Insights from Guatemala

February 27, 2015

I recently traveled to Guatemala with fellow Board members, Joan Parker and Counterpart staff. It was an experience that surpassed our expectations. We knew that Counterpart and local community partners had achieved some significant results, yet there is nothing better than to see first-hand what a difference our work makes.

We witnessed the trusting relationships and mutual respect our local teams have built with community partners. Everywhere we went people expressed deep appreciation for Counterpart’s approach. In one community, we were greeted by a welcome carpet of pine needles and flowers. Farmers from another community walked two to three hours to meet with us to share their stories and accomplishments. We met with farming cooperatives, who greeted us with a cooler of cheeses and yogurt from their farms. These “labors of love” went along with words of gratitude for Counterpart’s teams. We heard appreciation and pride in their accomplishments along with their visions for a better future.

All this good will was tempered by the dire state of rural communities we visited. More than half the country lives in poverty, despite being the largest economy in Central America. Infant mortality rates are high. The major cause of death is preventable disease. Childhood malnutrition nears 50 percent, and in some indigenous communities, 90 percent. Water for crops is scare. Education for many is unattainable because families can’t afford it, or schools are too far away.

I had an acute sense of why a large number of Guatemalan children show up at our borders, often alone. Despite a family-oriented culture that is determined to improve livelihoods, children and adults make that risky trek in search of a better life. Counterpart’s programs address the root causes of migration. We help keep families healthier, more stable and more hopeful by facilitating an inclusive process that enables communities to identify and implement their own solutions in their own communities.

Among the many people we met was a volunteer leader, Cecilio, from the mountain-top village of Vega Seca. Cecilio worked with community members to build a water catchment and irrigation system for his potato demonstration plot. This basic piece of infrastructure, costing only $1,200, allowed a second harvest in the dry season, effectively doubling annual family income. Cecilio wondered with us: what could happen in Vega Seca if every family could have water in the dry season?

We also traveled to the cloud forests of Petén, and spent time with Manola, a single mother who grew up in a family that poached on government land. After her family was forced off the land when it became a national park, Manola started a food stand, which has since grown into a thriving restaurant. Manola now serves tourists who visit Yaxha National Park – the same place where her father previously hunted, and collaborates with park rangers to create an even better cultural and environmental tourism experience for visitors.

Manola’s restaurant, “El Portal de Yaxha,” is one of the 1,245 new businesses that are thriving thanks to Counterpart’s Community Tourism Alliance program. Manola now can support her family, send her daughter to school, and improve the livelihoods of others by creating jobs in her community. She is an inspiring leader, giving back to others the kind of support she received.

Both Cecilio and Manola are creating “prosperity with equality.” They are both examples of determined citizens who hoped for a better future and are now creating it for their families and communities. People want to help themselves. Sometimes they need a “spark” – some technical resources, education or a road map to give them a head start down the path to a better future. This is the role Counterpart has played in Guatemala for nine years.

Members of Counterpart’s Board of Directors with President Pérez.

When we met with government officials, including President Pérez, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, USAID and USDA, it was clear that everyone was committed to rural development, improving nutrition and health, and increasing Guatemalans’ economic well-being. It was an honor to hear their appreciation for the collaborative, community-based approach that is the “Counterpart Way.” I believe that both governments realize we are here to facilitate collaborative partnerships and serve our clients in a way that is also responsible to our donors.

The experience in Guatemala was extraordinary and reflective of other Counterpart teams using the same approach around the world in 27 countries. As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, I know that the “Counterpart Way” of helping communities build their own problem-solving capabilities to achieve results that are sustainable, scalable and transferable, will have lasting impact over the next 50 years.

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