Updates

Seed Programs International

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.

peter liberiaSinger 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?  

producing seeds 2Especially 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.

Misleading Messages

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:

  • How much of the money is transferred to local causes?
  • Can the charity/NGO provide an audit?
  • Are locals given [autonomy and authority] to handle their problems with the money raised?
  • Is the charity or NGO building local infrastructure?
  • Are skills being transferred to locals so they have the ability to use your money to do good?
  • Is the programming respectful of the cultural norms and local perspectives in the country it serves?

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.

green coast agriculture project

Kakata, Liberia – Green Coast Agriculture Project:  An agriculture technician selects and gathers SPI vegetable seeds to take out on a day in the field.

Rosmery Ramirez

 

ASO Ixil Board Members

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 

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 

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. 

 

Woman with Radishes, near Santa Rita

Woman with Radishes, near Santa Rita

As the year comes to a close, it's time for reflection! To look back and capture a whole year of work is hard, but sometimes we like to hear and share the small stories instead of the big statistics. Here's one photo (and the story behind it) from each of our partnerships in Honduras made possible with your support.

In the first picture is Mrs. Martinez from near Santa Rita, Honduras, delighted with her harvest of radishes to which the whole family contributed. There, SPI vegetable seeds are distributed along with technical support by Mennonite Social Action Committee (CASM). Their team has developed a training program that includes appropriate irrigation technology, use of bio-enzymes, and pest control and nutrition using organic fertilizers.

Ixil Mayan Families in Gardening Training
Ixil Mayan Families in Gardening Training

Our partner ASO-Ixil held an initial training for vegetable gardening program participants yesterday in Chajul, Guatemala. I wanted to share with you, as supporters, some wonderful photos from that event. 

Our friend Janet who provides essential US-based support for this project explains:

"None of the women in this training for the vegetable gardens can read or write.  Manuel (Director of ASO-Ixil) has experience and training in teaching illiterate people who only speak the Ixil language."  So this training is in Ixil, with colorful powerpoint photos to teach those who do not read or write , but are very skilled at listening and interpreting visuals.

In US schools only 10% of students learn primarily through listening.  I think the board has put together a really skillful approach to training: with a combination of visuals and lessons in their own Ixil language, with follow up in their own Ixil language as they receive instruction in the gardens. As these beneficiaries have never had the opportunity to attend school, it is exciting and important for them to be attending this training in a high school classroom."

30 initial families have been selected to receive vegetable gardening support in the form of seeds, tools, fertilizers, and training. Each receives a cost subsidy of 25-75% based on their needs. 

Because much of the vegetable growing will be by women, their small children are with them in the training room. In the first photo, these children are receiving orange juice from SPI representative Carla Rosemary Rodriguez. 

Classroom - Chajul, Guatemala.

Classroom - Chajul, Guatemala.

Classroom - Chajul, Guatemala

Classroom - Chajul, Guatemala

The next generation.

The next generation.

2 Liberian Orgs. Receiving Seeds You Helped Send

2 Liberian Orgs. Receiving Seeds You Helped Send

I looked up Ebola on Google Trends today -- the 2015 graph of interest in this topic looks like a ski slope. This project, which you so generously supported, is about as un-trendy as possible. 

Yet, to us, in weekly contact with people in Liberia, Ebola still, today, couldn't be more timely. I thought this email from one of our partner organizations, Church Aid Liberia, was very well-stated. The message comes from Chairman Kortu Brown, a Reverend and also interim leader of the Liberian Council of Churches, so it starts with his usual devout greeting:

"Greetings in Jesus name! It is quite awhile now since we heard of a new Ebola case in Liberia. Much efforts have been put into fighting the virus and compelling it into submission.

But it doesn't mean its effect - and possible resurgence - has been eradicated. It is estimated that the disease killed more than 11,000 people and affected more than 28,000 persons in the three worst affected countries i.e. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. There are more than 25,000 Ebola orphans in the three countries. Recent reports suggest the possibility of "reactivated" Ebola cases. This is scary because we initially believe that once you made it through the 21-day incubation period, you were freed.

And many survivors live in trauma - and anxiety. Their physical and spiritual health are challenged. They are further challenged by the lack of basic sustenance."

Contact Us

Seed Programs International

PO Box 9163
Asheville, NC 28815
+1-828-337-8632

 

Seed Programs Canada (Affiliate)

Registered Charity No. 839858107RR0001
Lombardy, ON
613-406-6100

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Seed Programs International (SPI)

Seed Programs InternationalSeed Programs International (SPI) is a non-profit, tax exempt, non-governmental humanitarian organization.

We work thorough other humanitarian organizations, church groups, service clubs and individual donors, to provide quality seed to impoverished communities in developing countries enabling them to grow some of their own food. In addition to seed, SPI provides critical seed expertise and experience operating seed based self help programs.”

SPI is operated by individuals with over 50 years seed industry experience plus over 20 years experience in vegetable research and production. We also have 15 years experience operating programs that have successfully shipped seed to over 70 countries on five continents. SPI has shipped enough seed to plant over 1,000,000 vegetable gardens, providing more than 20 kinds of vegetables that are rich in vitamins and minerals often missing in people’s diets.