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Creating Hope in El Salvador

By Jonathan Heller and Sarah McFarlane
El Platenar, El Salvador & Seattle, Washington

How to fish

"Give a person a fish and he/she will eat for a day; teach a person how to fish and he/she will never be hungry." While we had heard this saying many times before, the truth of it really became clear to us when we spent nine months living and volunteering in the countryside of El Salvador. During this time we encountered many aid projects which were having marginal success, and even some which we felt ultimately hurt the very people they were trying to help, tying them into a cycle of dependency on outside help. During our stay in El Salvador, though, we felt very lucky to be working with a group of people who really believe in giving the people the tools and knowledge they need to be self-sufficient. They are bringing hope and a chance for the poor of El Salvador to create a better life for themselves and their children.

We are an engineer and a social studies teacher from Seattle, Washington, who took time off from our jobs to work with the Salvadoran organization, "Institute for Technology, Environment, and Self-Sufficiency" (editor: changed to Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America (FSSCA). ITAMA was formed in 1992 when Peace Accords were being negotiated between the FMLN rebel group, and the Salvadoran government to end their 12-year civil war. Despite the long war to win better living conditions, we found that the majority of Salvadorans are still extremely poor, subsistence farmers or marginally employed as low-wage manual laborers. The Salvadoran government and economy can and does function without any regard for or input from this majority of Salvadorans. The creation of ITAMA was driven by the founders' belief that El Salvador could never become a truly peaceful democratic society as long as the population remains locked out of the economic and political decision-making process. Furthermore, ITAMA believes that economic development can not be given to people, but must be created by the people themselves. This process is called "self-development" and requires the truly democratic participation of the entire community. This model of development is in contrast to the vast majority of projects which we witnessed in other parts of El Salvador which we put into two categories.

Charity model

The most common type of project supported by private donors from the USA falls under what can be called the "Charity model". This is generally based on the idea of "helping the poor" and assumes that the community is unable to help themselves. These projects usually consist of donations of money and/or materials with very little training or participation from the recipients. Once the support is withdrawn, the projects are typically doomed to failure. We visited one community that had been given a significant amount of aid through a sister-city relationship in the United States. They had received donations of, among other things, irrigation equipment, solar panels for pumping drinking water, and trucks. At the time of our visit, the irrigation equipment was broken and in storage. As they had not received training or taken care of the equipment, they had damaged it and had no money for repairs. The solar panel pump system was also broken, and we noticed that the panels had been mounted directly beneath a large shade tree. One of the trucks appeared to be acting as a storage locker, and the community was asking for more aid for a project to improve the foundation of the community house and build a church. Many North American and European funders have knowingly or unknowingly promoted this type of development which creates dependency on additional hand-outs. Because of bureaucratic accounting mechanisms and fear of corruption, some funders are much more likely to give money for things that can be seen and accounted for such as machinery or latrines, as opposed to intangibles such as education, training, organization, and administration of projects, which are imperative for project success in the long run.

Government model

The second most common type of development project that we saw in El Salvador could be called the "Government Model". This type of development usually involves an analysis of the communities needs by "experts". Solutions are then imposed on the community with little or no input from the people themselves. These projects tend to create a dependency on technical or financial support as they are often too technically advanced or costly for the communities to maintain by themselves, and tend to fail once the experts withdraw support.

An example of this type of project was a US-AID sponsored "reforestation" project in the village where we lived, which focused on fast-growing non-native trees with high market value. The project consisted of cutting down one of the last large areas of native forest in the area and replacing it with a tree plantation. Due to the high value of these trees as construction material, the trees which are large enough to be harvested are being stolen at a rapid pace at night from an area which is difficult and dangerous to patrol. The smaller trees are being cut by the local population for firewood.

Locally-based organizations

We do not mean to imply that charity aid projects are all unnecessary and ineffective, or that all government-sponsored projects are counterproductive. We only want to point out that aid money will go much further if it is channeled through a locally-based organization, with real connections to the people, and focused on training people for economic self-sufficiency. ITAMA uses this alternative model of development "Self-Development", which is a much more time-consuming process as it focuses primarily not on technological solutions, but on training, organization and education of communities to prepare them to create their own development.

This philosophy of development assumes that with technical assistance and access to capital, the people have the ability to raise themselves out of poverty, and to do so without sacrificing their health or the health of the environment. It assumes that real lasting change can not come from the outside, but must come from an organic process within the people themselves. The primary goal of ITAMA is to initiate projects which will put poor people in control of their own futures. To do this requires a great deal of time and attention spent directly with the people of the community. The problem that ITAMA is confronting is that Northern funders do not like to pay for this important work which ITAMA calls "pre-development". They are used to funding "projects" and ITAMA's development strategy implies a number of steps before any specific projects are written and applied for.

First of all, ITAMA believes that a development organization must have a deep understanding of the community which they are trying to help, regardless of the nature of the project. To obtain this level of understanding it is necessary to live in the community with the people, gain their confidence, and share their experiences. This is very difficult for primarily foreign-run organizations to do.

Secondly, the community must understand, support, and actually manage the development process. Without the involvement of the community in every step of planning and execution of projects, they will fail as soon as the development organization leaves or runs out of money. This is more difficult then it might seem in El Salvador when you consider that it requires uniting communities with divisions left over from a civil war, and explaining economic and financial concepts to people who may never have been inside a classroom. In addition, it requires getting hungry people to look beyond where their next meal is going to come from. To have true unity and involvement of the majority of the community also requires teaching methods of democratic participation in a very male-dominated country with no real democratic history.

ITAMA believes that truly sustainable development must be based on promoting healthy living and working conditions for the people. Thus, much of the focus of ITAMA's work is on protecting the environment and natural resources, organic farming methods, renewable energy sources, and reforestation.

While our volunteer work experience is limited to El Salvador, we believe that the concept of self-development works in other parts of the world as well. "Charity" and "government" development projects currently being promoted often only serve to create more economic and technical dependency among the poor communities which they are trying to help out of poverty. This is not a step forward in the long run, as it ensures the necessity of additional aid in the future. Real change can not be brought to people from the outside, but must be earned by each community through a process of education, organization, and personal growth. We need to support organizations like ITAMA which focus on "self-development" so that the poor people of El Salvador and other parts of the world can put themselves in a position to escape the cycle of poverty. It is a fact that this method requires more time and attention, but if successful, at the end of the process the community will no longer require outside help.

For more information about Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America (FSSCA), please contact Jonathan and Sarah at, or call or write to FSSCA's office in the U.S.A. at: 1411 Lisa Rae Dr., Round Rock, TX 78664, phone: (512) 388-7957; FAX 388-2057; email: .

Re-published in In Motion Magazine - January 9, 2001.