Beyond the Surge

Who continues to serve communities when the cameras are gone?

Bill Knott
Beyond the Surge

A conversation between Adventist Review editor Bill Knott and Michael Kruger, CEO of ADRA International. 

KNOTT: When I was 12, I stood on icy doorsteps in Massachusetts and asked strangers to give “Christmas dollars for the poor and unfortunate.” I knew that some portion of the money I solicited was going for disaster and famine relief. My church was doing something to help people hit by emergencies in food, weather, or war—and that felt good to an Adventist kid who still went out Ingathering. Tell me, Michael, what is both right—and wrong—about that image of the work of ADRA in 2022? 

KRUGER: That’s a beautiful and accurate picture of one portion of what ADRA does today, Bill—but it’s only a portion of our effort, probably less than 20 percent. When there’s a massive crisis of a flood, earthquake, or war in a locality, yes—we provide shelter; we work hard to meet the immediate needs of people facing that situation. They need access to food and clean, potable water. For almost four decades, ADRA has been on the ground holding out that cup of cold water, that warm blanket, that arm around the shoulder. 

But the truth is, those communities need to rebuild. Their homes don’t magically reappear in a week or a month. At least 80 percent of what ADRA does globally today is helping communities reestablish themselves, rebuilding infrastructures such as sewer and water supplies and electric service—so people can rebuild their homes and lives. 

And I’m guessing those aren’t fascinating stories to tell. 

Truthfully, it’s hard to get a major donor to make an empathetic gift to rebuild a sewer system or replace a town’s water system, but those things have to happen if the community is going to go forward. Sustainable development—long-term engagement with broken communities and broken people—is far and away the most significant work we do today. 

Most people who follow the news and see urgent appeals for compassionate giving to disaster victims are aware that many other organizations besides ADRA are trying to help in both these big moments of need and in the longer-term development of damaged communities. Where does ADRA fit among the other aid organizations? 

It’s an excellent question, Bill. If you look at the broader landscape of NGOs (non-governmental organizations; an acronym covering most charitable and aid organizations) worldwide, they’ve all been going through a significant transition during the past three to five years. 

We’ve seen significant players merging. A sense of “bigger is better” is taking hold in the sector. We’re watching mergers—organizations being absorbed into others so that the total number of aid organizations is significantly smaller than it was even ten years ago. They’re all asking the same question that ADRA is: How do we create a better and more significant impact? 

If you look at ADRA specifically, it’s undoubtedly one of the more prominent NGOs around the globe today. ADRA has one of the largest footprints in operations—permanent operations—in 120 countries worldwide. This is a significant difference between ADRA and what some might call our “competitors” in the field. They use a model of what is termed “surge capacity”: they move their workers in for a period of time (three months, six months) to work on specific, short-term needs— food, blankets, temporary housing structures, tent cities—and then pull out of the country. ADRA has permanent establishments in 120 countries— more than half of the nations recognized by the United Nations. Very often ADRA is an implementing partner for some other players within the NGO community. This means we implemented the actual work of the projects the organizations are funding because we have a long-term presence within the countries to which they give important but temporary aid. 

You’re saying that other aid organizations may be able to surge toward a disaster site to help in a given moment of crisis, but ADRA would be the entity they would turn to continue delivering care, material, or services? 

That’s right. Because we’re there for the long haul. We build relationships with the community, with key actors, including, most obviously, government officials. We have gained their trust and their support. If I had to differentiate ADRA from the other major humanitarian NGOs, it’s that we take a much longer-term view. We’re here to do what we call genuine sustainable development. Yes, there’s always a deep humanitarian need—an emergent need—that draws so many organizations to a particular place at a moment in time. But what differentiates us is that we take that longer view; we’re in those communities rebuilding the infrastructure, the jobs, and the livelihoods of people months, years, and even decades later. 

Does the changing nature of the international news cycle have an impact on the delivery of care to damaged and underserved regions? 

Absolutely. When there’s a massive earthquake, or a typhoon, or warfare that displaces thousands of people, aid organizations are quick to reach out for the compassion of the viewing public. Donors want to give to something that makes an immediate impact to put food in a child’s mouth, or a secure place for a widow to sleep. Global media attention is transfixing, and it’s inescapable for some days—until the next big crisis. But that earthquake, typhoon, or border conflict, is very much old news in three or six months’ time. And the world has moved on to the next crisis. However, the real situation for hurting people on the ground may not be much different than it was moments after the crisis began. People are still homeless; industries must be rebuilt; water supplies must be restored. In most cases, ADRA was there before the crisis and we remain well after the media leaves to help those communities rebuild. 

Here’s a different kind of question. Seventh-day Adventists have for more than 150 years insisted that the life they live as followers of Jesus be grounded in the Word of God, in a clear “thus saith the Lord.” What portion of Scripture would you point me to as the warrant for the work that ADRA is doing in developing communities, teaching irrigation or farming , and investing in the mental health of vulnerable populations? 

No one’s ever asked me that question before, but it’s the right one. I have an immediate response to the deeply personal statements of Jesus found in Matthew 25: “ I was hungry, and you gave Me food; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you visited Me.” If Jesus is going to make His final assessment based on our compassionate treatment of vulnerable, sick, poor, and oppressed people, I want to be part of a ministry organization that girds itself up to deliver that kind of care—not just once, but on an ongoing basis. 

The great echoing cry of the Old Testament prophets is to care for the vulnerable. The New Testament apostle James puts it succinctly: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27, NRSV). That orphan will be an orphan on more than just the day you visit with blankets and the hygiene kit. That widow will be alone and impoverished long after the television trucks with the satellite dishes have gone back to their urban centers. The needs we’re called to address aren’t one-off, one-time responsibilities. It will take a plan to keep that orphan fed. It will take a strategy to keep that widow finding enough food in male-dominated societies where work opportunities are virtually non-existent. Yes, I’m delighted for the donors who support the work of ADRA when they hear of some natural disaster or man-made catastrophe. But I’m particularly proud of the tens of thousands of donors around the globe who are in it for the long haul because recovery and health and logistics don’t happen overnight. 

What do you have to say to the well-intentioned Adventists who say, “Well, Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, and His coming is so soon that it doesn’t make good sense to plan for long-term sustainable communities”? You’ve undoubtedly encountered that kind of thinking before. 

It’s a blessing that our Seventh-day Adventist pioneers didn’t think that way, or else we wouldn’t have the amazing network of hospitals, clinics, universities, feeding centers, and migrant health facilities that spread across this world today. Believing in the world soon to come should never be a disincentive for compassionately investing in the world we live in. Ellen White believed firmly in this principle. She said, “Christ has committed unto us talents of means and of influence, and He bids us occupy till He comes.”* Many of those who will be standing with us on the sea of glass will be those orphans who found new parents because ADRA stayed involved. Widows will be among the redeemed because they found support, jobs, and faith in caring communities ADRA helped build. 

I’ve heard you say that ADRA is important to younger generations of Adventists who may not find themselves in need just now. What do you mean by that? 

I speak as a father of three children. One of our greatest challenges as Adventists in the developed world is keeping this movement relevant not only to our young people but to a rapidly changing world. Yes, ADRA performs all of those roles we’ve spoken about: we bring immediate aid, but we also build sewer systems. We comfort victims, but we also run mental health services for those who have been long-term traumatized by poverty and war. But ADRA also organically connects the church—whether you’re a child collecting dollars on an icy porch, a young adult passionate about doing something that helps the world, or a senior citizen who wants to give back out of the bounty God has given you. ADRA particularly connects young people—our church members—to the mission of the church by giving them tangible, practical ways they can help rebuild ruined homes, lay blocks for new school buildings, and use their hydrology or engineering skills to solve the huge water crisis that the world is confronting in so many regions today. ADRA is the glue that keeps hundreds—maybe thousands—of Adventist young adults in the orbit of the church today because it’s a practical demonstration of the love of Jesus that they’ve been aching to be part of. 

How is ADRA related to the church’s mission? You’ve talked about retaining passionate young people and implementing the biblical vision of care for the long-term disadvantaged. Are you sometimes pressured to make the connection between ADRA’s ministry and the church’s evangelism more explicit? 

Yes, we are. This is a fine line that we walk in certain parts of the world. Some church members around the globe imagine that the role of ADRA is to help church members first, especially those who have fallen through whatever safety net exists in their society. They want to know, “Why aren’t we first in line as beneficiaries?” 

That’s why we have to keep getting our message out. Some of our funding clearly mandates that we bring aid to all people, but it’s also ADRA’s purpose “to serve humanity so all may live as God intended” and we do that regardless of ethnicity, political affiliation, gender, or religious association. To serve most effectively, and most ethically, we must prioritize by the greatest need instead of giving preferential treatment to our own community. 

These mandates are from more than just the United States government. 

Funding for ADRA is coming from governments very, very broadly. If you look at ADRA Brazil today, for instance, ADRA Brazil is funded almost exclusively by states within Brazil. Yes, there are church contributions and donations from individual Adventists, but hundreds of millions of dollars that ADRA receives each year come from government coffers and, initially, taxpayer funds. So, we must be very careful, especially with funding from the U.S. government, that ADRA doesn’t use those to proselytize directly. We stay in close contact with those distributing USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development). They know who we are: we are part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Their only immediate requirement is that we don’t use those funds to proselytize. That doesn’t mean that the church can’t operate or follow up in areas where we bring aid and rebuild communities. 

We’re blessed to have excellent working relationships between the church and ADRA. In many regions there has been very good cooperation. We’ve seen that ADRA can make an impact beyond its own reach when it collaborates with church delivery systems, as in the crisis in Ukraine. ADRA could never have achieved what it’s doing in Ukraine—helping hundreds of thousands of refugees moving into Europe—if it didn’t have the cooperation of church members, church administrators, and pastors in Ukraine and neighboring countries. By delivering immediate care and longterm development in the name of Jesus, ADRA prepares those who receive that care to discover the warm, beating heart of Adventists and the message of the gospel in their region. 

I’m struck by the sheer scope and scale of what ADRA attempts to do. 

ADRA permanently employs about 10,000 people in those 120 countries I mentioned. But if you add the “official volunteers”—those who give their time and love every week to put hours into feeding stations, water projects, and mentoring initiatives, the number swells to tens of thousands. Each person is a crucial link in bringing the love and care of Jesus to people in need. 

I’ve heard you use the word “logistics” several times in our conversations. Describe the relationship between ADRA and some international umbrella organizations like the United Nations that are also committed to sustainable development. 

We maintain solid relationships with the United Nations, the Red Cross, and the truly global organizations that are well known. When there’s a food crisis in the world, one of the largest food suppliers is the World Food Programme, which is part of the United Nations. They have agreements with governments around the globe and warehouses where they stock millions of tons of food to deliver in a crisis. ADRA is a crucial piece of that distribution effort for entities like the World Food Programme. In many places the other organizations supply the contents of the boxes, and ADRA moves the boxes across borders and into regions to ensure the aid reaches its delivery point. It’s accurate to say that ADRA is often the logistics arm of those organizations. We also coordinate with other key players to deliver care, especially in disaster relief, to specific sectors so that our efforts aren’t redundant, overlapping, or inefficient. ADRA might be given, for instance, the southeast quadrant of an island hit by a typhoon. We become the primary aid organization in that region, while others focus on other quadrants. 

What should Adventists know about ADRA that many don’t know today? 

I’m grateful, Bill, that you spent those hours ringing doorbells and asking for Christmas dollars so many years ago that helped the work of what became ADRA. But ADRA is about more than that. It’s about building, development, planning, strategy, and creating livable, sustainable communities that slow down the rush toward the great urban centers of the world. That’s why we need engineers, mental health specialists, maternal nutrition specialists, hydrologists, and logistics experts to do the work of Jesus on a truly global scale—right up until that day when poverty and disease and hurricanes and conflicts disappear. We’re going to occupy—compassionately—until He comes. 

* Ellen G. White letter 1a, 1872. (italics supplied.)

Bill Knott