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Friday, June 21, 2013

A Message of Hope

When I think about the trip I just took to Cambodia, I remember a bottle full of crawling, stinging red ants. The skinny little girl who held it up so that I could get a closer look said something in a language I don’t speak.

‘This is her dinner,’ said the translator matter-of-factly.

Every time I visit Cambodia I see two things. I see families who have been working hard to pull themselves out of poverty and succeeding at it. They have clean water wells, thriving gardens, small businesses, health care, and a bubbling sense of excitement about life. Then I see families who literally cannot spare the energy to think about anything other than finding something – anything – with enough calories to keep themselves alive.

Every single time I have this experience, I am overwhelmed with a desire to stop seeing the families with children who scavenge for bugs to eat. I simply do not want to see this anymore. It kills me.

But I know that the only way I can stop seeing this is by fighting to help these families become the kind who live and thrive. There is no way that my conscience would allow me to believe that they stop existing when I stop seeing them. Especially when I know full well that there is hope for them, that there is a proven strategy for easing and even eliminating the worst of their pain.

I’m really proud to be sending this letter with our latest annual report. It is absolutely full of success stories. When I look it over, I know that what you have given is not in vain. I know that poor communities across the world have been able to accomplish unbelievable things with our comparatively modest investment into their lives.

I know that in Cambodia, for example, it costs a meager $600 to help a family to go from being scavengers to success stories. That’s honestly the average cost of providing the resources (things like clean water wells, low-interest business loans, and gardening tools) and the training (teaching sanitation practices, business skills) that work together to transform a family’s quality of life for good. I realize that $600 is not a pittance and that most families in North America could do a lot with that much money. I just know how much more a family in Cambodia would benefit from that same sum of money – I know that they would be released to live as happy and healthy human beings for the first time in their lives. And that makes $600 seem like a very reasonable sum of money to me.

So I carry this burning sense of hope, justice, and possibility with me as I enter a new phase of my life. In the future, I will be speaking to every person that I can about the plight of girls like the one I met in Cambodia. As long as I have breath, I will be working with people who want to assist families living in poverty.

But I will not be addressing you, my friends, in these monthly letters. Instead, Aklilu Mulat, the Executive Director of HOPE International Development Agency, will be letting you know where our greatest needs are from month to month. He is an extremely fine person and a friend of the poor and I know you will appreciate what he has to say.

I write this final letter to you wanting to say very much the same things I have been saying year after year. I want to say that the job of eliminating poverty seems too large, but it is not. I want to say that there is so much that you can do for people who are ready to work hard and succeed.

More than anything, I just want to ask you to help. This is my last chance to make a direct appeal to so many of my friends at once. Let’s keep changing lives in Cambodia and around the world. Let’s remember that little girl on the other side of the planet and not let her go hungry even one more day.

Please give.

With respect and gratitude,

David S. McKenzie

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Conventional or Organic: Our Farmers Weigh In

The debate over conventional agriculture versus organic agriculture is one with plenty of supporters on either side. Truth be told, it is a complex issue. How exactly can billions of human beings feed themselves as much nutritious food as possible while using the resources that create food (soil, water, money) most efficiently? When put this way, it’s easy to see that all people are on the same page about what is the desired outcome—we just don’t all agree on how best to get there.

What’s interesting to note, however, is what we hear from farmers who make a switch from using conventional to organic/sustainable methods. They don’t wax rhapsodic about feeling closer to nature. They don’t feel morally superior for choosing methods that will preserve the beauty or fertility of their land.

No. They are excited by the money they are saving.

When our dry-rice farmers in Cambodia talk about making the switch from using genetically modified seeds that required lots of chemical fertilizers to grow, they shake their heads at how expensive their way of life used to be. When farmers in the Philippines talk about using household compost and animal dung to raise big, thriving yields, they are gleeful that they learned to use something that was already available to them to gain an agricultural advantage.

The fact is, if the sustainable methodologies we taught were not making life better, more efficient, and less expensive for farming families, they wouldn’t adopt them for a single season. Or a single day! These families are too poor to ever take a chance on raising less food, or working harder to get what they already had. They’re not idiots or dreamers. They’re about surviving, not living idealistically.

It’s food for thought as we engage in a debate that has plenty of consequences for the health of families in the present as well as the future.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Cambodia: ‘Alone in the World’

Our mandate is to help the poorest of the poor. So who is in this rarefied category, and what does life look like for these ones?

In a stable context, where war or natural disaster hasn’t suddenly and dramatically changed life for absolutely everyone in a given area, the poorest of the poor tends to be a certain kind of person.

She tends to be a woman left to fend for herself. She tends to be a fearful and exhausted mother trying to keep her children alive with an absolute minimum of resources and support.

Preab Souen, a widow with five children, used to epitomize this kind of poverty - this poverty that distinguishes itself from most other kinds of poverty. She lived on the edge of a jungle, in danger of attack from wild animals, because it was the only place where she could live, without title, and a little food to keep her children alive. Our staff member Leng used to go and visit her, often waiting all day for Souen to return home after working other peoples’ fields.

Why was Leng so persistent? What she said evoked nothing other than our mandate, expressed as a simple cry from the heart: ‘I felt so sorry for this young mother, working so hard for less than a dollar a day, and seemed so alone in the world.’

Soeun and her children did eventually climb out of the hole they were in. We helped her to install a clean water well, trained her in enhanced gardening techniques, and connected her with a group of local women who helped her with skills training, money saving, and entrepreneurial ventures. With the support of this group, she began a successful chicken-raising business.

Leng’s words ring true. There are people who truly are alone in this world, and they need not be. Furthermore, they simply aren’t alone if we know about them and do something to help them.