This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Working upstream

Dorothy Nyambi’s profile as president of Mennonite Economic Development Associates brims with firsts. First women to hold the position. First person of African descent. First medical doctor.


Her unique identity enhances her effectiveness as an ambassador for MEDA’s mission to create business solutions to end poverty.

A dual citizen of Cameroon and Canada, Nyambi assumed the leadership of MEDA last November. Her background in medicine shapes her philosophy as a healer of economic ills: She would rather help people not get sick in the first place.

“When you work as a physician, you are downstream,” she said while visiting the MWR office in Newton, Kan., on Oct. 17. “You see people who are sick and you try to make them well. After working in developing countries for 10 years, I felt this was not why I got into medicine — to feel comfortable with death that could have been prevented. So I moved upstream, into public health, to help people before they are sick and need a doctor.

“When you are helping people out of poverty, you are working upstream.”

Born again as a Presbyterian teenager in Cameroon, Nyambi today leads a Mennonite agency whose impact is growing. Since its founding in 1953 by Mennonite business professionals who invested in a dairy in Paraguay, MEDA has helped more than 100 million families in 62 countries. It currently has 26 projects in 16 countries, with a collective value of $250 million over five years.

As a recent example of success, Nyambi cites Greater Rural Opportunities for Women, a $20 million project completed in 2018 that enabled 23,000 women in Ghana to double their income from soybean farming.

MEDA is part of a global success story. According to the World Bank, the world attained the first Millennium Development Goal — to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015 — five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. Today nearly 1.1 billion fewer people live in extreme poverty than in 1990.

After remarkable progress in one generation, what of the next? The number of people living in extreme poverty remains unacceptably high. According to the United Nations, 783 million people still live below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day. In many nations, poverty reduction has slowed or even reversed.

Perhaps we’ve heard so many dire statistics that it’s hard to believe we could win a war on poverty. Surveys have shown that a majority of Americans doubt it is possible to end poverty in 25 years. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goal to end poverty by 2030 might sound unrealistic, too.

Nyambi prefers optimism. Shown a headline that reports “Most Americans Say Fighting Global Poverty Is Futile,” Nyambi protests: “It is not futile. I am a very hopeful person. I have seen the change; the needle has moved.”

Nyambi knows that aiming to end poverty — rather than merely to reduce it — sets a high bar. Yet she doesn’t hesitate to claim the goal in its most ambitious form. She understands the need to attack poverty with upstream intervention rather than downstream reaction. She’s seen the results of MEDA’s faith-based methods of creating sustainable livelihoods.

“Impact investment is the vehicle,” she said, “and faith is the fuel.”

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