"In God's kingdom, there’s no room for poverty and inequality"

Introduction to ZOA's new CPO, Edwin Visser

You have been working at ZOA as country director in the Middle East less than a year. Now you are leaving the region already. Why this step?
“For a long time, I had the ambition to develop towards a managerial position, preferably in the humanitarian or development sector. I did not have a specific time in mind, but when the position of CPO at ZOA unexpectedly opened up, I seized the opportunity. It fits in very well with my plans for the future. That’s how it happened.”

How and when did ZOA cross your path?
“I have known ZOA since childhood. During my pre-university education at the Guido de Brès in Rotterdam, I once spontaneously organised a fundraiser for ZOA that raised over 5000 guilders. The graduation assignment at my University of Applied Sciences – the Christelijke Hogeschool Ede – was also at ZOA. I investigated ZOA’s relationship with church donors. Also during my time as a Partners and Programmes manager at Woord en Daad, I maintained a good relationship with ZOA. We collaborated on emergency relief in Haiti, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, where the two organizations strengthened each other. When I worked for Medair in Jordan, I also enjoyed working with ZOA colleagues. It’s very inspiring to build bridges and jointly strive for greater impact. I joined ZOA starting from May 2018. It was predestined to happen someday.”

What do you like about ZOA as an organization?
“At ZOA, we have plenty of ambitions in terms of growth, quality, and professionalism. At the same time, the desire to fulfil God’s command to love one another and care for his creation drives us. That formula makes ZOA strong. It is important always to put the people we work with at the centre. They are our fellow creatures, made and desired by God. Through our work, we want them to experience God’s love. When people are turned into projects, things go wrong.”

For this work, what makes you tick?
“The fact that I was born in a Dutch cradle gave me an enormous advantage over most other world inhabitants. None of that is my own merit. I want to share something of the tremendous privileges and wealth I have received. Sharing is not an end in itself – rather a way of showing how God originally intended His creation: as a place beyond poverty and inequality.
Sometimes it looks like evil gains foothold in this world. There is no point in fighting evil with evil. The Bible teaches that our assignment is to counter evil with goodness. Paul says it powerfully in his letter to the Romans: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

Where do you see growth potential for ZOA? Where lies your ambition for the time ahead?
“The field of emergency relief and reconstruction is changing rapidly. New technologies – such as block chain, digital data collection, and visualization – unlock new possibilities. Furthermore, a constant emphasis is put on economies of scale: bigger, more cooperative, efficient and with impact. It is important that we, as ZOA, respond adequately to these changes. We should not only follow, but also dare to stick our neck out and be an initiator of change. We can only do this if we constantly seek cooperation with other parties, in the Netherlands and abroad.
I would also like to strengthen ZOA’s relationship with its constituency in the Netherlands. There are many Dutch people, churches, and companies feeling connected to ZOA. This we should cherish and nourish. It is important to stay in touch with each other and look for new ways to strengthen this connection. I’m not just talking about money; it is about connecting ZOA’s country programmes to people’s lives in the Netherlands. From that connection, a sense of community will grow.

Since 1998 you have lived in the Middle East and North Africa on and off. What is your connection with the Arabic world?
“During my studies, I spent a lot of time outside the Netherlands. The Middle East attracted me the most. Between 1998 and 2007 I lived in Egypt. At that time, I travelled a lot within the Middle East and North Africa and saw with my own eyes how people suffered absolute poverty. It’s why I transitioned to humanitarian work. I ended up living in Sudan – first in Darfur and then in South Kordofan, on the border with South Sudan. Later I also worked in Somalia. My experiences there were life changing. In Somalia, I was exposed to a level of poverty that I had never encountered before. I have seen children starve before my eyes. The memory still moves me.”

What will you miss the most once you have left the Middle East for good?
” It sounds a bit cliché, but I’ve become attached to it. Life is vibrant, multi-coloured, and dynamic. The flowery Arabic language is incredibly beautiful and there is so much emotion to it. What always strikes me is the Arabic focus on sharing. They say: ‘sharing is caring’. If I were to pass someone eating, he would immediately invite me to eat with him. I will certainly miss people’s care for one another and the community-based rather than individual-based focus.

What do you take from that culture to ZOA?
“People are much more important than things.”

When do you start your new job?
“Somewhere around 1 April. Until then, much remains to be done. I just got back from Damascus, where we made good progress in establishing a ZOA office for Syria. The coming weeks will be the completion of my work in Jordan, looking for a house in the Netherlands, furnishing – our only possessions in the Netherlands are a few boxes somewhere in an attic – and finding our children a school. A tough job, but all will be fine. The prospect of the new position at ZOA gives a lot of energy.”

Interview & text: KlaasJan Baas