Rural Development that Works

An international conference in Geneva and a program of young volunteers take on the crisis of resources for the world’s poor

Webster students building relationships with the locals in a village in South America | Photo courtesy of Nuevaalianza

Awareness about development solutions and innovations create the actual bridge to access to vital resources. Webster University helps create awareness about the crisis of resources for the world’s poor by supporting global relations.  Through academic conferences and student volunteers Webster is building relationships within the international community.

At the 15th Annual Webster Humanitarian Conference hosted in Geneva, top representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) discussed topics relating to access to resources that nurture and sustain life. The event saw 42 speakers and hosted over 400 guests from the international community of Geneva: professionals and diplomats, scholars and researchers, as well as students and interested public.

Organizers found these numbers encouraging, seeing them as a reflection of the quality of the panelists and presentations and the growing reputation of the event. Speakers emphasized that creating access to resources is key to helping distressed populations.

Universal access to medicines and health education ought to be fundamental and available to all, according to the UN Charter of Human Rights. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services …” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, section 1). In recent decades the growing gap between rich and poor in many parts of the world has made this a higher priority than ever for organizations such as UNAID, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other NGOs dedicated to the wider development of rural communities.

Among the success stories is a program called the Social Entrepreneur Corps (SE Corps), which creates access to products, services and information where there is no access.  The SE Corps works in rural Guatemala, Ecuador and Nicaragua.  I had a chance to intern as a Community Consultant with the SE Corps in Guatemala for four weeks, researching sustainable access to medicine and health related projects, services, and education. Our team discovered there is little access for economically priced first aid products in pharmacies, and no access to basic health education.

“The idea of access to resources is incredibly relevant. We’re running out of [natural] resources,” said Nick Stevens a global poverty activist exchange student at Webster Geneva. “We’re destroying resources. And we’re fighting over what’s left.”  Providing access to these natural resources is the task of several of the international organizations attending the conference.

Much will depend on a combination of innovation and social entrepreneurship; approaches that empower communities and individuals, according to Susana Frazao Pinheiro, a consultant for United Nations Development Program (UNDP) who spoke at the Conference.

Global Change Through Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship

The Social Entrepreneur Corps (SE Corps) mission focuses on socially-minded business supported by an innovative Micro-Consignment Model, a microfinance technique using a distribution model of inventory products and information that assist the well-being of others – things like access to wood-burning stoves, water filters, solar lights, vegetable seeds, energy-efficient light bulbs, eyeglasses and eye exams in remote villages. At the moment, no other organizations in Guatemala provide access to these necessities in remote villages.

Many families cook on the dirt floor of their huts, campfire-style. I visited a woman who owns a wood-burning stove; after seven years of use, it still is more efficient in cooking multiple dishes at once, creates a healthier atmosphere free of smoke, reduces the cost of firewood, and is safer than cooking with open fires on the floor.  Creating access to invaluable products such as wood-burning stoves is an essential issue for the global poor.

As Community Consultants, our team visited Micro-Consignment (small-inventory) campaigns where rural Guatemalan women were administrating free eye exams.  The women are trained by SE Corps, host one campaign per month, and sell products that enhance the well-being of others.  Several locals purchased economically priced reading glasses that were specific to their needs.  For those who suffered from Presbyopia or Cataracts, our team referred them to eye clinics.  We also provided the entrepreneurs with recommendations on better business practices.

Additionally, free consulting is offered to new and established organizations through SE Corps volunteers. We talked with women of a new weaving co-op, “New Alliance,” in an indigenous culture near Xela, Guatemala (see photo).  The women expressed a desire to attract tourists so as to increase the sale of the woven goods at their weaving co-op.  The women asked us what activities would be of interest to tourists and how they could best accommodate tourists’ stay.  We acted out scenarios through an interactive game and pictures. In a lively interaction that was enjoyable and productive, the indigenous women entrepreneurs brainstormed more activities they could offer; they gained confidence and excitement in their ideas.  We also repainted their sign and hung additional marketing by the road side.

According to what Guatemalan historian Susanne Jonas writes in her book, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process, published in 2000, bringing together different sectors of Guatemalan and international society with energy, creativity, and belief, can resolve conflicts, build consensus and improve the country’s living conditions.

The Social Entrepreneur Corps’ model is one of empowerment, especially for women.  For the women we worked with, we observed a growing sense of ownership in the productive process and a renewed excitement for their work.  Additionally, they gained access to new knowledge about available resources (i.e. health information), products (i.e. wood-burning stoves) and services (i.e. eye exams and business consulting). Women micro-entrepreneurs see overcoming the lack of access as an opportunity to educate themselves.

In this way, “the women develop confidence in their social entrepreneurial skills, generate income, develop a sense of purpose, assist the well-being of others, and provide feedback and solutions to other community problems,” according to Greg Van Kirk, one of the co-founders of SE Corps, a former Peace Corps volunteer in 2001 in Guatemala, and now a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  Greg saw first hand the effect of the lack of access to resources that faces rural populations across the developing world.

Development Through Small Business

Effective development efforts often hinge on good information that is also implemented in the field, according to development scholar William Easterly.

“Social entrepreneurs who also are close to the ground, get feedback, try to find out what works on the ground and they work on specific problems and find specific solutions,” writes Easterly, in a 2006 article, “Can the West Save the Rest?” “If aid agencies could just find more of those searchers that are already there and fund to scale up their efforts, then we’d get a lot better results than what we’re getting now.”

Through classes, case studies, discussions, analysis, and living with the local population I gained in-depth knowledge of rural economic development through a professional organization.  This volunteer internship experience was an opportunity for me to increase my Spanish, analyze development strategies, and work in the field with disenfranchised populations.  With an open work environment within the SE Corps, students and rural populations gave feedback and took initiative on projects.  In a short time, our contributions spanned across the board: delivered research on the feasibility of new medical solutions (first aid products), investigated hospitals and medical clinics for SE Corps collaboration, supported and consulted local NGOs, and helped create access to better resources.  SE Corps and staff continue to create impact and ongoing support to the projects and organizations we worked with.

We also hiked volcanoes, swam in hot springs, and went zip lining – flying through the canopy of the forest.  I made rewarding friendships with like-minded people from across the world, gained valuable knowledge about a unique microfinance technique, and had a chance to implement my ideas.

 

To learn more about Social Entrepreneur Corps flexible volunteer/internship times, costs, new initiatives, and locations (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador) write to info@socialentrepeneurcorps.com or visit www.socialentrepeneurcorps.com

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