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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Seeds for a Future Part 3: Creating a sustainable 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.

In our experience, many Guatemalans at all levels are entrepreneurial and will respond to business and management training, notwithstanding their limited educational backgrounds. We define sustainability as economic and human development programs which when once established can continue financially and managerially without the on-going infusion of outside money. (Such a definition does not include programs whose purposes are more humanitarian in nature such as healthcare, general education, welfare and community security. Those programs almost always need subsidy and if they do not, it may be fair to ask whether they serve the poor.)

It matters not if the ultimate business is to be privately owned by graduates of the training program or by the community or a cooperative of community members. What matters is that the business can continue to operate with a positive cash flow that enables it to grow, provide jobs and sell ethical products or services. For example, in one aspect of the work we are doing, people are being trained how to manage the growing side of a nursery that will produce seedlings of all vegetables needed for the food security and nutrition program. But at the same time, if they do not establish the nursery as a successful business, it will fail within a few months of when the NGO stops providing money. Consequently, we include business training on everything from business planning and marketing, to bookkeeping, HR management, contracts, and selling that is appropriate in the local context. We think it is both unethical and unfair to train people on the technical side without also giving them the tools to keep the operation going. Why train people to fail?

Seeds for a Future seems to already be creating a sustainable impact. What started with 30 families in the beginning of 2012, our food security and nutrition program in Chocola has caught on fire, jumping to nearly 100 families, with no signs of slowing down. These successes have led young people, and both men and women within the communities to higher levels of participation. We hope to continue this success through 2013, and beyond, helping these families and communities plant their seeds for more promising futures.

The founding members of Semillas Para al Futuro (Seeds for a Future) include Suzanne and Earl de Berge, and Hal Green, successful business people and generous philanthropists, who were first introduced to Chocolá as Earthwatch volunteers in 2004. While working on an archaeological site under the village of Chocolá, they discovered much more than ancient relics. They found an opportunity to help a small community work its way out of poverty while preserving its historical heritage.


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