Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A few pictures from Perú


Friday, August 22, 2008

Manna Project International-Ecuador: 2008-2009

As you may have already heard, I am currently traveling around Peru (and find myself at the moment in the magnificent mountain city of Huaraz). Though I am thoroughly enjoying my travels here in Peru, I am a little to sad to have left Ecuador, my projects, and the people with whom I am working. I am comforted by the fact, however, that we have an incredibly talented and gifted group of new Program Directors to take over responsibility for the MPI-Ecuador site and look forward to the great things they will do in the coming year.

One of the most important activities that the MPI-E ´07-´08 team has accomplished in recent months has been a clearer definition of our approach to community development. We have come to realize that there are two principles approaches to community development. The first of which is based on the needs of the community. In this model a group of people, generally outsiders, be they government institutions, academics, or a non-profit like ourselves, enters a community and tries to help people. Upon arrival in said community these groups will look for needs (i.e. what is missing or where there are problems) and try to figure out what is the best way to fill these needs or fix these problems. Then, upon a clear understanding of where all the problems all, they will launch programs to fix the needs and thus help the people.

This has been the predominant model for community development around the world and sounds very clean and efficient, except for one minor problem. You enter a community with the basic assumption that it is a problem and needs to be fixed.

This model has forgotten about the most important aspect to community development: the community comprised of skillful and competent individuals, organizations, and institutions.

This brings us to our second model. One that first assumes that every community already has the strengths, assets, and ability to build and develop itself. Upon entering said community, the work begins by identifying these strengths and assets (and this is not merely limited to already established institutions, but rather also includes informal groups and individuals). Once an exhaustive map of the community has been created then our three axes of community development come into play:

· Empower individuals through programs that develop their capacities to advance economically and educationally, and to become leaders in their communities.

· Strengthen institutions by working alongside them to introduce best practices, connect them to national and international resources, and expand their services.

· Build networks by creating stronger links among community members, connecting people to local institutions, and promoting inter-institutional collaboration.

You will notice that you do not see activities here based on problems (i.e. no access to potable water or illiteracy); however, what you do see is a grass-roots based approach to community development in which our priniciple role as Manna Project International is one of a connector and a catalyst of sustainable and community-driven development. We know (trust me, you see all the data we have entered over the last months) that within the community there already exists countless strengths and assets. The goal now is to mobilize these strengths.

In many ways, we have already begun. One of the biggest industries for women in the neighborhoods where we work is that of sewing, tailoring, and embroidering. New Program Director Jocelyn Lancaster is currently working with three local women to organize an 8 week long workshop on these topics for other local women. What is great about this activity is that it does require MPI volunteers to have this skill, but rather the experts come straight from the community (and earn a little extra money in the process). At the same time other women in the community are able to gain a skill which not only is of interest to them, but also makes them more marketable when searching for employment.

A second activity that current PD Luke Lockwood has been working on is organizing a series of mingas in the various neighborhoods we work. A minga is an Andean tradition in which the whole community (men, women, and children) come out together for the purpose of completing some sort of neighborhood improvement or restoration project. We have found in our research that nearly every family has not only participated in mingas in the past, but would also be willing to do so in the future. By organizing these events, we see this as a great opportunity to work together with the individuals in the community as they build and strengthen their own neighborhood.

Finally, another finding that has come out of our research has been that a large number of the people have an entrepreneurial interest, but lack the start-up capital to bring their dreams to fruition. Exiting Program Director Zak Schwarzman with the help of new PD´s Eliah McCalla and Dunc Fulton have set about trying to connect these people not only with micro-loans from our local savings and loan partner Cooperativa de Ahorra y Crédito - Esperanza y Progreso del Valle, but also with money management and small business management training taught by Ecuadorian businesspeople and Ecuadorian scholars. Again this benefits both the individuals as they receive the necessary start-up capital as well as technical training to improve their chances of running a successful business, but it is also beneficial to the savings and loan cooperative because in addition to increasing their clientele they also are able to provide loans with a greater chance for repayment. In a related note, Zak has also connected the cooperative with the Red Financiera Rural (RFR), an Ecuadorian network of micro-lending institutions that provides both access to low-interest loans as well technical training for the handling and administration of micro-loans.

As always, I thank you so much for your support as we continue to work alongside Ecuadorians in San Francisco and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ecuadorian Politics in Action

In addition to running programs in the community with Ecuadorians, all Manna Project Program Directors are expected to take on other organizational tasks. Several of these tasks include (I should know, I just wrote the job descriptions for all of them) the Donations and Resource Manager, Short-Term Volunteer Coordinator, House Manager, Social Chair, and Chief Financial Officer, among others. My organizational job this year didn´t have as fancy of a name but was equally difficult and time consuming: Visa Guy. (To clarify, if I had been female my position would have been Visa Gal. We don´t discrimate...). In many other countries this would have a very basic position with 2 probable tasks: 1) Merely send someone to the ministry with a few bucks and to ask for a visa extension, or 2) Send someone out of the country for a couple days to return with a new visa. Though these may not seem to be the most convenient options, at least with those options you know what to expect....

What is especially difficult about obtaining a visa in Ecuador is the fact that laws change every few months (we won´t even go into the fact that currently Ecuador does not have a legislative body and therefore no new laws should be enactable). This in itself would make things complicated for anybody; furthermore, it makes things complicated for all the different ministries that work in the visa business. What this means is that every single government official that you ask always seems to give you a different answer. Despite all this, however, I managed to jump through all the hoops and actually keep everybody in the country legal until the end of July (I´ve even got Zak and Annie legal until December, Luke until May ´09, and Mark and Seth legal until July ´09).

By this point I was feeling pretty proud of myself, until my whole visa world (and as the MPIE Visa Guy it´s a big world) came crashing down on top of me. After having told all the new PD´s to enter the country as tourists and then apply for the visas within Ecuador (which we had found to be an easier process than applying from the US) the laws changed yet again requiring anyone entering the country as a tourist after the 7th of July (our PD´s entered the 11th) to only be allowed 90 days at which point they must return to their home country (aka the US in our case) and apply for a visa from there. (Oh, and by the way the 3-month visa that I was going to apply for to finish out my last 6 weeks in Ecuador no longer exists).

Since I had just written all those operational job descriptions I talked about earlier, the new Program Directors were here, and my visa world was crushing me, Mark decided to dole out next year´s operational jobs, and took the Visa Guy job off of my hands. Mark, brilliantly, went straight to the Minister of Foreign Relations to plead our case. Thankfully, she heard him out and, on the condition that we would never again apply for a visa within Ecuador (or until the laws change again in a few months....), agreed to grant visas for our 5 new PD´s when they apply in September. Now we don´t have their visas yet and things could most definitely go awry, but at least we have the Minister´s word that they will review our applications.

He was not, however, been successful in obtaining a visa for me. This left me two options: 1) Stay in the country as an illegal immigrant and pay a hefty fine, or 2) flee the country. I chose option 2 and it is for that reason that I write to you from Máncora, Perú (and without photos). I will be roaming around Perú for the next month or so until I go back to Quito on the last days of my tourist pass only to immediately turn around and fly back to the US completing my 13-month commitment to Manna Project International - Ecuador.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Furthest point on the planet from the Earth's center

Volcán Chimborazoyep!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Visitors, Volunteers, and….Waterfalls

The last several months have seen a great influx on North American visitors and volunteers to the Manna Project International – Ecuador site here in Valle de Los Chillos. In addition to the four spring break groups discussed in earlier entries we also hosted two summer groups of about ten college students and recent graduates that were both here for a full four weeks. In between spring break and summer, however, I was lucky enough to receive a visit from a former colleague of mine at Garinger High School: social worker Carol Rodd. Along with Carol also came gang prevention expert Fran Cook. When Carol first contacted me about a potential visit I merely assumed that they would be coming to tour Ecuador and our programming, but I could not have been more wrong. While did catch many of the tourist sites, including Otavalo and Cotopaxi among others, they proved to be an invaluable help in our programs as well as a continuing catalyst for our own organizational growth. Not only has Carol since continued to regularly support by sitting as a member of our MPI-Ecuador Advisory Board, but Carol and Fran both continuously asked us difficult questions about our mission and our strategy – in other words, what are we doing here and why are we doing it?

We had been feeling pretty good about ourselves and our work at this point, and it was quite a humbling experience to not be able to give a clear and concise answer to these seemingly simple questions. After their departure we continued to have many discussions about these vital questions and several PD’s have engaged themselves fully in defining just what exactly is 1) our mission, 2) our vision, and 3) our approach to carrying these out. Though I have not been directly involved in these discussions, I have been quite impress with their and know that when they finish in the coming weeks we will have a solid plan of action as well as a clear description to provide supporters and other interested parties about just what it is that we are trying to do here in Ecuador.

On a lighter note, my parents and my sister came to visit and they took me to the most astounding place on Earth: The Galápagos Islands. What is so incredible about the Galápagos is the never ending sequence of once-in-a-lifetime sights and experiences. I apologize for not being able to describe the awe-inspiring majesty of such a place in words and will defer to photographs (set 1, set 2, set 3).

Another set of visitors were the two groups of summer volunteers that were here from mid-May to mid-July. I have to apologize because I had a large amount of great pictures of them until, on the last night of second session, I accidentally deleted every picture off of my camera and lost them all…So sad L. Despite the fact that I do not have visual proof, the summer volunteers were a wonderful help. Among other activities they 1) taught intensive English classes in two separate neighborhoods here in Conocoto, 2) provided a new light and excitement to our art program, 3) supported our research efforts by conducting surveys and entering data, 4) organized an impromptu summer camp with activities ranging from dance to sports to English to cooking, and 5) volunteered in local medical centers.

You may be getting the impression by now of how busy we have been hosting other volunteers and visitors, especially after two straight months of having ten more people hanging around the house, but the fun did not stop there as the same day the summer volunteers left a whole new batch of Program Directors arrived! The PD’s are a really great, and diverse, group and am really excited to see the work they will accomplish in the coming year. Click here to see read a little about each of them. Currently the “newbies” are living in Quito attending language school and undergoing an intense orientation program into Ecuadorian history, teaching and learning, what service and development looks like with MPI-Ecuador, and Ecuadorian current events and culture. This orientation is being facilitated not only by MPIE PD’s, but also by board member and founder Luke Putnam and several Ecuadorian professionals and academics.

One of the very first things that I wanted to do when I came to Ecuador was a ride a bike from Baños towards the Amazonía along the famous “Ruta de las Cascadas” (Route of the waterfalls). Those of you who know me fairly well know that I am kind of a big fan of waterfalls and was thrilled to hear that the “newbies” were making their way towards Baños this past weekend and were also interested in the bike ride. We spent the day on Saturday riding some 20 kilometers past four major waterfalls and countless mini waterfalls. The Río Pastaza at this point is at the bottom of a close to 1000 meter deep gorge and as the rivers and streams reach the gorge they shoot out into amazing waterfalls. One such waterfall, known as El Pailón del Diablo (The Devil’s Cauldron) results from the Río Verde (no slouch in its own right) being forced from a width of 75 meters to a mere 3 meters as it crashes into the Río Pastaza 50 meters below. As you may have already figured out, it is considered a cauldron not so much because of the shape and more because of the sheer force with which the water crashes and plunges.

Click here for pictures of Carol’s visit; Luke, Laura, and I climbing Volcán Imbabura (15,100 feet); the summer volunteers’ last night in Ecuador; the new PD’s; and waterfalls.

Finally, if interested in making a material or monetary donation, please click here. Thank you so much for your support throughout the year!