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1999 NCC News Archives

Development Case Study: Bolivian Village's Lesson for NGOs

See Main Story: "Searching for New Options for Latin America’s Poor"

By Paul Jeffrey*

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Church-related development experts meeting here April 6-12 heard a series of case studies, including one on how lessons learned in one Bolivian village changed a non-governmental organization’s working relationship with the poor.

Victor Ortuņo, a development specialist with the NGO Tukuypaj, told participants how his organization began a project in the village of Sapanani in 1993. The project trained villagers how to raise trout in artificial lagoons that community members constructed. Ortuņo said trout fetch a high price in local markets, and the community could have realized a significant profit on their investment. "Yet against all our mercantilist expectations, which normally prevail in this type of project, the villagers made the decision to consume the trout themselves," reported Ortuņo. "They decided that rather then sell it they would feed it to their families."

Ortuņo said it was the women in the community who made the decision. "They are the ones who care for the children, who wanted something other than carbohydrates in their children's diets," he said. "So they set up a feeding center for school kids which got most of the harvested trout."

Ortuņo said the experience in Sapanani helped his organization rethink its approach to development. "This was a sound project that identified and utilized local resources, that needed few outside materials, that the community was capable of carrying out," Ortuņo said. "But they turned out to have a different conception of how they could benefit. We had thought of projects as successful when there was an economic return, yet when projects really originate from the grassroots they are often different, as the poor aren't as interested in making money as in improving the quality of life for their families and their children.

"The people of Sapanani helped us develop a new perspective on development. The error of many organizations is that we define development from our own point of view without really hearing what people at the grassroots are saying to us."

The Sapanani project was self-sufficient in less than three years, and Tukuypaj has started similar trout-raising projects in eight other communities nearby. All are successful, largely because of the lessons learned in Sapanani. "We've realized that we can break out of the traditional dependency model we too often have maintained as institutions," Ortuņo said. "In this and other projects we've come to learn that the poor can achieve in a relatively short time the successful management of effective programs. Our role is to foment that, which we can do well if our main priority is the life of the people in the communities, not the survival of the institutions where we work."

The April 6-12 gathering, sponsored by Church World Service – the relief, development and refugee assistance ministry of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches -- brought together 26 people from 11 countries throughout the region. They shared their own experiences, visited several projects in rural Honduras, and plotted new strategies they hope will help improve the lives of the poor whom they serve.

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* Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary in Central America.

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