Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heifer International: Making Living Loans Around the World

Last summer, in advance of attending an old friend's wedding, I perused the gift registry set up by her and her fiancee. There I found a unique section that, in lieu of traditional gifts, requested donations to Heifer International. I had never heard of the organization, but I appreciated the other-oriented spirit they had shown in setting up the donation alternative on the registry, so I went ahead and donated. First, though, I read up on Heifer, and was fascinated by what I found. I don't think it's too much to say this group is one of the most dynamic global non-profits on the scene right now.
Their concept is pretty simple, but the implementation is quite a bit more nuanced. Heifer's model revolves around livestock donations made to needy communities around the planet, but first the organization begins with an analysis, done in conjunction with the recipients, asking hard questions like, "What resources does this community already have? What do they need? What sort of livestock or agricultural donation could help provide sustainability?"

From there, Heifer makes the appropriate donation, a "living loan" of a cow or goat that can provide milk, eggs, wool or draft power to the community. Heifer then facilitates training in the maintenance of this investment, as well as argroecology, techniques for environmentally sustainable natural resource management.

From there, the community continuously evaluates and refines its animal and land management practices in light of the benefits provided by the gifted animal. This is all done with the goal of "passing on the gift," a core facet of the Heifer approach, in which Heifer families become donors themselves by passing on the offspring of their animal to another family in need.

You can hear one Rwandan woman's "passing on the gift" story here, or read about a "passing on the gift ceremony" at the Tunayac Project in Guatemala over here.

At present, Heifer is sponsoring a dollar-for-dollar matching funds drive to benefit three large umbrella-style projects in Honduras, designed to help thousands of families improve nutrition and community income through donations of cows, hens, goats, fish and bees. Part of the initiative calls for a three-year program to support the country's micro economies and small businesses by facilitating the selling of surplus dairy, pollen, eggs and other food supplies. As you can see, Heifer has a pretty wide reach. Currently they're also supporting a children's orphanage in Latvia, developing sustainable communities in India, and helping to improve the resource access of local farmers in the Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas.

On Friday I'll put the "business" back into the story by talking about a new joint effort between Heifer and Green Mountain Coffee designed to support coffee-growers in Mexico.

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