Farmers Get a Hand, Not Handout

Hondurans are helped by American-sponsored World Neighbors development program. THIRD-WORLD DEVELOPMENT

`BEFORE, when we saw strangers or educated people walk into town, the women would shut the doors and windows and we would just peek through the cracks,'' recounts Jos'e Nieves, a small-scale farmer in the Cantarranas region of Honduras. ``Now, visitors are welcome and we feel proud to speak to them.'' Mr. Nieves was, in fact, speaking to 25 Americans spending the day in his tiny village to see the work of World Neighbors, a US organization that specializes in human development of the kind that has occurred in Nieves during the past two years.

``In Honduras we have mostly agricultural projects, but the agricultural technology we are teaching is only a tool to building the confidence and spiritual strength that poor people need to change their lives,'' says Bill Brackett, executive director of the Oklahoma City-based organization.

Many development assistance agencies, all with honorable intentions, have found through trial and error the drawbacks to give-aways, foreign experts, large budgets and short-term projects. The World Neighbors simple philosophy of giving people a hand up rather than a handout has attracted international attention with the publication of its ``Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement,'' a book that has sold 12,000 copies to hundreds of organizations and individuals. For this reason, World Neighbors now has continuous tours to Honduras to see its people-centered approach first hand.

The group that visited Nieves ranged in ages from 20 to 77 and came from five states in the US. Some people were wealthy, others unemployed. Professions ranged from medicine to masseuse to former employees of the US Agency for International Development. Religions and political parties differed. But their differences were dwarfed by their unanimous opinion on development: People do not need or want charity - they just want the knowledge that will enable them to help themselves.

``The beauty of the World Neighbors philosophy is that it fits in perfectly with the Republican philosophy of teaching people to help themselves and retain their dignity. I don't think you can give to people and allow them to retain their own dignity. You automatically put yourself in a position superior to them,'' says tour participant Chris Pillsbury, an active member and past president of the San Luis Obispo, Calif., chapter of the National Federation of Republican Women. ``At the same time, the World Neighbors philosophy is not antithetical to the Democrats.''

Another participant, who has traveled to Nicaragua with Witness For Peace and visited World Neighbors projects in Peru with her husband, joined the tour at his urging.

``I'm married to a man who has never been very interested in politics,'' says Ann Dudley Edwards of New Mexico. ``I was flabbergasted because this trip was his idea. It was like he had suddenly started talking Chinese.''

Because of the intricate relationship between the Honduran and United States governments, and the large aid program, a briefing at the US Embassy was included to give the visitors a context in which to view World Neighbors work.

When the embassy speakers described the $1 billion in aid given in the last decade to Honduras, Bob Herlin of Texas, asked them, ``Do you see yourselves working your way out of a job so that Hondurans can run things themselves? I'm interested because I think at least two of those dollars you mentioned might be mine.''

Mr. Herlin is a generous man but he insists on knowing that his contribution is being used efficiently. Because World Neighbors training has enabled farmers to quadruple their corn yields at a cost of $200 per family, he is a happy supporter. His donations pay farmers, identified as leaders in their communities, a small salary to work as agricultural extensionists, teaching other farmers the latest technology in soil conservation and production of corn and other crops.

The highlight for any visitor to rural Honduras is the opportunity to talk to a farmer and his family, to see how the visitor's last donation may have touched someone's life.

In Cantarranas the Americans and Hondurans sat in a circle under a large shade tree, munched on corn from the recent harvest, and listened to the farmers' testimonies.

``I feel proud because the land that I had left abandoned I am now putting to productive use,'' says Nieves. ``I like it when educated people come because I like to work hard and learn from others. And I feel that we are all brothers under the Lord.''

Noting Nieves' ability to speak to a large group of Americans, ``Two Ears'' author Roland Bunch comments, ``Development is more than putting extra money in his back pocket.''

WHAT do the visitors do when they return to the United States? Some write their local newspapers, donate money, give slide shows or hold fund-raising events.

A few record their feelings in poetry. Karen Gregory of Los Osos, Calif., wrote:

``In a far-off land of red earth and rock stands an aged man -/ toothless, dusty, shirt torn, thin./ ... This man knows things some people never learn./ This is my brother, my world neighbor./ The eyes of love are here.'

Most importantly, they share their new knowledge about development work that puts the rural poor at the center of the process.

``You develop people, not farms,'' notes John Ed Withers, a pastor at an Oklahoma City church. ``I went to Honduras with the typical North American cynicism about whether the dollars we send really do any good and that development is hopeless. But I have come back knowing it is possible to make a difference.''

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