February 12, 2009 | Myrna Anderson

Ryan Nilson learned about the complexities of being a partner in development while working down on the U.S.-Mexican border. Nilson, a 21-year old senior international development studies major at North Carolina State University, served this summer as the interim coordinator for the Presbyterian border ministries in Cuidad Juarez. “I was kind of thrown into that,” he confessed.

The conflicts he encountered during his development work gave Nilson a more nuanced view of international development—and eventually led him to the fourth-annual Faith and International Development Conference (FIDC), held Thursday through Saturday, February 5–7 at Calvin College.  Development, Nilson said, requires a larger conversation among many partners: “I was hoping to be a part of that larger conversation by being here.”

The theme: partnership

This year’s conference, which drew around 450 students from 57 U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities to the Calvin campus, took the theme of “Partnership: United in Service.”

"We recognized in order to do development, it had to be done in partnership where you’re drawing on the resources and abilities of multiple groups, people and organizations,” said Carissa De Young, a Calvin junior majoring in international development and economics and a FIDC co-director. “When we talk about partnership, it’s about how do we—churches, NGOS, community organizations, government and so many others—how do we work together toward this mutual goal of improving the lives of others?”

The universe of development

The conference featured four keynote speakers: Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; Dr. Moisés Moraga Amador, the founder of 15 development organizations, including Christian Medical Action, Abikök Riak, program officer in Sudan for World Vision International and Daniel Rickett, PhD, the executive vice president of Sisters In Service. This year’s event also featured breakout sessions on a whole universe of development issues, among them poverty, microfinance, amaranth, rescuing rape survivors, sustainability, advocacy, partnerships between the global north and the global south, malaria, HIV/AIDS and community health.

Browsing the conference

Some students came to the Faith and International Development Conference just to absorb the entire event. Among these was Hannah Watters, 20, a junior at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. “I’m really interested in doing some type of community development. I’m thinking about in-state and urban development,” said Watters, who worked at a clinic and orphanage in Nicaragua last year. “It’s interesting to learn about the benefits of small organizations. It’s just interesting to learn how you do it.”

The right mindset

Roland Hoksbergen, the mentor to Health and International Development, the student organization that hosts the conference each year, thought the theme of partnership is key for healthy development: “For so long, we have assumed that it’s our job to take care of other people or address other people’s problems as though we know how to do that,” said Hoksbergen, who served for years with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. This kind of mindset leads to top-down, funding-based relationships, he said. “We have known for many years that it’s wrong to engage in development activities in that sort of system … You have to meet issues in ways that make everyone feel respected, involved and owners of their own lives.”

Hoksbergen was impressed, as he is every year, by the quality of the conference and the fact that students oversee every facet of the event: “I am so amazed at the intelligence of the students who do this and the energy they put into it …,” he said. “This is a really professional conference … People came up to me to say, “I can’t believe that you do this. And people from other colleges are trying to figure out how to do this.”

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