Examining poverty and hunger from the ground up

By Eric Larson
May 21, 2014

Several times a year throughout rural Guatemala, the scene is the same. 

Entire families rise with the sun to travel from their remote communities to the municipal center, often walking for hours over unforgiving terrain. Few of these people have 9-to-5 jobs, and even fewer wear watches; tardiness is universally understood and forgiven. Today, however, everyone is early. Women in indigenous dress and men in cowboy boots jockey for position outside the municipal salon, inside of which sits over 70 tons of freshly sealed food. Today is hand-out day.

On this particular occasion, the process is typical. Just like any hand-out day, the mayor gets the last word. He takes the stand and thanks the supplying institutions for the corn, beans and cooking oil that will ease the struggles of his people this winter. He ends with a powerful yet disheartening question, posed directly to the gathering of people below.

“Quién entre ustedes es pobre?” “Who among you is poor?”

In unison, a sea of hands shoots into the air. “Poor” has an equally negative connotation in Spanish as it does in English, but representatives from over 700 families do not hesitate to classify themselves as such.

Why? After some time on the ground, the answer becomes clear: In Guatemala, a country which has been the focus of international relief efforts for years, poor people get stuff.

It is important to note that these people are not lazy. They do not play the system to their advantage, and they are not to blame. For years, institutions have simply provided aid without building capacity, creating dependence in rural communities throughout Guatemala. When you hear, “you are poor” or “you need help” enough times, you start to believe it.

As part of the government’s Feed the Future initiative, USAID and Peace Corps have partnered to take advantage of Peace Corps’ unique grassroots perspective and experience to make a change to this cycle. As a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Guatemala with Feed the Future, I’m working to be part of the solution.

Peace Corps Volunteers under the Feed the Future initiative train community members and build capacity among local counterparts. We generate sustainable, bottom-up change that can be scaled up in the future. We achieve behavior change with very limited resources by incorporating participatory adult education and the experiential learning cycle into communities. Although small, our efforts will continue to bear fruit after they are gone.

In Guatemala, Peace Corps is addressing food security through a brand new Feed the Future Peace Corps Response program. By taking advantage of the extensive, on-the-ground experience that Response Volunteers bring to the table, local institutions are being strengthened across the country. For example, Response Volunteers work with the Ministry of Agriculture to train community promoters in family agriculture, poultry management and preventative health. Instead of having their problems solved for them, these promoters are empowered to bring about positive change in their communities.

As a result, families are planting vegetable gardens and eating the highly nutritious vegetables they produce (see photo above). Chicken vaccination campaigns are decreasing poultry loss and increasing meat availability in rural areas. Families are using local resources to make simple yet important changes to their homes that keep their children healthy.

Interventions like these are not flashy. Working with fewer families with more frequency is a time consuming process that requires patience and dedication. But the Feed the Future approach employed by USAID and Peace Corps creates sustainable progress while avoiding the damaging nature of hand-out programs. In the future, there is no doubt that people and organizations must adapt to an ever-changing, complicated development landscape. Despite the challenges, by sacrificing size for substance, they can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Eric Larson