International Women’s Day is dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is also a time to renew focus on improving the status of women worldwide. In celebration of this day, we invite you to join Warren Wilson College and Seed Programs International for a unique and engaging panel comprised of women in leadership positions both locally and globally.
Time and Place:
Monday, March 7, 7:15-9pm
Canon Lounge, Gladfelter Building
Warren Wilson College - 701 Warren Wilson Rd., Swannanoa
Mayor Esther Manheimer - Asheville
Mayor Christine Norman - Bentol, Liberia
Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara - Asheville
For more information:
Giving, Charity, and Ethics
Giving should be easy. Some would even say it is our moral obligation, as weathly people by global standards, to help those suffering from barbarous, inhumane, inescapable poverty and malnutrition. Peter Singer, in a well-known TED Talk, makes the point that perhaps it is only distance and invisibility that keep us from doing so. To paraphrase: would the $600 iphone in your pocket cause you to hesitate even for a moment to jump in the water and save a child drowning in front of you? Of course not. Yet 3.1 million children die each year from malnutrition, and the action we can take to preserve the life of one of them each year is even simpler.
Singer asks: “Does it really matter that we're not walking past them in the street? Does it really matter that they're far away? I don't think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they're not right in front of us, the fact, of course, that they're of a different nationality or race, none of that seems morally relevant to me. What is really important is, can we reduce that death toll?”
But I just don’t buy Singer’s implication that we’re just too thoughtless or distracted to give what we can. Humans are pretty smart and can think about many, many things each day. Give us credit! We whose basic needs are taken care of can certainly care about and empathize with people who are far away and intangible. So what’s stopping us? Why is giving so complicated?
The Effectiveness of Charities
Is part of the issue that we’re a little scared about making the wrong giving choices? A major and important trend in the last decade is the rise of concern about the accountability and oversight of charitable organizations. Worried citizens and media are examining everything from nonprofit CEO pay to overall organizational efficiency. I commend this trend. As non-profits, we are owned by nobody and we exist solely in the public interest. We avoid taxation because we are founded to serve a beneficial purpose to the interests of humankind. The public can and should, therefore, ask hard questions of its charitable community. In running SPI, I post our public tax filings and audited financials on our website each year.
Among ourselves within the nonprofit sector, we ask these same questions, and don’t have easy answers. How much should we be paid? Nonprofits employ many of the same positions as the for-profit world: adminstrators, bookkeepers, program managers, scientists, teachers. Can we attract the most effective personnel with pay that is noncompetitive with the private sector? Can we avoid destructive staff turnover by not providing health insurance, or by skimping on comfortable working conditions by US standards? How will we maintain or grow our service to our mission and our constituents without effective fundraising and communications staff?
Especially for those of us doing international work, salary is a complex issue. Take me as an example. I am paid $44,000 per year to lead Seed Programs International. This may seem low for a grandpa with a college degree and the overblown title “President/CEO.” Yet this is well higher than the median US wage per person of about $27,000, it is about 14 times the global average household income, and it is about 120 times the median income in Madagascar, one of the countries where our vegetable seeds are put to work to combat malnutrition, as part of a wonderful women’s literacy program. Am I overpaid or underpaid? I just don’t know. But I do try to remember to give thanks every day for my high standard of living compared with most of the world.
This is what I do know about the nonprofit oversight movement: the now rote question “how much of each donated dollar goes to programs” has led to an accounting shell game that nobody wins. If I’m writing a nice thank-you note to donors, reviewing a bookkeeping report, or talking with our web designer, the cost of that hour of my time is a big red mark in the bad column of “not for programs.” Yet each of these tasks is essential to our work; without them, we send no seeds and give no training to help people grow food they need.
The harm of all of the talk about efficiency is that it can make us forget about effectiveness. The reality is that the fight against hunger overseas is working.
A recent CNN article warns about “poverty porn,” the practice of seizing donors’ attention by showing them the most shocking possible photos of emaciated famine victims. Why do charities do this? Yes, there are millions suffering and dying from hunger. But wouldn’t most donors be more inspired by hearing instead about the huge achievements in countering hunger?
Remember first that hunger is defined very differently in the US than it is in developing regions. Here, to measure hunger, we may ask in a survey whether, in the past year, a person ever to make a choice between buying adequate nutritious food, and other expenses. If the answer is yes, then statistically, that American faced hunger.
Elsewhere, we define hunger as clinically-measurable lack of nutrition, which decades ago we reduced down to less than 1 in 250 Americans. For example, a common measure is childhood “wasting,” which is defined as two standard deviations below normal weight for height. Developing regions saw a 42 percent reduction in the prevalence of this sign of malnutrition between 1990–92 and 2012–14 (UNFAO, 2015). What a success!
If there’s one take-home message from this ramble, this is it: as a charitable donor, you are in good hands with most choices you can make. International aid has become smarter and more effective. Technology and communications advances have made us more efficient and able to reach the most isolated in the world and those facing war, crisis, and natural disaster. So don’t be misled by the shock photos or by the Facebook stories about bad apples who misuse donor funds. Giving works.
Supporting Local Change
Grant funders have also smartened up and changed their tune. They now understand that giving works best when it enables sustained local change, rather than perpetuating a treadmill of imported aid. You can copy this approach. When it comes to international programming like ours, instead of asking about overhead, try this question set from New York Times photographer Chester Higgins, Jr. reprinted here as quoted in that same recent CNN article:
I love this set of questions, perhaps because it points so directly to many of SPI’s strengths. We’re a very small paid staff, we have little budget for overseas travel, and it’s a struggle to assign resources toward measuring our results as opposed to achieving results in the first place. Those are our weaknesses. What we do have, in abundance, is an amazing international network of strong, hard-working, innovative, impressive local partners. Our faith and investment in these partnerships is what makes SPI tick. Seeds alone do nothing, but in the hands of local leaders, they are transformative.
I want to share a few photos with you. Usually we post photos and stories of end users of vegetable seeds – the gardeners and smallholder farmers who are working the land to grow food to raise themselves out of malnutrition and poverty. Today, I’ll take you behind the scenes to visit with those local people who are working so hard to deploy our seeds to build local infrastructure, gain skills and capacity, and handle local problems with autonomy and respect for local norms.
We sent 50 seed shipments in 2015, enough to grow more than 1000 tons of vegetables in 30 countries from North Korea to Syria to Ethiopia to Honduras. In every case, amazing, dedicated people helped put those seeds to work. Here are just a few of many.
Kakata, Liberia – Green Coast Agriculture Project: An agriculture technician selects and gathers SPI vegetable seeds to take out on a day in the field.
Chajul, Guatemala – ASO-Ixil: Photo 1 – SPI Representative Rosmery Ramirez goes house-to-house to survey families as to their need and interest in vegetable gardening support. Photo 2 – Four ASO-Ixil Board Members pose wearing formal jackets made by Ixil weavers.
Yorito, Honduras – FIPAH: Staff assess the results of bean trials that are result of village-level farmer-led breeding to develop vegetables that grow well at various elevations.
Dondon,Haiti – AKV: Program Director Wedly Deceus (left) with school administrators, school garden teacher, and other visitors, pose in a newly-planted school garden.
This year we sent a (for us) record amount of cash directly into the hands of our trusted partners to cover the cost of seed distribution, training, tools, and administration of their highly effective and efficient programs. In 2016 and beyond, we know this investment will reap unknowable rewards in terms of increased capacity to use our seeds to help those who need them most.
Pascal Desormes meets us in the center of the small town of Perches, in mountainous northeast Haiti. The cooler mountain air and fresh puddles of rain are a pleasant change from the crowds and heat of Cap Haitien. But the living conditions on the way here are, mostly, no better - many houses are constructed of sticks and mud, not the cinder blocks back in town. Statistics tell us that 60% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day and this region is surely typical -- income appears patched together from improvised sources. Gas stations consist of women selling motorbike fill-ups worth of diesel or unleaded from plastic cooking oil jugs on the side of the road.
Pascal rides with us up the hill and we park in front of a structure, partially built like so many in Haiti, but well on its way to what he tells us will be a food processing facility. As we walk farther up the hill, admiring the tropical reserve-like land clearly under good stewardship, the story slowly unfolds.
Pascal’s family has owned some land in these mountains for generations. He was educated in agronomy, always knowing he wanted to return to his family land in Perches. He built a small business growing peanuts, then grew the business and then began processing peanuts grown by his neighbors. He began an association for the furthering of agriculture in Perches, which anyone is welcome to join. Over time, he added new crops: coffee, cacao, and honey. In each case he helps new growers and sees their products through to their final processed form, ready for the final buyer or wholesale outlet.
Today, more than 500 peanut growers, 135 coffee growers and 25 honey producers and cacao growers are in business with Pascal. His food processing business provides a sure market outlet for what they produce. He never stops trying new things: as we stand under the shade of a cashew tree, he points out a new plot, in full sun on the hillside, recently turned over to produce a crop of hot peppers. The new processing facility will save a 3 hour drive each way to reach the current processor.
Keep in mind, a story like this sounds commonplace, almost easy, to American ears. We see it every day in a magazine, or chatting with a successful business owner in our hometown.
However in Haiti, forces of corruption, destruction and chaos make a story like this near-impossible. Yes, Pascal has an advantage: land from his family. But Haiti rips every advantage and every attempt of progress out of the hands of smart and well-meaning people every day. To do what Pascal has done is near-miraculous: growing an enterprise without electricity most days; with impassable roads; with personnel emerging from underfunded, crowded schools; amid a constant cycle of drought and flood with limited access to modern agricultural supplies; and relying on a customer base with little or no disposable income.
If you want to know how hard it is to make progress in Haiti, just ask the many aid and development agencies who have for decades fought--with varying success--to keep multi-million dollar projects from descending into the sewers of chaos and ineffectiveness. This in spite of all the advantages of having US headquarters, expensive vehicles, imported technology, and highly educated staff.
After the walk, we return to the lovely courtyard of Pascal’s house, where he gifts us with a fresh coconut each (to drink the water) and a bottle of his own organic honey.
I am travelling with SPI’s core Haiti partner AKV, Ayiti Konse Vet or “Keep Haiti Green.” They maintain a relationship with Pascal because that is part of the organizational model: to find and build a network of Haitian people who, through force of will, and by making the most of small advantages and opportunities, are able to parlay agriculture into a force for positive change.
We have never provided seeds or other services for Pascal. UNDP’s Small Grants Program for Haiti has in fact supported the development of his farmer support networks and processing equipment. So, why is this story relevant to SPI’s mission? Why does it so inspire me? I think it’s because the success of our work depends on and trusts, that there will always be local leaders like Pascal Desormes. We take a small but essential resource--good vegetable seed--and put it in the hands of many, along with a little knowledge and local support. This, by itself, does something. But the dramatic change comes when one, or two, or a few women and men step out from the many to take a small advantage, a small idea, and with that great human entrepreneurial spirit so very evident here in Haiti, make a bigger change for more people.
Vegetable seed is such a beautiful analogy for this transformation. A sand grain-sized speck of cabbage seed holds all the potential and information needed to grow a two-pound cabbage, perhaps the centerpiece of a family meal, or to shoot up a flower stalk and produce enough seed to grow 100 more two-pound cabbages. It only needs a little water, soil nutrition, and sunshine. People are the same. Sometimes it only takes a little advantage, a small resource, delivered with care and interest, to start the growth. Then, human entrepreneurial ingenuity takes over.
Peter Marks, Seed Programs International
If you're stumped for ideas about what to get the moms in your life for Mother's Day this year, try thinking outside the box. It's easy to get wrapped up in figuring out what your own mom wants, but there are millions of mothers around the world in need. So this year, consider honoring your mom by helping out someone else's. We're thrilled to introduce to you the Sweet Blossom Gifts, a sponsor of SPI's Women's Empowerment Project. With every item sold, a portion of the sale will be donated to help SPI's partnerships that empower women through seeds.
Sweet Blossom Gifts is an independent family owned business, located in the heart of the Appalachian mountains in Asheville, NC. They offer customized handmade jewelry using high-quality materials by an assortment of fine artisans who take time and care to create each piece. Each item is unique and made specifically to order. Sweet Blossom Gifts' partnership with SPI will help fund seed shipments and agricultural training for women.
Access to the most basic life necessities is out of reach for a staggering number of women around the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN reports that "if women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million people." We join with women's gardening projects in the most impoverished countries worldwide including Madagascar, Guatemala, and Liberia. In these countries, illiteracy is prominent, especially among women and girls.
Female farmers produce more than half the developing world's food - yet own less than 2% of land and have limited access to resources such as seeds, tools, and information. By providing top-quality vegetable seeds and locally-driven support, Seed Programs gives women a path to empowerment, income, and nutrition. Enabling women to grow their own food in an underprivileged area can change the lives in an entire community. We join with women's gardening projects in the most impoverished countries worldwide including Madagascar, Guatemala, and Liberia. In these countries, illiteracy is prominent, especially among women and girls.
It may be hard to understand how something as small as a seed can have such a far reaching impact but this is indeed the case. Growing vegetables enables women to feed their families with good nutritious food. Excess vegetables can be sold at markets providing money that was previously unavailable. That money can be used to send girls to school where they can learn to read. Once someone can read, a world of opportunity and hope is opened up.
This Mother's Day, thank the special moms in your life and all mothers around the world by doing what they do everyday: making the world a better place. As you prepare to indulge your mom in the goodies she loves most, consider doing so with a present that also gives back to an organization empowering women in greatest need.