Earl de Berge

Seeds for a Future Part 3: Creating a sustainable future

posted by
Suzanne and Earl de Berge

Founders of Seeds for a Future

This post is a continuation of Seeds for a Future Part 2: Understanding communities and traditions.

“Our goal is to provide the community with a 'sustainable' program.”


This may be the most overused and least accurate phrase we hear nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) utter in Guatemala. There are examples all over the country of programs that simply sputtered and died after the NGO left town: there are empty medical clinics, non-functioning water works, empty private schools, farmers raising tons of luscious strawberries but with no means to get them to market, and food/nutrition programs for which little is known about whether the training provided is continued after the NGO leaves or even if it had an lasting impact on the participants. Maybe they did some good while they were working with a community, but when the organizations left, the communities or groups they helped were unable to “sustain” the program because they were not taught exactly how to sustain it.

Before raising the hopes of any community, one of the first things an NGO should ask itself is: After we leave, what will remain in the community, and is it something they want and can sustain?

If the NGO’s work is project oriented (for example, assembling and installing 25 new clean wood burning stoves in the homes of poor people and nothing more) then the answer is simple: “we paid for and installed 25 new stoves for needy families.” But if the NGO’s goal is to create a sustainable new stove program that can be run by local people, create jobs and grow, the NGO will need to include training and teachers that can go beyond building stoves ... such things as marketing, work force and business management, accounting, banking, securing lines of credit, contracts, meeting government regulations, and so on. This is not so daunting as it sounds, for there are many excellent university based programs in Guatemala where business professors consult on the side or have practicum programs where advanced degree students are required to do projects in communities that need to learn their skills.

Seeds for a Future Part 2: Understanding communities and traditions

posted by
Suzanne and Earl de Berge

Founders of Seeds for a Future

This post is a continuation of Seeds for a Future Part 1: Getting your NGO off the ground.

When starting a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in a community other than your own, it is important to recognize that there are cultural barriers (try to call these "opportunities") to consider. Men, women and young adults live within age and gender roles that are deeply ingrained into their communities and ways of life, which can affect your operations.

Before you invest too much time and financial resources into your NGO, it is wise to get to know the community and participants: identify potential leaders among the men, women, and young adults, and adjust your cultural orientation to see things through their eyes. Hold discussions with participants and find out what will work for them, and in which motivated community members are afforded opportunities to put their vision on the table. Draw people on the exterior of the circle into your discussions. It is not that they do not have ideas, but rather, that they need to feel safe in putting their ideas on the table. Small, intimate round table discussion among peers using a talking stone can lead to a lot of insight and consensus building.

When we first began work in Chocolá, our consulting anthropologist and community resident insisted we work principally with the elders of the community to win their support and to gain an understanding of their vision for the community. However, the majority of the elders (all men) were frozen in place by fear and resisted change that did not conform to their worldview or their traditional role as decision-makers. Younger men in the group may have seen a different vision, but cultural barriers prevented them from challenging the reticence of the senior elders.

We also learned in this process that it is pointless to advocate “community” consensus on “community goals” because the village was really just a collection of neighborhood and family clans who tended to put clan above community, and the elders really only governed themselves. This called for a refocusing of priorities from who we should be working with to what we should be working on. We concluded that we needed generic programs that transcended elder or neighborhood issues and which could be the template in which people could experience the values of learning, working together, and earning a little bit of extra money.

Seeds for a Future Part 1: Getting your NGO off the ground

posted by
Suzanne and Earl de Berge

Founders of Seeds for a Future

The observations presented here are drawn from six years of work in an indigenous Guatemala village of about 1,500 families called Chocolá. Our experiences may not apply to other rural communities. However, from our conferences and discussions with other NGOs and our interviews and work within other communities, we suspect our experiences are more common than they are unique.

The end of the Guatemalan Civil War resulted in a flood of non-governmental organization (NGO) programs spreading across the country in the hope of helping desperately poor people gain everything from their human rights, to better health care, food and nutrition, and training in governance. Most deserve to be applauded, but because the government and many NGOs find it quicker and less costly to pass out money, services, and equipment for “immediate impact” on critical issues, there has been a lack of emphasis on human resources. The absence of such training may leave communities fighting over the goods and services, rather than learning how to work together toward critical common goals. Many communities came to look to the government and NGOs for charity rather than for the human resource development that they need in order to gain control of their futures.

The observations presented in this blog post deal with some of the things we have learned while founding and then running a small community development NGO in an indigenous Guatemala village of about 1,500 families, called Chocolá. Our experiences may not apply to all rural communities. But, from our conferences and discussions with other NGOs and our interviews and work within other communities, we suspect our experiences are more common than they are unique. Large NGOs may have all the experience and tools they need to deal with some of these issues, but younger start-up NGOs with modest budgets and small staffs might find these lessons of value.

Seeds for a Future (Seeds) is an Arizona based 501(c)3 with an on-the-ground partner organization of the same name in Guatemala. Our long-term goal is to help the community develop leadership skills, create enterprises that provide jobs and to help Guatemalans gain the self-confidence needed to identify and pursue a vision for themselves that is inclusive of men, women, young adults and children.

The first thing we did, prior to initiating any work in Chocolá, Guatemala was to organize a body of Guatemala business, academic, and community program professionals to advise us. Through connecting with these individuals we were able to gain a clearer picture of the Chocolá community. It helped us understand the interactions between individuals and learn about the types of NGOs that had failed in the past, eventually resulting in our adoption of the key principles that now guide our organization. Without these initial interactions, Seeds would have been unable to offer its ideas and assistance in a cultural framework of relevance to the citizens of Chocolá.

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