Fair warning: this is long! However this post is also an attempt to answer two fundamental question at the heart of everything we do:
“What is poverty… and… what is Agros doing to help?”
(Note: if you want the short answer, then watch this video!)
These are basic questions we hear all the time. Whether it’s on Oprah or at a U2 concert, people hear the statistics, see the pictures, and may even weep at the stories of “the poor”, but with so many approaches and definitions and attempts to help, what does it mean to really end poverty?
The first questions that often come up are numeric in nature: “How many people are poor?” “How much money do they make?” “How much money are you asking me to give in order to help?”
Answers are of course numerous.
For example, in terms of the numbers and economic indicators, the World Bank estimates that approximately 3 billion people fall under the international poverty line of $2.50 a day.
In other words, according to the World Bank, almost half of the planet lives in poverty.
Think about that. Half the planet.
(And in Central America specifically, where Agros works, more than 60% live in poverty.)
But what is poverty?
Poverty is a complex phenomenon, no doubt. Income is an important component, but access to healthcare, education, employment, sanitation, and clean water also have a tremendous impact on quality of life.
Intangible factors–including discrimination, empowerment, community support, or having a sense of basic worth and dignity are hard to measure, but are all critical determinants of poverty.
At Agros, we have seen that poverty affects the whole person within entire communities. It’s impossible to isolate single factors that affect just individuals. Therefore, our approach and definition of poverty is holistic.
Agros defines poverty as ‘broken relationships’. We use this definition to create a basis to understand and interact with the multiple dimensions of poverty.
What does this mean?
For the poor (and particularly the rural poor), all of the fundamental connections and relationships that make up a sustainable way of life are damaged or destroyed. This results in the destruction of access to basic community systems, opportunities, and material resources, but also the erosion and eradication of human dignity and worth.
When we define poverty as broken relationships, we’re not speaking in platitudes.
You can measure and quantify the systemic and pervasive effects of broken relationships through per capita poverty statistics including life expectancy, undernourishment, unemployment rates and literacy rates.
Further, the fundamental failures of local systems, infrastructure, and services are exacerbated when village-level relationships with local and national municipalities and institutions break down, resulting in little or no access to education, healthcare, credit, or sustainable employment opportunities. The resulting desperation is an underlying cause of families being forced apart for months and years to work in urban areas, distant plantations, or immigrating to find work in other countries.
You can measure these broken relationships in the amount of time family members spend broken apart as one or more attempt to migrate for hard-to-find work.
If these broken relationships can be measured, what does this look like in human terms?
Imagine: that your husband and 13 year-old son spend four months of the year working on a coffee plantation hundreds of miles away for extremely low wages. You are left alone during these months, hungry and desperate to provide for the remaining children. You have no access to public services or clean water, and hunger is pervasive.
Imagine: You stumble into a dirt-floor shack after a day of back-wrenching labor. Your work for the day has earned you less than a dollar to feed a family of four children. You depend on agriculture for your survival and livelihood, but do not own land of your own, so are forced to rent a small parcel of hard, dry land to eke out a meager crop of corn and beans. You go to sleep at night listening to your children crying themselves to sleep with hunger. The despair is crushing.
Imagine: A barefoot child walks for miles to collect water and firewood for the family. She has never been to school, never owned a book, never been taught to write her name. If she becomes ill, access to medical care is non-existent or limited. There is nothing in her future but more of the same – hopelessness created by the cycle of extreme poverty.
At Agros we see firsthand the impact of broken relationships within extreme poverty. But most importantly, we also see that these relationships can be restored.
We’ve learned, however, that in seeking to truly eradicate poverty you cannot reduce the solutions to just the individual or even family level. To create true, lasting transformation it is critical to address how the causes of extreme poverty stretch across communities and destroy entire generations.
Because poverty affects the whole person within the community, the solution must be holistic. Single interventions to poverty alleviation can have a significant impact, but they are often limited in scope, sustainability, and long-term impact.
You can treat a symptom, but it’s better to find a lasting, sustainable cure.
Given all of the above, the basic question that drives everything we do at Agros is this: what does is take for an entire community to lift themselves out of poverty?
This is the internal question we ask ourselves in response to the more basic question of “how can you help?”
Our answer is in five parts. Five components, really.
The Agros development model is designed to restore the multiple broken connections between individuals and their communities, empowering them to build back both economic prosperity and human dignity. We do this through a unique, integrated, holistic model that encompasses five core components:
Help families define a vision for a new community and develop the local leadership required to create a self-sustaining, thriving community.
Work with families to identify and purchase agricultural land on credit and use their payments to purchase land for other new communities.
Community Education & Training
Create opportunities for adequate healthcare, education, adult literacy and spiritual growth.
Housing & Infrastructure
Implement community and individual construction projects such as houses, schools, irrigation systems, latrines, infrastructure and community centers.
Sustainable Economic Growth
Develop agricultural production and support income-generating activities through microenterprise loans and technical training.
These five components form an integrated approach that we call 360° development. The components are based on this notion of enabling communities to restore for themselves the basic relationships that make up a healthy, thriving, sustainable community.
Economic considerations are key–income, business development, loans and credit: But looking holistically–empowering women, establishing a community leadership structure, literacy, family planning, access to healthcare, and most importantly–restoring basic human dignity… these are all important parts of the whole process.
And you’ll notice that while these are issues that people in “developed” nations strive to answer, they are nevertheless human issues and must be addressed in even the most remote, rural, impoverished village.
And while we take a holistic, community-based approach, we believe that every life has worth, and every family matters. And rather than base our work exclusively on an assessment of needs, our approach seeks to build on the values, dreams, and resources of the families themselves.
You see, at the heart of all of this, we do not believe the poor are a problem to be solved. We believe that have what it takes to list themselves out of poverty.
So we don’t work with a village community by imposing a “development program” based on top-down, theoretical solutions. Instead, we work through a participatory, values-based planning process that results in a master plan being created by the community themselves. This plan will encompass the five components of the Agros model, but the specifics of implementation will be created by the families themselves.
And it takes time. There is no easy solution to generations of extreme poverty. However, by empowering villagers to identify, enhance, and grow their own capacity for achievement, social, environmental, and economic sustainability for everyone in the village is ensured.
An Agros village is highly organized, socially supportive, commercially competitive and environmentally sound. As families thrive under new conditions of stability and security, they are able to develop agricultural businesses; develop and own assets; establish new pathways to education and healthcare; and forge partnerships with other organizations and government municipalities.
All of these integrated benefits and experiences result in the transformation of a community, and are passed on to the next generation.
After living in so many generations of poverty characterized by a fundamental degradation of human dignity, as families are given the necessary training, support, and capital to build a better future, not only is poverty alleviated, but basic human dignity is restored for everyone involved.
Want to see what this looks like? Watch this video!
Agros is in the business of poverty eradication for the long-term. We do not believe in simple, easy ‘fixes’ to complex problems. Our model provides a framework in which communities are capable of indefinitely maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society.
The vision and impact of Agros’ work is designed to end rural poverty across entire rural villages and through multiple generations. And with 40 village projects across five countries, this is happening… one village at a time!