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12 Countries in 12 Months with Heifer

   /   Jul 2nd, 2012Interviews

Photo Courtesy of Subject

BETTY LONDERGAN started a blog, WHAT GIVES 365, to give $100 to a nonprofit each day of the year.  It got wildly popular and led Londergan to her next project, accompanying Heifer in 12 countries for 12 months in 2012.  She travelled to: Guatemala, Peru, China and Nepal, Cameroon, Romania, Appalachia, USA, Rwanda, Armenia, Vietnam & Cambodia, Malawi, Ecuador.

What compels her to write about everyday people around the world?

I feel as if we Americans (and I certainly include myself) are woefully ignorant of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and I absolutely feel as if part of the problem is that the media has decided that we just aren’t interested in anything outside of America. Instead, we’re fed a constant sugary diet of celebrity gossip and garbage that literally makes you stupid. BUT stories about people around the planet, presented in an interesting, engaging way are truly fascinating.

Chatted with her about her thoughts on media, blogging, and development.

For those readers who are not familiar with Heifer, can you please briefly explain what they specialize in?  

Heifer International was started in 1944 by Dan West, with a mission to end poverty and hunger and heal the earth through the gift of livestock. Since then, Heifer has helped more than 71 million people in more than 125 countries move from desperation to dignity by giving them animals, seeds, trees and trainings to empower them to feed themselves, earn an income, and feed others. Heifer works with organized community groups, so there is structure and sustainability to its work that continues long after the project is completed.

How did you concoct the idea of doing 12 countries in 12 months? And how did you narrow down your list to just 12 countries?

From my previous blog, What Gives 365 (and probably from my advertising background), I felt as if a blog works better if it has a concept that people can quickly grasp and embrace. The night before I was presenting my idea of this blog to Heifer, I woke up in the middle of the night and scribbled “12 countries, 12 months, 2012″ down on a piece of paper. And that was it. Heifer and I worked together to choose the 12 countries from the 54 countries in which they worked — trying to vary the continents, people and geographies so the blog would have a new look and feel every month — and obviously, also to showcase their best projects.

Your blog posts often feature everyday folks in these regions that have directly benefited from Heifer’s work.  Any particular person that you felt particularly inspired, touched, moved by? 

That is a really, really tough question, as every time I go to a new country, I fall madly in love with the place and the people.

But the beautiful people in the town of Barza in the Far North of Cameroon stay in my mind because their situation is so dire … these villagers live in the Sahel region of Africa, just below the Sahara where climate change is leading to desertification. Their dry season is now almost 10 months long and they have to walk 10 km. for water (not good water, just water) — there and back, several times a day. It’s almost unimaginable — and yet, they persevere, they have big families, they smile, they make you food, AND they are so grateful for the Heifer borehole that they can use to get some of their water…. I am terribly worried for that entire area of Africa, as I don’t know how they will survive if things get much worse, as it’s predicted to do.

If you go to my blog and look at the beautiful faces of the people of Barza, you just can’t help feeling angry that in this day and age, we are allowing a condition like this to continue. Water is a human right and essential to life; nobody should be living like this on our watch.

As a writer/blogger/photographer, you’ve been able to capture these stories that often don’t make it to newspapers.  Or they appear as numbers/ data (ie. the poverty rates in Nepal are rising).   Going forward, how do you want to keep using your skills for social impact and do you feel that our media could a better job of covering some of these social/ global stories? 

I feel as if we Americans (and I certainly include myself) are woefully ignorant of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and I absolutely feel as if part of the problem is that the media has decided that we just aren’t interested in anything outside of America. Instead, we’re fed a constant sugary diet of celebrity gossip and garbage that literally makes you stupid.

BUT stories about people around the planet, presented in an interesting, engaging way are truly fascinating. People like reading about other people; and once you develop an interest in a place and those people become real to you, you’re far less likely to agree that we should just bomb them, or invade them, or vilify them, or be terrified of them. (Which might be why you don’t see much of that in the mainstream media.)

I don’t know what I am going to do once this year comes to an end, because unfortunately I never plan ahead, but I think it will be difficult to walk away from the calling to make whatever impact I can to try to increase compassion and understanding in our world.

Which country inspired/moved you the most and why? 

I know this sounds like the answer in a Miss America pageant, but I seriously have to tell you that the last country I visited is always my favorite. I constantly think — oh, I’ll never like the next one as much — and then I go there, and I am utterly captivated by the country’s history, the beauty of the landscapes (because I’m always in the countryside where farmers live), their unique struggles with poverty, and the dignity and beauty of the people. What has inspired me the most is how generous and open and kind poor people are… all across the world. I have seen far more hostility, bitterness, greed and conflict in my affluent neighborhood in Atlanta than I ever have in any developing country. That is enormously touching — and shaming.

Thanks to your blog, has Heifer seen an increase of interest in their organization? 

God, I hope so. I feel a huge personal responsibility to increase donations because every dollar they have spent paying for my travel is money that could have gone to a project, and I am painfully aware of that. But I try not to get too caught up in stats, numbers and all that because it begins to feel really egotistical. So I just do the very best job I can in writing and photography, promote it as best I’m able, and try to trust the universe to do the rest.

What lessons has this experience taught you? 

It’s taught me that there is no “Other.” Despite all the different races, religions and cultures on this planet, we really are a family of man. When I go to a new country, I’ll invariably sit down with someone who looks entirely different than me, is dressed exotically and has a completely different language and lifestyle than mine, and we’ll start to talk (through translators) and suddenly, some mannerism or habit or expression will remind me of a friend, family member or acquaintance and I’ll think — wow, that’s just like Judith! Or Mary Lou! Or Dudley! You will see something familiar, and then all the other superficial differences fade away and you see what’s true. If we could grasp this, it would be much more difficult to wage war, or to allow people to starve. I know that it’s so, so hard to care about everybody on the planet … when we all have a lot on our plates just with our own families and it can be overwhelming and exhausting to even think about .. but I also believe we are called to love our neighbor. And just a little goes a long way…

While accompanying Heifer, have you been able to dispel any misconceptions around aid?  Many people are hesitant to give to large NGOs because they don’t know where the funds are going.  Are you finding that the money is making it to the right source?

I think as a donor, you need to know what you want from your gift and you need to do your homework. I used to just give money to any organization that sent me a request that resonated with me, but that was pretty dumb.

With a modicum of homework on the Internet, you can find out a lot about an organization before you give — and there definitely are some important differences. (Check Charity Navigator and American Institute of Philanthropy and do a little sleuthing on your own on the organization’s website.. just to see if it is truly aligned with your values.)

Some people like to give to local organizations because they feel more connected and have a sense of exactly where it’s going. Some people feel called to give in emergencies and in times of peril and prefer organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army . Some folks like to donate their time and sweat — and projects like Habitat are perfect for that.

If you have a heart for trying to end poverty and hunger across the globe (or in the USA), to my mind, Heifer is a great choice. Heifer is pretty fanatical about accountability and I’ve been very, very impressed with how deeply involved the country staff is in each project, which is a huge part of the challenge of fighting any kind of corruption or misuse of funds. Heifer staff is always local and native to the country, meaning they are not dealing with another culture or imposing values from outside.

Also embedded in the Heifer model are independence, high expectations and sustainability– meaning that you are not just given an animal, you are trained in all the ways to keep that animal healthy and increase the value of that asset, AND you are required to Pass on the Gift, giving the first female offspring (or its value) to another needy person in your community. This not only doubles the value of the original gift, but creates pride, responsibility, and cohesion in the community.

When I first looked at the Heifer catalog years ago, I thought — jeez, what a joke. No way does a cow cost that much in an African country! But now that I’ve seen what goes on, with 6 months of training before the animal comes, an Animal Health Care worker in every village, all the community leadership building that goes into every project — AND how insanely hard the Heifer staff works in every country — I can say with utter conviction that a gift to Heifer is money well spent. From the top down, I have found the organization to be really stellar, supremely committed, and deeply conscious of the responsibility to use all funds wisely.  

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