* The blog that follows is the result of much thinking and investigation about the foundation where I am currently conducting my apprenticeship. Although it is fairly long, I could still not include everything I would like to related to the subject of the foundation and how it has affected my views on foreign aid. If you are interested in learning more, or have any general thoughts on the topic, feel free to reach out to me. I would love to hear more perspectives on the issue.
When I came here, I carried a number of questions with me that I hoped to come to understand more thoroughly during my year in Ecuador. One of the most pressing and complicated involved the role of “Western” foreign aid organizations in countries such as the one in which I am living. From previous research and experiences, I was filled with doubt about the potential for true positive change to be enacted by extraneous endeavors. My perception was that the majority of such efforts involved individuals with a “white savior” mentality traveling to nations that they claimed to care about to force upon the local population solutions that they deemed best with little understanding of the varying factors that made such approaches useless. It was clear to me that the traditional approach to foreign aid was lacking, but it was just as obvious that such a model continued to be blindly followed in so many cases.
It is due to this initial scepticism that I have been so blown away by the foundation where I am now working. Called Vibrant Village Ecuador, the office where I spend my weekdays is one branch of many across the world that is overseen by the main operation in Portland, Oregon. Founded in 2011, Vibrant Village Foundation Ecuador (VVF) is driven by the question “what would it really take to raise a village?” It conducts its efforts with the belief that the answer is already at hand in the ecological and cultural richness of Ecuador. Started and based in my host community of Paragachi, VVF has expanded to work in a variety of places throughout the district of Pimampiro. Although VVF splits its operations into three different projects, I have been privileged to spend most of my time with its most extensive, Proyecto Tierra Viva (Living Earth Project). While the other two undertakings, Proyecto Enriquecimiento Educacional (Educational Enrichment Project) and Proyecto Pueblo Vivo (Living Village Project), do invaluable work as well, I will focus on the project with which I am most familiar for the sake of brevity.
As Vibrant Village Ecuador’s first venture, Tierra Viva came to be in 2011 as a response to the widespread abuse of agro-chemicals, prevalent child malnutrition, and presence of diet-related diseases in Pimampiro. Although it began with only a handful of families, Tierra Viva today has grown to collaborate with well over 2000 beneficiaries in eight different communities. As a whole, the project focuses on four key areas: family nutrition, commercialization, agroecological campaign, and irrigation systems.
Considering that VVF Ecuador operates in communities with an identified child malnutrition rate of 45%, an adult obesity rate of 62%, and leading causes of death of cardiovascular diseases, stomach cancer, diabetes, and poisoning, the need for nutritious and organic alimentation is urgent. However, as they are closely intertwined with the complexities of poverty, nutritional deficiencies are not solvable with a single, simple effort. Therefore, Tierra Viva utilizes a multifaceted approach of both garden implementation and nutritional education to address this pressing issue. In order to give beneficiaries access to a sufficient supply of fruits and vegetables, Tierra Viva stays present throughout the entire process of establishing their organic garden; this includes preparing garden beds, constructing fences, planting seeds, and teaching about effective cultivating practices. Furthermore, a concerted effort is made to ensure sustainability by forming personal relationships with garden recipients and conducting consistent follow-ups. After successfully creating their garden and completing required trainings, families graduate from the program and continue to receive support by means of a monthly evaluation. Through this intentional approach, Tierra Viva seeks to improve general family nutrition, decrease the incidence of chronic child malnutrition, increase the basic knowledge of healthy alimentation, and establish home gardens for long-term food security.
Tierra Viva exploits all components of agroecology by leveraging newfound food supplies to augment general income. With some assistance, families are able to overcome hardships they face such as limited direct farmer to market channels, over-dependency on a single harvest due to low diversification, and lack of sufficient organization among agroecological producers. VVF’s approach to addressing these issues consists of conducting market analysis, promoting designated selling spaces, collaborating with other organizations that are developing small-farm commercialization, and increasing consumer purchases by spreading information about the benefits of agroecological products. Given the fact that 69% of Pimampiro’s population lives in poverty (less than $2.79 per day) with 43% in extreme poverty (less than $1.57 per day), an avenue for marketing crop surpluses is an integral part of boosting the general standard of living. On average, participating households have seen a sales rate of $29 a month, which represents a 9.6% increase in monthly income. Combined with the average of $16.15 that is saved by removing the necessity to purchase fruits and vegetables, the effective commercialization of agroecological products has a profound financial impact that transcends the aforementioned health benefits.
A step that is just as important as implementing agroecological solutions, although oftentimes more challenging, is changing deeply rooted mind-sets that favour harmful agricultural practices. Various influences including government sources, the educational system, and media outlets tend to promote destructive farming methods. As a result, the majority of local citizens are unaware of the detrimental impacts of agrochemicals on their land as well as their bodies. Furthermore, there is a general ignorance to alternatives and an assumption that organic farming is labour intensive and unprofitable. In response to this phenomenon, VVF focuses on concentrated education in conjunction with the other aspects of Tierra Viva. From widespread tours involving internationally recognized agroecological experts to personalized technical workshops, VVF Ecuador takes the most crucial information directly to those who need it most. Also taking into account the fact that many locals learn through personal experience, VVF Ecuador cultivates “model farms” in places such as schools and old folks homes to demonstrate the possibilities of practicing agroecology.
Water and Irrigation Systems
Regardless of the countless benefits of sustainable farming, none of it is feasible without access to a reliable water supply. In Pimampiro, few small-farm producers have access to sufficient water for a significant yield, and in places where there is enough it is often wasted in inefficient application. On the large scale, VVF Ecuador has partnered with communities to construct entire irrigation systems and design distribution methods to catalyse the implementation of a significant number of home gardens where it would have previously been impossible. Rather than going at its water projects alone, VVF recognizes the power of united communities and understands its duty to provide required resources and know-how, thereby empowering its partners to capitalize upon their existing abilities. Continuing with the theme of education, all participants are informed about the responsible utilization of water in order to conserve what is at hand and maximize production.
From my perception, there are two core aspects of Vibrant Village that makes it so successful in comparison to out-dated foreign aid methodology. The first is a sustained presence in the area where it works. By having a physical office in Paragachi, VVF has slowly but surely built a sense of trust with its beneficiaries. Now very well known, people feel comfortable collaborating with the organization because they know that it is committed to the long-term. Also, after nearly six years in business, VVF has earned a stellar reputation that leads to strong relationships with other governmental organizations and non-profits. Entities such as the Ministry of Health, the Red Cross, and other NGOs now seek out partnerships that amplify VVF’s capacity to affect change on a large scale. The second is the fact that VVF employees locals to carry out its mission. As I travel to work sites with my companions, it is strikingly clear that they are uniquely qualified to do their job. There are so many intricacies to how things are conducted here that only those who were raised in this environment here can truly understand. Moreover, considering that many workers are assigned to the very communities in which they live, they already have an established bond with the local population based in trust. When it comes to asking people to change their way of life, the value of such personal relations cannot be overstated. Everyday, I am amazed by not only the extensive technical knowledge of my co-workers, but also the ease with which they navigate the complexities of their profession.
I know that the description I have shared thus far conceptualizes VVF in a lot of statistics and tangible results, but its impact can only truly be understood by witnessing it. Always curious about different perspectives, I have taken every chance I get to inquire about VVF with the very people it involves. Granted, what I have heard is not all sunshine and daisies. For example, among some employees there is discontent over their lack of connection to the president of Vibrant Village back in Portland. As he ultimately makes the decisions concerning funding and salaries that directly affect the workers here in Ecuador, it is very much in the their interest that they have the opportunity to directly share their questions and concerns. Yet, since they cannot speak English, their only means of communication with the headquarters of Vibrant Village in the States is through the American man who initially started and now leads the office here in Ecuador. In the short time I have been here, I have come to know him as a passionate, intelligent, and resourceful individual who is the very reason VVF exists and who serves a role that I doubt anyone could fill as well as he does. That being said, he is essentially the middleman in the relationship between the branch here and the headquarters in the U.S. Due to this, he is put in a position in which he has to cater to two completely different audiences that come from differing backgrounds, views, and priorities. Inherently, there are bound to be issues with a structure of such a nature. To write about VVF as a perfect entity devoid of room for improvement would not only be dishonest, it would detract from its true essence. Never has there, nor will there ever be, an organization of any form that conducts itself free of complications. The question then must be, specifically as it relates to foreign aid organizations, “what is the best model for genuine change?” Although I don’t feel qualified at this point to claim that VVF is the absolute superlative, I can say with confidence that the work it has done here in the region of Pimampiro has been welcome, effective, and transformative.
I make such a statement with conviction, because of what I have seen and heard during my time here. Simply dubbed La Fundación by the locals, VVF is not only a part of Paragachi, it is practically its identity. Just a few days ago, I was having a conversation with my host brother about Paragachi’s turbulent past that, due to a variety of factors, led to its perception as a downtrodden and dangerous community. Hearing this came as such a surprise that I nearly chuckled, because my newly adopted home is nothing like the place he portrayed. When I asked him what had changed between then and now he pointed to La Fundación as a driving force behind Paragachi’s transformation. From many similar discussions, I have come to see that the impact of Vibrant Village here extends far past the material developments it has helped to construct. More so, as told to me by one of my co-workers, it has given community members a new sense of pride in themselves and their home. Transcending any physical developments, this sense of empowerment is the most powerful effect of Vibrant Village. Rather than put in place supposed solutions with little input from the local population and disappear without proper follow-up, Vibrant Village has invested the time and resources to tap into the genius that is already present among the people here. It is clear that Vibrant Village understands that which should be the core principle of all foreign aid outreach: that the recipients of foreign aid are not objects of pity who lack the innate ability to help themselves, but rather people just like every other on this planet who possess unique personalities, dreams, and abilities but who, simply due to the lottery of life, have been put in a position where they are denied access to the opportunities that the privileged enjoy. Therefore, foreign aid entities are endowed with a responsibility to recognize this reality and understand their role of providing the education and resources that are needed to unlock the vast wealth of potential that waits to be uncovered in communities like mine around the world. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the majority of foreign aid efforts have reached this point, but thanks to my experience with Vibrant Village I can see that there is hope for the future. Above all, I have realized that a model for effective and sustainable foreign aid does exist and, with a change of perception and focus, we can begin moving towards a world in which we work together as partners to lift each other up for the greater good of all people.