Iowa Public Television


International Aid Agency Passes on the Gift of Self Reliance

posted on November 24, 2010

Agriculture played a leading role in much of American history. Today, however, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population engages in farming or ranching on a full-time basis. But that is definitely not the case in Africa, Asia and Latin America where up to 95 percent of families continue to harvest their own food daily.

In these countries, meat, milk and eggs don't come in cardboard or plastic containers; livestock provide many essential resources including power, fertilizer and protein to name just a few of the bare essentials; ...and virtually no one debates the methods that produce the life-sustaining animals.

Despite the benefits of animal ownership, most of these farmers live in abject poverty and simply cannot afford livestock. But the old adage of how GIVING a man a fish feeds him for a day, while TEACHING a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime is practically a mission statement for one relief organization. David Miller explains.

These villagers are participating in a ceremony known as "passing on the gift." This exchange of livestock has taken place thousands of times over the past 65 years and was made possible through a program established by Heifer International. But Heifer officials believe the gift is more than just an animal, to them a chance at gift of self reliance and the beginning of a better life.

Jo Luck, President, Heifer International: "Summing up Heifer to me would be all about dignity. It's moving from hunger to hope. It's people taking charge of their lives and changing it because they have resources, they have opportunities, they have training. It's their decision. They own it."

Jo Luck has been the President of Heifer International for almost 20 years.

Jo Luck, President, Heifer International: "I've stood in the ditches in India and watched one woman give away one of the two goats she owns and I just said, 'Wow, do you know the Rockefellers?' And they'd say, 'Oh, very rich American, yes.' 'So, well they're very generous and they've done a lot for philanthropy but I've never know one to give away 50 percent of their wealth at one time and you just did."

Heifer International was founded in 1943 by Dan West, a member of the Church of the Brethren. West had assisted refugees during the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and realized the aid he was dispensing only helped in the short term. Believing some kind of long-term assistance was necessary to assist people in rebuilding their lives West formed Heifers for Relief.

The first Heifer animals were dairy cattle that were shipped to Puerto Rico in 1944. One of the next shipments was made in the late 1940s when Heifer animals replaced livestock killed during World War II. West had access to animals and the people to care for them during transport to foreign countries but no ships. The United Nations had war surplus troop ships but no livestock. A deal was made so the animals could be sent where they were needed and farmers could begin rebuilding their lost herds.

Heifer has always operated on a series of basic principles promoting self-reliance and sustainability. Known as the 12 Cornerstones, employees, volunteers and recipients hold to a set of ideals that include accountability, sustainability and sharing. Heifer was founded as a Christian relief organization but the non-denominational ministry recognizes all forms of spirituality.

Jo Luck, President, Heifer International: "We will never forsake our Christian roots. We would never do that. Dan West is our founder who is a brethren and a farmer. Still we hold him in the highest esteem that he had such a vision but in order to have his vision live through today's world I think we have to package that wonderful mission to fit the world as each era comes or each decade. ...People that are hungry are not all Christians and -- and -- and so we wanted to be sure that that was not a pre-requisite... What we want to do is end hunger not just ask them what their faith is."

Since 1944, the Little Rock, Arkansas-based group has touched nearly 13 million families in more than 125 countries including the United States. Heifer employs 1,000 people in 40 countries who are assisted by thousands of volunteers. The annual operating budget for the non-governmental organization has increased over the past 20 years from $7 million to more than $130 million with donations accounting for more 75 percent of the total.

Most people learn about Heifer through word-of-mouth. Representatives of the agency do make presentations but only after being invited and conducting an assessment of the needs for a village or region. Then they take applications from those in need. Once accepted, recipients must participate in a training program before being given an animal. While the contract that is signed does not allow for the gift animal to be sold it does allow for the sale of by-products like milk, eggs, or wool. Each participant is then obligated to make available the offspring for others in need or to help train others.

In recent years, Heifer has become more than just a non-profit humanitarian aid agency giving animals to the impoverished. It now provides trees, seeds and training in how to plant and grow them in a sustainable manner. The end goal remains the same -- helping those in need lift themselves out of poverty.

In the early years, many animals sent to other countries came from Heifer's ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, but that practice stopped in the 80s.

Jo Luck, President, Heifer International: "It was going to cost this country over a quarter million dollars just to pay for that flight and it was not -- it was not necessarily the right care for those animals. It would be a hard trip. They would have been good but maybe not the perfect breed for that country and that climate and I said, 'I think we're going to have to take a fresh look.'"

Heifer's Arkansas ranch also served as the training ground for techniques in sustainable agriculture and today it helps connect young people with the land as well as giving them an understanding of challenges faced in third-world countries. But a few courses are still taught by local instructors.

Chuck Crimmins, Heifer International: "I don't remember 3,000 people a year that, you know, have taken my classes but a lot do come back and says, 'Yes, you taught me this 10 years ago. Thank you very much. I've done this with it, I've done that with it, I've move forward or whatever.' And it really helps when a Heifer partner comes, a Heifer recipient, a farmer who's trying to help his family. And we've been able to do something here that they have gone back and now their children have a better livelihood because of what we taught them here. That's a success."

Luck's efforts have been recognized by world leaders and wealthy socialites alike. Most recently, she was named co-recipient of the World Food Prize.

Awarded annually, the World Food Prize was established by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, who is credited with saving more than a billion lives. Luck was humbled when she learned about receiving the award.

Jo Luck, President, Heifer International: "I am humbly accepting this award because I am sort of the symbol of people working very hard. But I am accepting it on behalf of the farmers, the small-holder farmers, all around the world who are thinking of us and celebrating. The majority of them are women, they feel so validated by you, so recognized and so refreshed in their self confidence. And I would like to say -- if I were strong enough and couldn't pick that sculpture up -- this one tonight is for the farmers!"

Like most Heifer employees, it's not the paycheck that keeps her coming back to work each day but what she can accomplish for others. As a hands-on administrator, Luck has traveled around the world and witnessed the "passing on the gift ceremony" in several foreign countries but she also is accustomed to danger. While carrying out her duties as president, Luck has been robbed at gun-point and shot at by snipers.

Jo Luck, President, Heifer International: "... if you love what you're doing, you go for it and if it's risky you just hope you come out the other end. If not, then what a great way to go making a difference."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: agriculture animals charity Heifer International news poverty