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Trekking and the community answer

In October last year I had the privilege of joining an amazing group of Aussies on a Trek Peru adventure with World Vision. The focus of the trip was the four-day Salcantay Trek in the Andes. Each person had to raise a minimum of $3,800 to participate; together we raised more than $100,000. Prior to striking out on the trek, we had the opportunity to see some of World Vision’s work in the Cusco area first hand.

Having been part of community development work in Myanmar, and having studied development at Deakin University, I was honoured to have that opportunity. What I took from it was similar to what I’ve taken from my experiences in Myanmar – that community is central to the answer of overcoming poverty.

Sustainability comes through community

On the day we visited some of World Vision’s projects, we spent a fairly short amount of time at each to avoid disrupting people’s day-to-day routines. Across the group we saw kindergartens and preschools, microenterprises (mainly raising guinea pigs for sale – my mind was writing Disney-esk escape cartoons most of the time), a water treatment facility, and improved home stove designs and sanitation systems. All of this work is largely funded through child sponsorship, which, in World Vision’s case, is directed to community-based work so the benefits are more widely shared.

Effectiveness is due to the fact that the work is community-centric and led by locals. Even individual microenterprise participants receive much of their support and training through community groups.

Why community?

If you take someone out of their context, train them, give them resources and then ‘send’ them back home, they still face the same life and structures they had previously. You simply cannot achieve sustainable positive change if you don’t anchor that change in communities and in the structures that power, influence and shape those communities.

Here are my two seafood analogies.

The first is the starfish – an analogy I happen to love. The short version is that thousands of starfish are found washed up on a shore and, even though there’s no chance of saving them all, for each that a child throws back, the effort and care matters to that one. Yes! But…

When I was studying my Masters, I remember reading something that stuck with me – give a man (or woman) a fish and they eat for a day, teach a man (or woman) to fish and they eat for a lifetime. Yes! But…

What if the pond they fish from is ruled by the powerful elite or they are denied access and so on. In other words, the bigger picture matters just as much and that’s what generally influences a person’s ability to live a life they value in and for the long run.

The greatest causes of poverty generally stem from structures and systems. These exist at the community level (and higher). Strengthen a community and you strengthen the individual and their opportunities to move out of poverty into a life with greater freedoms. That’s because you have empowered their personal capacity and challenged/improved/broken the broader structures that influence what they can do with that personal capacity – or you have helped them to challenge those structures. Plus, purely from a resource perspective, when you tackle challenges and opportunities through a community lens, you build a base of assets that can collectively provide far greater value than through an individualistic approach.

Back to Peru

During our World Vision visits, in one area alone we saw a school, microenterprise, healthier home infrastructure and more. By investing in people and by taking a holistic community-based approach each investment has had synergy – each builds and multiplies.

We enjoyed a fantastic morning tea, generously provided by some of the community members we had supported. One of the women gave us each a gift of cookies from her business to say thank you. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Through the support of World Vision, she has built her own microenterprise – Honey Cakes – and now has a sustainable business. However, much of this success is due to community.

She meets with other small business owners facilitated by World Vision for further training and support, has better access to markets, and is better able to help her children access good education and so on because of the broader approach taken. She is personally better off and is significantly empowered by the support structures that help her, her family and community achieve greater quality of life.

It was exciting to see and, in an often-failing international development and aid landscape, it gave me hope. Wonderfully, it was set in the context of an adventure that was all about community. Community was a group of Aussies working with friends to raise money at home. Community was the team working together to meet the trek challenge head on. Community was connecting with and learning from the people we were supporting.

Community was this pursuit of a shared idea that we can make a difference.

We have a way to go but I’m confident that every great stride and evidence of progress will be founded in ever healthier and ever freer communities.

PS Guinea pig tastes nothing like chicken.

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