The Key to Sustainability

In over thirty years of traveling around the world and learning about solutions to end poverty, the question that seems to be the most important one to ask is this:

Are these solutions sustainable?

Of course I care about other aspects of how poverty is being rolled out in the most vulnerable places on the planet. I want to make sure that efforts are done with respect and dignity with those who are meant to benefit from them. I like to make sure that efforts are making a quantifiable difference in the lives of the poor so that they may thrive and be a blessing to others. But as the President of a ministry that has the inspired mission to “end all forms of human poverty,” I cannot simply stop with the question, “Are we making an impact?” I am compelled to ask, “Are we making a LASTING impact?”

11391356_10100227181628144_4303911092769871738_nDuring my recent trip to Samar, Philippines, asking this question was, in part, my quest. Following the devastating crush of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, which set records as the strongest storm to ever make landfall, I wanted to see how the Filipino people were responding to this tragic event and if their solutions appear to be making a sustained impact.

In short, and generally speaking, the communities FH has walked with since Typhoon Haiyan are thriving!

But why? It’s not always the case that so soon after a cataclysmic disaster a community is revitalized physically and spiritually. In fact, in my experience this process typically takes years! So what element of the relief effort made this unique? One answer was vividly apparent to me.

Community-Owned Transformation

Photo Credit - Tanya Martineau

Photo Credit – Tanya Martineau

From the moment we entered the community of Basey, all we could hear about was how the community was fully committed to the self-penned rallying cry “Better than Before.” And while this enthusiasm is inspiring on its own, the truly jaw-dropping thing was how they were taking responsibility to make this happen. The community knew that it wasn’t Food for the Hungry (FH) staff who would bring about lasting transformation. It wasn’t going to be outside organizations or the government who would piece their lives back together. They had the power within themselves, as a community, and with God’s help, to become “better than before” November 2013.

And over the next few days we saw countless examples of this…

  • One day we attended a “hand over” ceremony of a community health center. FH helped the community organize so that it could connect into the government health network and begin to host weekly clinics and health consultations. With relief funds, a small clinic was opened and is now providing critical health assistance to a community that never had it before.
  • We visited a co-op of Pedi-cab drivers who received livelihood training from FH, and are now pooling their collective resources to set up a garage where they can store tools and parts, and make repairs. This is an efficiency that has allowed them to increase profits and provide safer transportation within the community.
  • Photo Credit - Tanya Martineau

    Photo Credit – Tanya Martineau

    I was also thrilled to hear that FH was beginning to train marginalized families on how to set up rainwater catchment systems. These are systems that collect rainwater off of the roofs of homes, which is then stored for cleaning and bathing. FH helped broker a deal with the local government so that once these families are trained to set up these systems, they can be contracted out by the local government to install them throughout the region.

  • We met several community-based savings groups that were receiving FH trainings on how to organize, without the injections of capital by FH or any other entity, and pool their savings so that they could grant small business loans within their community. This is a proven method to build the earning potential of a community without giving handouts or direct monetary investment.

The common thread of all these examples is that the community is OWNING their transformation. They are in the driver’s seat and taking control of their future. I see FH as the Driver’s Ed instructor, offering suggestions and guidance, but ultimately along for the ride with the intent to, at some point, exit the car.

At FH we plan our exit strategy. And in doing so, we are thrilled to see communities like those I visited in Samar, Philippines, taking control of their future. It is evident that in order to make a sustainable difference in the lives of the most vulnerable, we must support and promote community ownership of both the problems they face and solutions to them. If we are serious about “ending poverty together,” then we should all champion the slogan “better than before.”