Agros Blog

Agros Hires Engagement Manager

Agros International is pleased to announce the hiring of Guillermo Mario Jiménez as Engagement Manager. This position coordinates programs designed to engage individuals, businesses, churches, and community organizations in the organization’s mission. His primary responsibilities will be to develop meaningful travel experiences that educate donors and prospects about rural poverty and issues specific to Central America and Agros as well as to help develop a global community.This role is part of Agros’ Resource Development and Marketing team.

Guillermo received his BA in Philosophy and Business Administration from Houghton College and MA in International Development from Eastern University. He served as the International Experience Manager for River Church Community in San Jose, CA before returning to his home country of Honduras where he served as the Development Facilitator and Advocacy Coordinator for World Vision Honduras. He also spent two years with Servant Partners in Honduras where he pioneered their community organizing efforts in an urban slum of Tegucigalpa. For the past nine months, Guillermo has served as the Interim Partner Travel Program Manager for Agros. He is also the owner of Metanoia Organic Farm in La Paz, Honduras.

“The Engagement Manager position is new to Agros,” explained Anne Baunach, Director of Resource Development. “We have added this position to help us look more holistically at our travel and education programs as resources to help us in engaging individuals, businesses, and churches in a global community. We interviewed many candidates and selected Guillermo because of his multi-faceted background and experience working both in and on behalf of the poor in Central America. We are thrilled to have him managing this program for Agros.”

Guillermo will start in this new role for Agros on December 31, 2013.

Message from Brisas del Volcán

On Sunday, December 15, Agros staff member Emily Bergstrom traveled to Chico, California to meet with supporters from Bidwell Presbyterian Church. Knowing that Emily would be with this group of faithful supporters of Brisas del Volcán, Honduras, the women of Brisas sent this note to Bidwell Presbyterian Church:

Dear Brothers and Sisters from Bidwell Presbyterian Church,
Greetings from Brisas del Volcán in the name of our father. This note is to let you know that we are working very hard to accomplish our dreams. We have been making payments on our land loans, so that one day we can become land owners. We give thanks to God for given you such a generous heart that is filled with love for us.

We, the women of Brisas del Volcán, have been praying for God’s blessing for you and your families. At the same time, we are praying that God’s wisdom and strength will fill our hearts so that we can honor your friendship and great love for us.

We always remember you fondly.

Your friends from Brisas del Volcán.

All of us at Agros International celebrate the special relationships that have been bridged between our supporters and the communities that we serve. We are so grateful to Bidwell Presbyterian Church for their faithful support of Brisas.

Agros is Hiring a Senior Accountant

Agros International is seeking to fill our Senior Accountant position. This position has primary responsibility for revenue accounting and reporting, as well as responsibilities for key portions of month-end closing processes and financial statement preparation. The position reports to the Director of Finance and Administration and works alongside the Program Accountant. Additionally, this position supervises student assistants and volunteers who are involved in gift processing, bank reconcilliations

This position requires a person who has intermediate Spanish reading and writing skills. A BA in accounting, finance or related field is required; CPA/CMA preferred.

A complete position description is available on our website at: http://www.agros.org/ag/inside-agros/careers/. Applications are being accepted until the position is filled.

Janet Stafford Joins Agros Leadership Team

Agros International is excited to announce the hiring of Janet Stafford as the Director of Finance and Administration effective December 2, 2013. Janet will be responsible for overseeing finance, accounting, operations, and human resources.

Prior to joining the leadership team of Agros, Janet was serving as a part-time CFO for two local organizations: Fortin Group and Nitze-Stagen & Co., Inc. Previously, she served as CFO for Magic Wheels, Inc., and CFO/VP for Matthew G. Norton Co. Janet began her career at Arthur Andersen where she was an audit manager th.

“We are thrilled to have someone with Janet’s background and experience join the Agros leadership team,” shared CEO Don Manning. “We look forward to being able to utilize her expertise gained in the for-profit setting to help guide our finances, accounting, and human resources work at Agros.”

Janet is also active in her community. She serves as Treasurer and Elder at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church and is in the bell choir. She also served as board member and treasurer of the Mercer Island Girls Lacrosse Club (with 185 members) and Island Choral Experience (a 200-member youth choir organization). Additionally, she has held various volunteer positions at Islander Middle School, Island Park Elementary School, and Mercer Island Presbyterian Church.

Janet was previously a CPA. She received a BS/BA in accounting with high distinction from the University of Arizona. She was recognized by the University of Arizona as the Outstanding Accounting Graduate.

Agros is Hiring Engagement Manager

Agros International is seeking to fill a new organizational position: Engagement Manager. This position, which is part of the resource development and marketing team, works with individuals, businesses, churches, and community organizations to develop meaningful travel experiences. The travel program is designed to educate donors and prospective donors about rural poverty, issues specific to Central America and Agros and help create a global community. Ultimately, the goal of this position is to transform hearts so that those engaged are committed to long-term financial support of Agros.

This position requires a person who is bilingual in English and Spanish. Superior organizational skills and the ability to be timeline driven are necessary. This position will require a great deal of collaboration with both internal and external partners and so the ability to work well within is team is critical. This position may require as much as 40% domestic and international travel.

A complete position description is available on our website at: http://www.agros.org/ag/inside-agros/careers/. Applications are being accepted until the position is filled.

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.”

Agros International Seeks Director of Finance & Administration

Agros International is seeking a Director of Finance and Administration to join our team. This is a great opportunity for someone wanting to help Agros achieve its mission by providing leadership, oversight and evaluation of the organization through planning, organizing and directing the various financial functions. This person is an integral part of the Agros senior leadership team, reporting directly to the CEO and having regular interface with the Board of Directors as well. This position has the simultaneous role of regular “hands on” duties as well as big picture strategic thinking. Thus, the successful candidate will possess the dual skill set of being a broad and big picture thinker along with one who can execute and successfully navigate details.

A copy of the position profile is located on our website at www.agros.org. Select “Inside Agros” and then “Careers”.

Recruitment for the position is being handled by LuAnn Carlson of Corporate Strategies and Development, LLC. For more information about the position or to apply, please contact LuAnn at 206.972.6967 or lcarlsonatcsdseattledotcom.

Ken Churchill to join the Resource Development team at Agros

I am excited to share that Ken Churchill will be joining the Agros International team on April 22, 2013, as the Senior Major Gifts Officer in the Resource Development department.

Ken comes to Agros with an amazing resume, a passion for Latin America, and a calling to ministry focused on serving the poor. Ken grew up in Argentina where his father was a missionary. He did his undergraduate work in Spanish and Education at Biola University and his graduate work at both Talbot Seminary and California Graduate School of Theology. He began his career as the pastor of Bible Brethren Church in Glenora, CA.

When Ken left the parish ministry, he went to work for United Parcel Service (UPS), where in four years he rose through the ranks and quickly became the Manager of Public Affairs for the Pacific region. Subsequently, he became the Vice President of Public Affairs for UPS and spent time in Washington, D.C., leading their government relations work in Latin America and Canada. Since 2003, Ken has held the role of Talent Management Specialist at World Vision, where his work focused on helping existing work groups evolve into synergistic teams. Ken is fluent in Spanish (with an Argentinean accent).

Ken has been described as a “proven servant leader with a style that stresses ‘come alongside, equipping and releasing,’” as “powerfully effective at coaching individuals and diverse groups of people for purposes of collaboration, alignment and synergy,” and as having “exceptionally strong teaching/public speaking gifts that motivate, guide and transform.”

Ken will be working alongside many of our donors, helping them to explore opportunities to support Agros’ work. We are very excited that he will be joining our team. Please join us in welcoming Ken to Agros!

Job Opening at Agros International

As many of you have heard, David Carlson is leaving Agros at the end of December. He has felt God’s calling to a new adventure, a position as the Chief Development Officer for the International School of Entrepreneurial Leadership.

As we look back on the 18 years that David spent with Agros, we are so grateful for all he has done. As the first paid staff member, he has helped to build this amazing organization. We are grateful for all his contributions. We are also excited for David and for the International School of Entrepreneurial Leadership as he helps build this organization.

It is now time to begin looking for someone who will fund raise to support Agros’ work in Central America and Mexico. We have opened the position of Senior Major Gifts Officer and have retained LuAnn Carlson to help us in finding this new member of the Agros team. A copy of the job description is currently posted on Agros website at: http://www.agros.org/ag/inside-agros/careers/.

If you know of anyone who might be qualified for this position, please encourage them to apply. For questions, please contact either Anne Baunach, Director of Resource Development at (206) 528.1066 or LuAnn Carlson, Senior Partner, Corporate Strategies & Development, LLC at (206) 972.6967.

Tierras de Vida is Coming Soon

Would you like to learn more about the work that Agros is doing in Central America and Mexico? Would you like to meet two of our villagers, Marina Martinez and Carlos Sarmiento, from Bella Vista, Honduras to learn about how Agros has helped them?

Join us on Saturday, October 13 for Tierras de Vida [Lands of Life]. This annual event celebrates the work that Agros International and shares a vision for the organization’s future. This year’s theme is ‘Hope in the Hard Places’ and will focus on the life-transforming changes that are happening with families living in Agros’ villages.

Event details:
Date: Saturday, October 13, 2012
Time: 6:00 p.m.
Location: Seattle Sheraton
1400 6th Avenue, Seattle, WA

Additional details and registration information are available at www.agros.org/tdv. You may also email dedekatagrosdotorg or call the Agros office at 206.528.1066.

Marina Martinez (back left) and Carlos Sarmiento (back right) will share their story of becoming Agros villagers in Bella Vista, Honduras at Tierras de Vida on October 13.

Marina Martinez (back left) and Carlos Sarmiento (back right) will share their story of becoming an Agros villager in Bella Vista, Honduras at Tierras de Vida on October 13.

Reflections on Kurt Meyer

Kurt Meyer.  I met him almost 30 years ago in Guatemala when we were both young men.  He heard about my dream for helping the rural poor in Guatemala through land ownership, and instantly responded with his heart.  Over the years, he poured himself into the Agros cause in so many ways – as a board member and president of Fundación Agros in Guatemala, as a dreamer, friend, and encourager.  And most of all, as one whose love of Jesus translated into loving the poor.

Kurt and I sharing some moments in the Ixil in 1998.  Photos courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

Kurt and I sharing some moments in the Ixil in 1998. Photo courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

For many years Kurt ran a successful business growing and exporting bromeliads – plants that grow and thrive without roots in soil, such as orchids. His plants and flowers were of high enough quality to be in great demand in Europe.  Not surprisingly, Kurt had an encyclopedic knowledge of flora of all kinds.  On our many trips from Guatemala City to the Ixil Region to visit our Agros villages, Kurt would sometimes abruptly ask whoever the driver was to stop in the middle of nowhere.  Then he would leap out of the car and go over to the side of the road, and excitedly show those of us who followed him out of the car some rare or not so rare variety of bromeliad or other plant, give us its Latin genus name, and tell us all about its scientific classification and related orders.  Every trip with Kurt was a learning experience – not just about his beloved world of plants, but about life as well.

He was a sophisticated man with elegant manners.  He spoke Spanish, German, and English with equal fluency.  He and I shared a deep love for classical music, and every so often he would ask me to bring with me on one of my trips a particular recording he could not find in Guatemala.  These were, of course, pre-Amazon.com days.  He also had his share of suffering in life.  Along with thousands of others of German descent, he was deported from his native Guatemala during World War II.  He did not like to talk about that experience.  In more recent years, he lost his beloved wife to a sudden illness, and his only daughter in a tragic plane crash.

Kurt and I on the same trip the Ixil. Photo courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

Kurt and I on the same trip the Ixil. Photo courtesy of Mike Yukevich.

Kurt’s roots in agriculture helped us in so many ways as we built the Agros village model, and helped the people to become successful farmers.  Early on, he dreamed of building a training center in the Ixil Region where Agros villagers and others could learn the best in methods and practices to enhance their production and their lives. He even drew sketches laying out what the center would look like, with training classrooms, living quarters for visitors, and demonstration plots.  That dream was realized with the inauguration of the Agros Ixil Technology Center in Nebaj in 2007.

Kurt Meyer died early morning January 29, 2012, after suffering a series of strokes and heart attacks during recent months.  He leaves behind three sons, Kurt, Dieter and Helmuth.

Celebrating the Culmination of Two Years of Work with the World Bank in Chiapas, Mexico

Snapshot 2012-01-06 00-52-07After being recognized for our innovative work relieving rural poverty, I am excited to share that Agros has wrapped up a very successful two-year collaboration with the World Bank.  In 2008, Agros was selected along with 100 other winners from a pool of over 1,800 applicants to receive $200,000 from the World Bank Development Marketplace Competition – a competitive grant program that identifies and funds innovative, early-stage projects with high potential for development impact – to implement our project proposal.

Our project, “Land Ownership for the Rural Poor in Mexico,” was designed to purchase land for two rural farming communities in Mexico, and has since resulted – with support from other generous partnerships and foundations – in the formation of Santa Fe Ajké and Nueva Ilusión.  Not only was this a big step for our Mexico office, but it was also a huge achievement for Agros: our innovative model was recognized by a prestigious institution, and we benefited from the expertise and support of the World Bank staff that came alongside us for this project.

Through our partnership with the World Bank, Agros was able to expand to a new region in Chiapas, Mexico—the Guatemala border region in Comitán.  Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and Comitán is infamous for ethnic and economic persecution of the vast number of Guatemalan refugees who fled there during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

While visiting Comitán in 2007 in order to prepare for the establishment of Santa Fe Ajké, one man recounted to me the community’s 10-year struggle with the Mexican government to connect to a local water system. Instead of providing for the families’ basic need for water, politicians ignored the obvious urgent needs. Abandoned by both the Guatemalan and Mexican governments, one member said he felt as though the community was “not here nor there,” like citizens of neither country.

Thankfully, with the generous support of partners such as the World Bank, First Fruit Foundation, SG Foundation, and the individual networks that comprise the Santa Fe Ajké and Nueva Ilusión JWAV groups, several families from the group I visited in 2007 started the first Agros community in Comitán: Santa Fe Ajké.  From the beginning, the hard work of its community members has been evident in their motivation to continue despite two years of challenging weather, including drought and torrential rain.  For Nueva Ilusión it has been a long journey to find productive land at a reasonable price, but in June 2010 the land was finally purchased. These two communities have accomplished all of the goals set forth in the project agreement, including:

Santa Fe Ajké

  • Defined vision and values, plus a three year village development plan
  • Established seven distinct crops for food security and income generation
  • Built 20 houses and 20 latrines
  • Established a water distribution system
  • Received their promissory notes for their land loans

Nueva Ilusión

  • Defined their vision statement and new community name
  • Selected and purchased land
  • Defined vision and values, plus a three year village development plan
  • Established four distinct crops for food security, two which are sold for income generation
  • Built has 20 houses and 20 latrines

Looking ahead, Santa Fe and Nueva Ilusión still have critical steps to take that will create sustainable, long-term growth.  Though the work with the World Bank has ended, Agros will continue our work for several more years in each of these communities to ensure that they are on the path to land ownership and lasting success. You can follow these communities progress along their journey in the Village Updates by going to the Our Villages tab on our website. Thank you for your continued support!

The Evolution of Agros’ Monitoring and Evaluation System

Agros is an organization dedicated to continuous learning. One of the most important ways we learn is by closely following the results of our work through a system of program Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). Though there is unanimous agreement of the importance of M&E among development professionals, there is no single industry standard for how it should be done; monitoring development work requires responsive growth as technology improves and experts develop increasingly refined understanding of best practices.  Agros’ M&E system is relatively unique due to its emphasis on participatory methods of evaluating; in contrast to top-down systems, Agros intentionally invites the reflections of the families it serves through focus group dialogues.
5.2 Christina M&E5.2 Christina M&E2

Agros formalized its Monitoring and Evaluation system in 2006, though an informal system that included Quarterly Village Updates started much earlier. Our journey toward the practices that exist today began in 2000, when Agros contracted an outside consultant to evaluate the effectiveness of our program.  As a result of that evaluation, we expanded our program model, designing a more holistic approach to sustainable development, including our current five-component development model.

In 2005, with support from a University of Washington graduate student, Agros began laying the groundwork for what our M&E system is today, which includes participative biannual family surveys and focus groups with village women, men, and leaders to measure twenty impact indicators and learn more about the outcomes of our work. In the last two years, Agros began tracking eight of those indicators on an annual basis, for closer monitoring. Conducting M&E not only enables us to continuously strengthen our program, but also allows us to share with our valued stakeholders like you the ups and downs of development work.

In this avenue of stakeholder participation we are thrilled to share with you that, as a result of combined efforts from our staff and generous long-time partners, Agros will be launching a three-phase effort to refine and expand on our existing M&E system. In the first step of this process, an M&E expert consultant will be hired to review Agros’ work and reporting requirements and provide guidance to improve the M&E process.

As a result of the improvements to Agros’ existing M&E system, Agros will be empowered to deliver:

  • More manageable and reliable data
  • More effective programming with improved ability to identify strengths/weaknesses
  • Increased transparency and accountability in communication to supporters

At Agros, we take monitoring and evaluation practices seriously.  We are excited to continue to improve how we evaluate our work, while upholding the participatory values that define us. Our goal is to better serve rural families in Central America and Mexico, and to provide you with more information over time about the impact you’re helping to achieve

Check out our annual indicators on each village update—click on “Our Villages” at the top of the page to get started!

A Final Blog Post From Sean

Dear Agros Supporters, Partners, and Family,

After five incredible years as Director of Communications at Agros, the time has come to move on to new employment opportunities. I carry with me a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to walk alongside so many extraordinary families throughout Central America and Mexico; families who have graced us with their vulnerable and heroic stories of Desire. Suffering. Resiliency. And Hope.

We have all witnessed time and again how the stories of people who live and struggle in the developing world are simplistically reduced to caricatures of either pity or glorification.  This is particularly true when those stories are told for fundraising purposes.  On the one hand, pity is emphasized because of the enormous suffering these people have experienced.  On the other hand, they are over-romanticized and glorified as the most incredible people on earth due to their resiliency, hope, and generosity.

I do not mean to be cynical—at all.  I recognize that in many ways, these two emotional poles represent truth.  And as Director of Communications, Agros families have certainly given me cause to highlight both their suffering and resiliency.

But I also recognize that the deeper truths of any human story—as well as the truth of the Agros story–lie somewhere in the middle; in the narrative regions that speak to the fact that every human life is filled with complexity, wonder, conflict, and desire. And the tagline “ending rural poverty” can never be reduced to a single story, image, or video clip.

Over the years, Agros has learned that poverty is most comprehensively defined and understood through the concept of broken relationships.  For the rural poor, all of the essential connections and relationships that make up a healthy society have broken down: relationships with local municipalities; economic, education, and health institutions; the environment; cultural identity; and even family relationships break down as parents (and all too often, children) are forced to migrate in search of work just to survive.

Agros responds with a holistic development model built on the belief that these families have the capacity themselves to work their way out of poverty and build back these broken relationships—if given the opportunity to develop what is needed most:  farmable land, economic enterprise, and, most importantly, human dignity.

Another way of saying this is that for Agros, ending poverty is not just a phrase, a marketing slogan, or a speech to be given over a fundraising dinner.  “Ending rural poverty” IS the relationships our staff have with Tomasa, Diego, Teresa, Noemi, Mateo, Serbando, and countless other Agros families.

There are no easy fixes, no magic bullet, and no single intervention that will make generations of suffering go away.  And yet, after 27 years of faithful, hard work throughout Central America, Agros has stayed true to its original promise of empowering entire communities to work their way free from generations of poverty.  In Agros villages, I have heard families say again and again, “In our suffering and poverty, we were forgotten, abandoned, left to die.  But then Agros came.  And Agros has kept their promise.  We are not the same as before.  We have hope and our children have a new future.”

In Agros villages, hope has taken the place of despair—for generations to come.

I think this is best summed up by the words of an Agros villager in El Edén, Nicaragua when I asked him to describe what Agros means to him personally.  Without pausing, he said, “To me, Agros is a mirror.  A mirror in which we’ve been able to see our face; we have seen that we have dignity and that we matter.

I leave Agros with clarity: It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to serve the families in Agros villages by sharing with you their stories of dignity and desire.  I have also been forever changed by witnessing the life-giving generosity of so many Agros donors.  And I think of the Agros staff and board as family.  Thank you—mil gracias—to each of you. I remain your most ardent advocate.

Yours in Land, Hope, and Life,

- Sean

Navigating complexity

If you’ve had opportunity to get to know Agros and our work of empowering entire rural villages to work their way out of poverty, you’ll have heard us talk about the complex, long-term focus and impact of this work.

Following is an excerpt from an interview of Ben Ramalingam, author of the blog (and forthcoming book) Aid on the Edge of Chaos.  Interviewed by Dennis Whittle, Ben explains the nature of navigating the complex human systems inherent in poverty alleviating interventions.

International aid has been built on a very particular way of looking at the world, and this continues to dog its efforts. As a senior USAID colleague put it, because of our urgency to end poverty, we act as if development is a construction, a matter of planning and engineering, rather the complex and often opaque set of interactions that we know it to be.

…The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.

So the end result of all of this is that poverty, vulnerability, disease are all treated as if are simple puzzles. Aid, and aid agencies are then presented as the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. This not only gives aid a greater importance than perhaps it is due, but it also misrepresents the nature of the problems we face, and the also presents aid flow as very simple.

Instead of engaging with complexity, it is dismissed, or relegated to an afterthought, and the tools and techniques we employ make it easy for us to do this. We treat complex things as if they were merely complicated.

(For complex systems) there is no mathematical model which can say, if X is the situation then do Y. Sustainability, healthy communities, raising families have all been given as examples of such complex systems and processes. Peacebuilding would be another, women’s empowerment, natural resource management, capacity building initiatives, innovation systems, the list goes on and on. Complexity science pulls back the curtain on these processes and it can force you to think about the world you live in in a different way.”

As a learning organization, Agros strives to “think of the world a different way” such that real, lasting transformation can take place for an entire community rising out of multiple generations of systemic poverty. Yes it takes funding, resources, partnerships, a proven model; this is precisely why the Agros approach to poverty alleviation is holistic, integrated, and can only work when village members themselves are the main actors and navigators of their own future.  A future that is undergirded, however, by a web of initial funding, credit, partnerships, and trabajo, trabjo, y mas trabajo!

Gifts that give

We’re approaching that special time of year when we give more of our time, energy and resources to the people and causes that mean most to us. Some take time to spend with friends and family to celebrate the holidays in different ways. At our holiday staff party, we all donated gifts to a homeless shelter for youth in our neighborhood. Our in-country staff in Central America and Mexico take a much-deserved rest from their busy schedules traveling between their home, office and Agros communities, often being away from their family for a week at a time.

Those living in Agros villages celebrate in many different ways as well—and many give gifts to one another in response to the blessings they’ve received over the year.  We’ve had many villagers take from the surpluses they have and offer it to even poorer, neighboring families.

Personally, I’m most impacted by the generosity of the Agros families not just during this holiday season, but throughout their daily lives, even as they are fighting their way out of the cycle of poverty one day at a time.

Three generations in GuatemalaFor example, this calendar year, a long-standing activity in Guatemala villages, Women’s Community Banking, received funding to expand to four additional countries. These lending groups are sustainable in the long-term and are designed to increase access to small loans in the community and neighboring areas.

Very few rural women have access to even the smallest loans from banks or MFIs due to their lack of collateral. Through Women’s Community Banking, however, women serve as collateral for each other—if one woman defaults on her loan, it’s up to the others to cover her payment. Each woman contributes to a joint savings account which is eventually grown to provide loans to individuals outside of the Community Bank. In this way, the Community Banks are gifts that keep giving—each woman’s financial success and responsibility makes a positive impact on her family and the entire region that the bank grows to serve.

TdV09-Slideshow-49Since January, women’s Community Banks increased from 23 banks of 400 women in Guatemala to 31 banks in Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, involving over 500 women. More than $135,000 has been distributed in loans in the last 12-month period.

Another example of gifts that keep giving are animal projects.

293O3600Animals represent a long-term investment for the rural family. 88% of Agros families own animals to sustain their livelihood. Animals provide food, income diversity and security and labor-saving work in the families’ fields. Many Agros communities receive rabbits, cows, sheep or goats, along with training in animal husbandry techniques with the expectation that the first offspring will be passed on to another neighboring family.

By passing on the blessing of animals, more families have been able to access this gift of health and economic security that animals provide.

There are so many ways that Agros’ work in Central America and Mexico multiplies and continues to give after a first initial investment. Beyond Women’s Community Banking and passing on the blessing of animals, the families we serve teach us what gift giving really looks like and how powerful it can be.

You, too, can give the gift that keeps giving! And with every dollar matched now through December 31st, your impact is doubled!

· Women’s Small Business Loan
· Women’s Economic Initiative Training
· Raise a Cow
· Flock of Chicks
· Give a Goat
· Tend an Animal Menagerie

Restoring lives and land in the aftermath of war

November 6th marked the ninth annual UN International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Realizing that this is a rather long title for an international ‘day’, and that this may seem like an obscure connection for Agros to make, it does in fact present an opportunity to highlight several important aspects of our work.

Agros was founded in 1982, in the midst of a violent and decades-old civil war whose epicenter was located in a region of Guatemala called the “Ixil Triangle”.  During this 36-year civil war, more than 200,000  lives were claimed, hundreds of villages destroyed, and more than one million people forced to flee their homes (any refugees fled to Chiapas, Mexico–where Agros currently has six villages in development).

More than 80% of the victims in the war were indigenous Mayans.  The atrocities that took place during this time are unimaginable and overwhelming. Even long after the violence ended, the land and the people were left ravaged, desolate, and in the words of many Ixil people…”we were forgotten.”

Conventional wisdom might dictate that starting a development organization in the middle of a civil war might not be the most advisable; yet Agros’ history is one of responding to enormous need felt by people who are among the most remote, impoverished people in our world.  The Agros response is to alleviate poverty by providing rural people with what is most essential: secure ownership of their own, farmable land; sustainable economic development; and holistic community support.

This connection we make to this UN sponsored international day is in the consideration of “damage to the environment in times of armed conflict that impair ecosystems and natural resources long after the conflict has ceased“.  Our work to connect rural people to their own land has necessarily involved empowering rural families to rebuild and restore land and villages destroyed by civil conflict.

Virtually all of the Agros villages located in the Ixil region of Guatemala were founded in the midst (or aftermath) of this violence.  Today, these families are learning to thrive; hope has been and is continuing to be restored.

To learn more about these villagers–in their own words–and to see what it means for them to have the opportunity to rebuild their lives and land, please see the video “Restoring Lives” in the Agros video gallery.

Damages from Tropical Storm Matthew

Last weekend, Tropical Storm Matthew passed across Central America and southern Mexico affecting all of the countries where Agros works. The storm brought torrential rains, flooding, and crop damage. The impact of the storm was exacerbated by the fact that the region had previously experienced 6 weeks of constant, heavy rain that left much of the land fully saturated. By the time Tropical Storm Matthew arrived, conditions were set for significant rain damage.

We have been in close communication with all Agros Country Directors as they have evaluated the storm’s impact and formulated plans to reinvest and support the communities through this time.

The initial damage estimates are:

Mexico:
Basic grain crops damaged in three communities: San Pedrito, Santa Fe Ajké, & Espinal Buena Vista.

Honduras:
Basic grain crops damaged in all four communities and plantain crops showing delayed growth development.

Communities affected: Brisas del Volcán, Nuevo Amanecer, Bella Vista, &La Piedra de Horeb.

El Salvador:
Basic grain crops damaged in two communities: San Diego de Tenango and La Esperanza.

Nicaragua:
Basic grain crops damaged in all seven of the affected communities; coffee & plantain crop damage in four communities; the greatest damage is in Luz de Mañana–four families are currently staying with family members in the city of Rivas until the flooding subsides. There was also housing and latrine damage in the community of Nueva Esperanza.

Communities affected: El Edén, San José, Nueva Esperanza, Futuro del Mañana, San Marcos de Belen, Luz del Mañana, & Norwich.

Guatemala:
No reported damages.

The most significant damage occurred in Nicaragua, particularly with the corn and bean crops, which were to serve as a primary food source for future months.

In Honduras and El Salvador, the Country Directors and their staff are working with the local authorities to access available local resources to help the communities replant.

Agros International’s priorities are to make certain that essential food security remains in all villages; that income generation continues; and to ensure access to needed healthcare and housing repairs as necessary. Agros International has emergency funds that will be leveraged towards this effort; local authorities are making resources available; and Agros will be launching an appeal to raise an additional $16,500 to cover the unexpected losses.

Agros + SalaamGarage = Social Change

I recently had the exciting opportunity to travel to Guatemala with an amazing partnering organization called SalaamGarage.  SalaamGarage is a digital storytelling, citizen journalism organization that partners with international NGOs and local non-profits. Participants (amateur and professional photographers, writers, videographers, etc.) connect with international NGOs, like Agros, to create and share independent media projects that raise awareness and cause positive change in their online and offline social communities.

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SalaamGarage group with pea farmers in La Esperanza—photo credits: Patrick Lennox Wright

We started our journey with the six photographers from across the US in Antigua, Guatemala to get our bearings and introduce some to Central America for the first time.  From there, we drove six hours to the Ixil region where several of our Agros Guatemala villages are located.  We spent three amazing days visiting the inspiring families in Belén, La Esperanza and Cajixay, learning more about their history during the armed conflict and their journey afterwards with Agros, sharing food and exchanging smiles for the camera.

As the Agros trip leader and translator, I had the privilege of seeing Agros through the new eyes and lenses of these visiting photojournalists and facilitating a very special conversation across different cultures.  Several times, I was asked by a member of the group to translate something like, Please let her know that I’m changed forever.  From our meeting, I am going to seriously rethink how I live my life.

Amanda Koster, founder of SalaamGarage shared, I’ve done a lot of traveling around the world and have worked with a lot of NGOs.  Agros is the most effective and holistic development organization I’ve seen so far, with a powerful emphasis and successful model for long term self empowerment and sustainability.  This was the most amazing trip so far we’ve taken with SalaamGarage.

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Ana weaving a huipil for her daughter’s high school graduation ceremony

After interviews with 18 families in three villages, including time with La Esperanza pea farmers who are exporting to England through a secure regional contract, the elementary school students in Belén who told us their dreams to be teachers, farmers, police officers and lawyers, leaders of the women-run community bank in Cajixay, and a fabulous meal of homemade boxboles made and shared together with men, women and children on our last day, we came home both exhausted and exhilarated.  I know that the stories and images of these courageous, hard-working people will not be forgotten, but shared with diverse networks through the group’s multi-media projects.  Stories like Ana’s, who in La Esperanza proudly weaves each day in an Agros textile project to make enough money to send her daughter Petronila to high school.  A few weeks ago, we saw her working on the most beautiful weaving of all, the one Petronila will wear at her graduation ceremony coming up in November.

The SalaamGarage photographers have returned full of energy and passion and ideas to share stories like Ana’s. Keep in touch with their work and SalaamGarage on Facebook and Twitter.  You can share the Agros story to help cause social change, too.  Check out how at http://onevillage.agros.org/.

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Elementary school in Belén—photo credits: Patrick Lennox Wright

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Agros Guatemala staff taking a turn with the big lenses! photo credits: Sam Lee

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Photo Credit: Sam Lee

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