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Baltimore's Lutheran World Relief merging with global health group, broadening reach in impoverished nations

Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief is merging with a global health organization to broaden its reach in the impoverished nations it serves from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Daniel V. Speckhard, a former U.S. ambassador who’s led Lutheran World Relief since 2014 and will lead the partnership, said together the organizations can help build and grow poor, rural communities by teaching the people in them how to feed and support their families — and how to become healthier.

The merger between Lutheran World Relief and Washington-based IMA World Health is effective this month, forming a $140 million operation with 550 employees. The headquarters will remain in Baltimore at 700 Light Street, but some operations will continue in D.C.

The combined mission, to stabilize people in their native countries, comes at a time when nearly 70 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to violence, persecution and human rights violations, and the matter of immigration has become politically explosive in the United States and Europe.

Setting politics aside, Speckhard suggested that the organization’s work could help stem the tide of immigration.

“We need to be doing the work in these countries that solves the problem of extreme poverty and violence and health challenges, and that will help reduce the number of people who want to move to the U.S.,” Speckhard said. “It is critical to our own interests beyond the moral obligation and humanitarianism. Health challenges know no boundaries. Dangerous viruses can very easily travel across borders.

“The problems that can emanate from poor areas can affect all of us.”

Lutheran World Relief was created in 1945 to help refugees in Europe after World War II. It grew into a roughly $50 million organization with about 300 employees that works in 19 countries, focusing on disaster relief and sustainable development.

IMA was established in New Windsor in 1960 as Interchurch Medical Assistance by an ecumenical group, of which Lutheran World Relief was a founding member, said Rick Santos, who has run IMA for about a decade. He is serving as a senior adviser during the merger. IMA runs health programs in six countries with about $90 million.

The new organization will be called Lutheran World Relief-IMA World Health to maintain identity among the people served and donors. The organizations will remain separate legal entities until the merger is approved by regulatory authorities. The staffs, which will be combined, are meeting weekly to work through the logistics.

Joining forces will allow the combined organization to serve communities more holistically and better compete for program dollars, said Tanvi Nagpal, director of the international development program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. By working together, they will also reduce the burden on the communities they’re serving and their governments by giving them fewer outsiders and bureaucracies to deal with, she said.

“They are both bringing, not just their expertise, but their values to the same community — and are also reducing the cost of the host community,” Nagpal said. “They improve their impact on the ground and the community benefits by not having to deal with two separate entities. To the extent this allows these organizations to reach more people, it’s a good thing.

“There is such a vast need for humanitarian assistance in the world right now.”

IMA set out to find a partner more than two years ago, and Lutheran World Relief shared a similar approach in the global communities in which they serve, Santos said. He said both organizations are faith-based and work to build the capacity of local partners, rather than create parallel systems.

The organizations have worked together frequently over the past half-century, he said. For example, IMA has directed more than $75 million in medications and medical supplies to Lutheran World Relief for its outreach.

The new partnership opens up more possibilities, Santos said.

“We can begin to look at things a little more holistically and address the whole person with our technical expertise in health and their’s in building agricultural livelihoods,” he said. “If you look at working with people to lift them out of poverty, it takes a multi-sector approach.”

Speckhard said the value of a merger came into clear focus for him when he was visiting Niger in West Africa, where Lutheran World Relief has worked for decades. As part of the outreach, the organization had helped a community in a remote area create a livelihood for its people involving sheep. But just as the families there were getting a foothold, someone got sick and the family ended up spending all of its pooled money on transportation to get the sick person to a faraway health clinic, not even having enough to pay for the health care itself.

“When you travel overseas and visit these impoverished communities and the families who are really struggling in their lives, you find it’s not really a fair choice to say would you rather have food security or would you rather have health,” said Speckhard, who will continue to earn about $318,000 a year after the merger. “The reality is, these things are intertwined.

“By coming together we’re going to be able to look more holistically at the needs of the people in the communities in a way that ensures a more sustainable and lasting result.”

Going forward, Speckhard said he wants the organization to incorporate nutrition and health education into existing programs that teach rural farmers how to earn a living. Together, the organizations could teach farmers how to grow a mix of crops to sell and feed their families, the benefits of a broad diet and the importance of keeping some of the most nutritious vegetables for the children in the family.

Likewise, Speckhard said, he will visit Congo in the coming weeks, home to IMA’s largest program. While continuing to address Ebola outbreaks and offer health clinics, the organization can begin to introduce systems to create livelihoods for rural farmers, strengthening farm cooperatives and sharing new techniques for growing and harvesting crops.

Other upcoming projects include improving water and sanitation to help thwart cholera in Haiti and offering pediatric and cervical cancer treatment in Tanzania

Patricia McIlreavy, a vice president at InterAction, an alliance of nongovernmental organizations, said more and more organizations are joining together to amplify their reach through mergers and partnerships.

Doing so can save administrative costs by reducing duplication, provide an edge in competing for government and grant dollars by being able to respond to a wider variety of need and appeal to donors by communicating a holistic response to humanitarian crisis, she said.

But the greatest benefit, she said, can be to the communities served. Rather than offering a singular solution to a community, having a variety of interventions through a partnership allows organizations to respond to the most pressing needs, McIlreavy said.

“It’s about looking at the whole of an individual and what it is that they need and being prepared to be responsive to that,” McIlreavy said. “How do we do better in our overall goal to eradicate poverty and help populations rise up? How do we better support to them?”

ywenger@baltsun.com

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