Agros Blog

Is Poverty Just too Overwhelming?

In one of those scheduling train wrecks that often happen in the short, frenetic Seattle summers, I found myself sitting in a small bistro in Normandy tucked inside a 700-year old medieval building just days after returning from a week in the mud and rain in rural Nicaragua.  My son and I were discussing world poverty, admittedly an out of place topic on a family vacation.  Our friction point was whether one person should even try to make a difference when the problem was so overwhelming.  On the verge of becoming the quintessential obnoxious American tourists, we agreed to a détente and ordered another pint.

Despite ending the evening pleasantly, the conversation returned to me around 4:00 a.m. in a half-asleep recollection of my trip to Nicaragua.  I recalled vividly walking up the steep, muddy path from Narcisso’s five-acre farm in the village of San Benito to the community house.  The walk took us twenty minutes and I was breathing hard when we crested the hill.  During the harvest season, Narcisso will make this same trek dozens of times daily with 100 pound sacks of yucca, cacao, corn, beans or coffee on his back.   The weight of each sack translates into cash for his family of four and moves Narcisso closer to his goal of paying off his land.  He doesn’t complain as he describes his labors.  Yet, he tells me he hopes Agros will build a road to replace the path so that he can get his crops to market quicker.

Narcisso is probably in his late thirties or early forties although his eyes hold more years than his hardened physique would suggest.  His face is not menacing, but it is not lively either.  Rather, he looks at me with a quiet gaze as if measuring my stature.  I know nothing about his childhood, but his face tells me he has seen suffering and is well acquainted with hardship.  Our life experiences could not be more disparate.  Finally, he asks me, “What do you do?”

I was wearing an Agros hat and Narcisso had never seen me with the other Agros staff.  No doubt, he simply wanted to know who I was.  Yet, his question brought me back to my dinner conversation with my son Nick.  How could an innocent question from a hard-working farmer thousands of miles removed from my neighborhood pack such a punch?  What was I doing as the president of Agros?  I’m 54 years old.  I’ll never see an end to hunger in my lifetime.

When we reached the community center, about a dozen children were waiting on us.  Arnoldo, the Agros health promoter, was starting a demonstration on hand washing, sprinkling paprika on the children’s hands to simulate the spread of germs.  I looked around at the hundreds of people gathered outside this simple cinderblock structure on a dirt road lined with houses each with a meticulously kept garden of fresh flowers.  A few women stood on the stoop of their doors smiling at the goings on.  In a shelter next to us I saw supplies that would be used to install ventilated stoves in the houses, a big step in reducing respiratory illnesses.  None of this existed five years ago.

I know there are billions of children living in poverty.  I know that hundreds die every day from starvation.  But today, in this village, none of these children will die.

As several young girls giggled at the two boys who volunteered to demonstrate proper hand-washing, I found my answer to Narcisso’s question and to my son’s dilemma.  I am not here to eradicate poverty from the planet.  Those thoughts and that approach to the problem are misguided.  That way of thinking is all about my need, my desire to make an impact.  It is rooted in my unquenchable search for meaning, for something bigger than my life as it currently is.  If I am brutally honest, it exposes a lack of faith.  In a sense, it is like saying that I will believe in God only if I can feel God working through me.  My faith is conditional unlike God’s love for me.

The question is not how can one person solve such a huge problem.  The question is what does God ask of us?  God asks only that we love mercy, practice justice and walk humbly with Him.  Sometimes, the humble walking part is the hardest.

Please consider giving to Agros as we launch our first regional project designed to reach 5,000 people.   We can’t promise that we will solve world hunger.  But we can promise that we will keep trying, and along the way we will create hope and opportunity for hard-working people like Narcisso, his family and their community.

Immigration and Nueva Esperanza

52,000 children.

According to stories in The New York Times and The Economist, more than 52,000 minors from Central America have been detained in a dangerous, desperate attempt to enter the US. The count is 52,000 since October, and 9,000 of those last month alone – a heartbreaking record. Compared to the 15,700 children detained in the prior year, authorities predict that this number will balloon to an unprecedented 240,000 by year’s end.

Alone, without parents, some are as young as five. Their mothers have sewn phone numbers of family members living in the US into their clothing.

These numbers startle, but let’s not allow statistics to sanitize the dialog. This is about children encountering a real-life chamber of horrors including rape, kidnapping and death.  We know how many have been detained, but we don’t know how many didn’t last long enough.

It is almost impossible for me to relate to this incredible tragedy.  I get anxious letting my seventeen-year-old son drive alone at night, even with his cell phone fully charged in case of an emergency.  I cannot imagine being so desperate as to send my child on a 1300 mile trek with barely enough food and water to last a couple of days.

Popular media has lost sight of the children, opting to focus on the political consequences for republicans or democrats instead of the heart-wrenching humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.

It reminds me of the Scribes and Pharisees arguing about violating the Sabbath instead of, as Jesus did, healing a person in need.  As I write, thousands of children are landing at the border of this country, famished, frightened and literally dying for some small act of kindness.  Do we really care how this will affect the next election?  Are we really that calloused a nation?

This tragedy demands immediate action to help these children, but it also demands a long term solution to the root causes of the problem.  These children risk their lives to come to this country because they live in extreme poverty with none of the opportunities we have in this country to make a living.   I just returned from a week in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, visiting two of our communities.  In Nueva Esperanza, Julio and his wife, Santa, hosted us in the home they now own after working tirelessly to pay off their land loan.  Their daughter Hazel (12) walks more than an hour one way every day to go to school, overjoyed with the opportunity to learn.

I noticed the entire family could not stop smiling and when I asked Julio why, he told me he how his life has changed. He told me how Agros had given he and his wife, Santa, the opportunity to be successful and he seized it.  With land and technical assistance for Agros coupled with his hard work he and Santa pushed hard to use the proceeds from every coffee harvest to pay off their land. “With our land loan paid, everything we make now comes to my family. I cannot imagine being anywhere else.”

We have a choice: debate policies and politics or force ourselves to look into the faces of these children piling up at our border. If we truly want to permanently solve this immigration crisis, then we must use our resources to bring hope and opportunity to desperately poor families where they live.

Julio and Santa are among thousands who have seized the opportunity to rise above poverty. Given the chance to work their own land in their own country among a community of neighbors, Julio and Santa would never send Hazel any farther than the community school.

Family by family and community by community, Agros has permanently broken the cycle of extreme poverty.  With your help we can stem the tide of this human misery.

Will you join me?

View from the Field

CEO Don Manning recently returned from a visit to four villages in Nicaragua and brought back this update.

You may be surprised to know this, but one of the hardest aspects of development work is not developing a solution to a particular problem, like increasing crop yields. It is getting the farmer to adopt the solution. If it is a proven solution, if it is guaranteed to increase his income, why in the world would a farmer not adopt the practice? To answer that question, let me ask you one. When was the last time you backed out of, say, a New Year’s resolution? Within six months, only 44% of those who make New Year’s resolutions are still in the game. So, I’ll ask you again. Why would any of us not adopt better eating habits or stick with an exercise regimen when we know these things increase both the length and quality of our lives?

This is why Agros hires people like Urania Gutierrez, our human development specialist in Nicaragua. Urania’s job is part marketing expert, part psychologist, part life coach and part customer service representative. She has the unenviable job of convincing families to accept levels of risk beyond anything they could have imagined, and work harder than ever before, in the hope that doing so will improve their health and increase their incomes. Despite the odds, Urania is extremely successful in her work. Once you meet her, you will understand why. Her winning smile, bright eyes and kind heart make it hard not to instantly like her. Yet it is her expertise at building relationships, and her willingness to doggedly walk beside the families, that produces results.

Without Urania and our other human development officers, the proven Agros Development Model would just be a slick and glossy book sitting on a shelf. If she ever becomes a personal trainer, I would be the first to sign up. With her help, I might actually keep that New Year’s resolution. Fortunately for Agros, Urania is committed to our villagers.

View from the Field

CEO Don Manning recently returned from a visit to four villages in Nicaragua and brought back this update.

Boris knew there was a problem long before the rest of us. Sweating and sticky from the short, steep hike through the shaded coffee fields, I emerged into a cleared, cultivated plot of peppers with several other visitors from the United States. The deep green plants stood about two to three feet high in neat mounded rows. To my untrained eyes, the field looked magnificent, each row beautifully symmetrical and carefully covered with plastic to keep out the weeds. Drip irrigation lined the field and tightly strung twine, like clotheslines, stretched the length of each row supporting the plants. I could not spot a single weed in his entire field. To think that these three young men standing proudly among their crop had done all this back-breaking work by hand just amazed me. I shared their pride. An enterprise loan from Agros had provided the needed capital for these hard-working young men to start their crop.

As the young men told us about their work, Boris Corpeño, Agros’ Regional Director of Economic Development, listened intently. Periodically, he bent down and examined the dirt, rolling it between his fingers; or gently inspected the plants, lifting the leaves and examining the growing peppers. When the young men finished talking, Boris waited until others had asked their questions. Then he asked a simple question: “Do you have everything you need to be successful?” The three men quickly responded yes. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Do you need more advice or technical support?”

Boris has the look and continence of a wise and kindly grandfather. His gaze was intense, but his eyes sparkled with a hint of amusement. Without in any way demeaning the three men or their impressive efforts, Boris began to ask them questions. Did they know that by spacing the plants further apart they could increase their yield? Did they know that putting up barriers between fields would reduce the spread of disease? Did they know why some of their plants were diseased? The young men knew the answers to some of his questions and were skeptical about others. With confidence, they let Boris know that they had the disease problem under control. They would not replant until all the existing plants were destroyed and removed. Boris probed further. Did they understand that the disease was also in the soil and any new pepper crop planted in that field would be infected? As Boris pushed them, their resistance and skepticism ebbed until one of the men said a bit sheepishly, “I suppose we could use some more technical assistance.” Boris had won them over. More importantly, he had expanded their horizons. Getting four or five healthy peppers per plant was no longer acceptable. Now the young men wanted ten or twelve healthy peppers per plant. As they began to mentally convert the greater yield into their potential earnings, the skepticism disappeared and smiles returned to their faces.

Over the past year, Agros has invested in technical expertise and competence. Not only have we hired full-time expert agronomists like Boris Corpeño, we are reexamining every aspect of the Agros model with the help of experts in multiple disciplines like health, nutrition, land selection, and microfinance. Within the next six months, these experts, working in collaboration with our staff, will identify specific techniques, processes, and strategies for expanding our work and improving our results. Like the three young men proudly standing in their field, we want to push beyond our current success, and like the three young men now armed with the technical expertise from Boris, we will expand our reach and improve our methods. We will, both metaphorically and literally, increase our harvest.

Later that day I caught up with Boris sitting at a table punching away on his computer. “Que paso?” I asked. He was drafting a specific plan of action for the three young men with whom we had visited. Boris smiled and looked at me, and said, “I love my job.”

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