both of us in a bit of disbelief and left his office.
I returned home the following day and broke the news to our team. I was so happy that every one of them (including my mentor and boss) affirmed my decision. And life went on even though I didn’t sign.
About a week later, two large government vehicles pulled up to our small training center. Various government heads, as well as the overseer stepped out. We greeted them and took them to our training center, where they shared that they would like us to run the project without any conditions. We agreed, signed the paperwork and embarked on what would become one of our most successful projects.
At the conclusion of the three-year project, I was able to attend the closing ceremony of the overall project. It was attended by about eight branches of government, several other local NGOs, one of our Filipino staff and myself. Dr. M_____, the project overseer was also there and offered the closing message.
He began by saying the project, sadly, did not meet its significant goals. He said that out of all the components (there were several), only one sector met his expectations and that was the one done by the Christian NGO (the one I worked with). He then told the others, most of whom were Muslim and government officials, that they should strive for excellence in their work. He then pointed to me (seated close to him) and said, “You all should be more like this organization, these followers of Christ, who do what they say they will do. They are people of integrity. They are Christians who truly follow their Holy Book and its teaching.”
I don’t share this story for an ego boost or pat on the back. Rather, I share it to demonstrate the power of integrity. Our team confronted a potentially unethical situation Biblically and not only delivered a successful project outcome; we exemplified to the others involved at every level the character of Christ.
Never doubt the scope of your influence or the power of your decisions. Community Development work is often characterized by accommodation, compromise with local tradition and custom and adaptability. However, when it comes to issues of corruption, integrity and morality, one must never compromise. Whatever inconveniences or setbacks you appear to encounter when you must walk away from a project is immensely overshadowed by the faithfulness of God in the final outcome. Sometimes, you simply have to walk away. But every single one of those times, you should be walking away with Christ, trusting in His goodness to bless your faithfulness and to provide for the communities in need.
God’s word does not return void. Neither does God’s work…Even in the most difficult of circumstances and decisions, His grace extends to those who trust Him. Relief and development, much like the rest of life, must begin and end with the righteousness of the God we claim serve.