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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Afghanistan: Ensuring Equality—Patiently, If Need Be

Giving women a voice is an important part of what we do. The reality is, in many poor communities there are long held traditions and beliefs that make putting women in positions of leadership challenging, to say the least. But from a results-based perspective, helping women to achieve makes nothing but sense. It makes the job of eliminating chronic poverty that much easier. Women work exceptionally hard for their families and villages.

In Afghanistan, the road to gender equality is steep. But we are in it for the long haul. Our typical practice, when we help villages to form the groups that serve the community in special ways (like governing how a clean water system is used) is to require female as well as male members.

However, in Afghanistan’s poorest villages, it is not common practice for men and women to sit together in meetings. It is the poor themselves who must organize to improve their lives, and we cannot impose upon them to do what is not within their will to do. But our staff in Afghanistan are committed to ensuring that women still have an opportunity to act as leaders, so they have formed a separate group for women called the Village Development Committee. They are charged with getting women in their village to become more involved with anti-poverty work.

The ideal, from our perspective, is to have total equality and cooperation, but we are working with the poor, not against them. When we find a method that achieves an important aim—like giving women leadership opportunities—and also feels comfortable, culturally, for the people involved, we go for it.

Change is slow, but it is worthwhile. We know the women in the Village Development Committee would agree.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cambodia: Where Children Become Tourist Attractions

The organization Friends International has been working hard to shed light on a rather troubling development: so-called ‘orphanage tourism’ in Cambodia. It seems visitors to this formerly war-torn country are increasingly choosing to add an orphanage to their site-seeing itineraries. Tourists arrange to visit, take pictures, and cuddle the children, most of whom are indiscriminately friendly because of the traumas and neglect they have suffered. The ‘beautiful’ experience of having numerous little children swarm you with open arms is not all it seems to be.

Unfortunately, many orphanages in Cambodia are private institutions looking to make good money from these visitors. In fact, many of the orphans have living parents who are poor and desperate enough to have been convinced that their children would be better off in institutions. In fact, they are not given adequate care in these orphanages; there are even reports of children being starved and clothed inadequately in order to make them more pitiable-looking for the tourists who will in turn give big donations to the orphanage. It is an entirely sordid transaction, one that fuels child exploitation by making it profitable.

We can’t help but think about the families who are duped into giving up their children. The poorest families in Cambodia are indeed scared and desperate, and the idea of hucksters exploiting that is extremely distressing. Truly, these parents would not be giving up their children because they do not care for them - quite the opposite, their love would push them into making that ultimate sacrifice. It is yet another face of poverty, and it’s hard to look at.

This is just another phenomenon that encourages us to do more for Cambodian families. If clean water, livelihood opportunities, and education - all solutions to chronic poverty - reach them before the hucksters do, these kind of family tragedies could be prevented.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Philippines: “If you are not educated, then you have to just sit quietly in the corner”

There is a dark side to life in the Philippines, and its Indigenous Peoples, mainly living on the island of Mindanao, most definitely live in the shadow. As it goes with many Indigenous communities across the planet, they have been squeezed out to the margins of society. They are routinely and illegally pushed from their homes when businesses have an interest in the land. They are largely uneducated; which means they often do not understand their rights and wouldn’t know how to advocate for them even if they did.

This is why college educations for motivated young Indigenous people is such an important part of HOPE International Development Agency’s work in the Philippines. We received a few letters from some of our students and they are full of reminders of the value of this kind of investment. Below is just one of these letters:

My name is Jinefer Serrano. I belong to Bagobo tribe, located at Davao city. I graduated last year with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology. Currently I am volunteering as a preschool teacher for children aged three and four.

At the beginning I found the Pamulaan program very challenging. You have to be very serious, really apply yourself, because this is not just like any other school. Pamulaan is not just about academics. It is the process of forming a person – in attitude, in values, in creating a vision of life in the future. It instills in us the value of service, of giving back. Currently I am a teacher in the Matigsalog tribe, a tribe with a culture and language very different from mine. That makes it a challenge to relate my teaching to their lives. But overall I am very happy with my choice.

I consider myself an optimistic person, especially about the future of indigenous people in the Philippines. That is what drove my studies – my belief in the value of education. I wanted to learn my rights so I can fight for them. If you are not educated, then you have to just sit quietly in the corner, because you don’t know what you are entitled to in life. This was the problem in my community. No one knew their rights, or the process for asserting those rights. There is a lot of discrimination against indigenous people in the Philippines, and this is how we can fight back. We can say with confidence: ‘we are educated, so don’t put us down.’

I am already sharing my experiences at Pamulaan with the children I teach. I constantly tell them that we must acquire knowledge. It is only through that education that we can claim our rights to our land, our territories.

The notion of people sitting ‘quietly in the corner’ is one that resonates. This description is not limited to the Philippines’ much-abused Indigenous Peoples. It is a problem that we see in poor communities across the world. People who are very poor and uneducated tend to fatalistically accept their lot in life. Education is one of the things that breaks through this mentality and inspires a lot of hard work and smart investments into things (be it a road for a water drilling crew to travel on, a savings pool with a group of neighbours, or a foundation for a new school in the village) that will pay huge dividends down the road—that will end poverty in one’s family, one’s community. To be a part of this process of motivating poor people — like Jinefer — to seize life with confidence and competence is inspiring.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Putting the "self" back in reliance

Here at home most of us can afford to be hopeful, even in difficult times.

The same, however, cannot be said of impoverished families living in the poorest communities of Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

Poverty has robbed these families of their health, their hope, and in many cases, their loved ones.

Imagine if poverty snatched your child from your arms. Now try to imagine how incredibly hard it would be to remain hopeful when you know that your child perished because you lacked the modest resources needed to prevent or treat the sickness.

These families are without hope because they are without help. They are stuck in a life of suffering and dependence because no one has given them the “hand up” they need in order to become self-reliant.

They have done all that they can to overcome the poverty that holds them captive and destroys their lives, but it simply is not enough given the size of the challenges they face.

It’s our turn to do everything we can to prevent poverty from claiming more lives.

In Bangladesh, we can provide life skills training and health education that will enable parents to improve and protect their family’s health. We can also provide vocational skills training that will give parents the knowledge and skills they need in order to generate sustainable sources of income that will meet their needs and allow them to save for the future.

In Cambodia, we can establish community-based Self Help Groups that give families access to health education, clean water, agricultural training that increases food production, vocational skills training that generates sustainable income, and low interest loans that enable families to start up their own small businesses.

In Ethiopia, we can provide the education, training, and business start-up funds a mother needs in order to create a sustainable source of income that will provide for all of her family’s needs, both today and into the future.

Learn how you can help these families by visiting today.