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World Neighbors addresses coffee producing issues

World Neighbors

International development organisation World Neighbors on addressing the issues causing people to flee coffee producing countries with income diversification and education.

Coffee prices may be on an upward trend after many years below the cost of production, but producers still face many challenges when it comes to climate change, security, and social or political turmoil.

These issues, among others, have seen many producers and younger generations turning away from coffee to other crops or migrating elsewhere for a chance at a better life.

The United States Government has reinstated the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” policy, which is intended to deter immigration from Latin and Central American countries.

The policy was implemented in 2019 under the Trump administration and required migrants seeking asylum to remain in Mexico until their US immigration court date. The Biden administration ended the policy in February 2021 before resuming them in December 2021 following a decision by the federal court.

However, US Customs and Border Protection made 1.7 million apprehensions at the border with Mexico in the 2021 fiscal year, the highest number ever recorded. World Neighbors President and CEO Dr. Kate Schecter says these types of policies have done little to reduce the numbers of desperate people leaving these countries because they don’t address the causes for them leaving.

“There is a problem with the way this issue is being addressed. Often the government considers people trying to migrate as separate to the core issues that are causing them to flee, but they are part and parcel of the same problem,” Schecter tells Global Coffee Report.

“It is very hard to give up everything and travel somewhere that might not even accept you. Most people don’t want to do that, but they have no other choice if they need security or a better quality of life.”

Founded in 1951, World Neighbors is a US-based international development group with 50 employees currently running projects in 14 countries around the globe. The organisation works with rural communities and remote villages to provide training and education that creates long-term solutions to their challenges. This holistic approach encompasses health, nutrition, clean water, and savings and credit projects to build capital that can be invested in small businesses.

“Many development organisations push the idea of micro financing, people getting small loans from a bank that they can pay back at a low interest rate. The problem is that you’re still dealing with a bank. If you default, you’re defaulting to a bank, and many of the villages we work with are so isolated or far away that they just don’t have access,” Schecter says.

“Instead, we’re introducing an alternative kind of financing, creating small groups of people within communities that can loan to each other. If someone does default, the loaner is more motivated to look into why and try to support that person. These groups aren’t exclusive to women, but it has been a particularly great mechanism for helping them to start their own businesses.”

As a common cash crop, many of the people World Neighbors works with grow coffee as their main or only source of income. For the past six years, The Starbucks Foundation has been the primary funder for a major World Neighbors project in Guatemala, starting with the Atitlán region.

“Starbucks has been funding these projects with the understanding that the farmers they’re buying coffee from should not be wholly dependent on selling coffee and need to diversify their crops,” Schecter says.

“For Starbucks, if these farmers are able to improve their livelihoods and living conditions or get their children educated, they become stronger and more reliable vendors or cooperatives.”

World Neighbors typically finds local experts who are able to provide training to these communities, rather than bring in people from overseas who might not speak the same dialect or understand the conditions.

“Understanding language, culture, and what barriers they’re facing is so important here, and you’d be surprised how many local specialists there are in a particular field to act as trainers, even when it comes to health or medicine,” Schecter says.

“Once enough people in a community have graduated from training, we can also hire them to train their neighbouring communities.”

Following the success of the Atitlán project, Starbucks asked World Neighbors to expand into another part of the country where it buys coffee, the Huehuetenango department on the border with Mexico.

“There we were able to reach more than 3000 families, training people with a focus on crop diversity, improving sanitation and hygiene, and other health or quality of life improvements,” Schecter says.

“For example, one of the biggest killers of mothers and children in the region is smoke inhalation from old stoves. So, we helped them put in smokeless stoves with a chimney that also requires far less wood, so it’s better for the environment too.”

Financial literacy and education also play a key role in World Neighbors’ work. Schecter recalls stories of farmers who have made or saved a lot of money with no idea how to count it.

“It’s important to engender self-reliance to the producer and providing information on finance so they can grow their business is a great way to do that,” she says.

“Often in international development, there is pressure to spend money from grants very quickly so you can show impact. Very rarely are people encouraged to save money, but that’s what we’re brought up to do in the western world and it needs to be more encouraged in international development.”

Schecter says often, trainers will notice that villagers are buying their vegetables at local markets rather than growing them themselves. They then teach the people, primarily women, to farm vegetables themselves on their own land.

“The women will start these kitchen gardens, grow more than they planned, then start a small business of their own selling these vegetables,” she says.

“We started the Huehuetenango project not long before the pandemic hit, and people were already growing these kitchen gardens that they’ve been able to expand into larger plots with other types of crops. They still consider themselves coffee growers, and are all in coffee cooperatives, but over the past two and a half years, it’s given them a steady supply of food and other sources of income besides coffee.”

These projects have also improved community health through education on sanitation, nutrition, and hygiene practices, including on COVID-19 prevention measures.

A very important aspect of World Neighbors’ success in Guatemala has been working with the community to identify and introduce systems that will work for them long-term and finding leaders in the community to set an example.

“The communities we operate in are often quite willing to work together and invest in each other or the wider community. If the village really needs a new well or school, they will save together. But it will quickly reach the point they can’t just keep that money in a locked box, and that’s when they get into a cooperative model or community bank,” Schecter says.

“Sometimes, they have a structure in place already, but most of the time they don’t, so we help them create community-based organisations that can also manage training schedules, logistical issues, and even loans to producers.”

Seeing the success of the coffee producers it works with in Guatemala, World Neighbors was inspired to explore more opportunities in other countries around the globe.

“We worked in Peru for a long time but had to leave because of political violence in the 90s. We’d returned since the country has been at peace but were only working in the Andes, very high up with isolated indigenous groups. The person managing the program knew they were growing great coffee there, so we proposed another project in Peru to Starbucks,” Schecter explains.

“Starbucks does buy a lot of coffee in Peru and asked us to work with coffee growers in new areas for us, Cusco and Cajamarca. So, we hired local trainers and brought in farmers we’ve worked with for many years in the Andes to get off the ground running.”

The project in Peru is expected to directly involve 2400 women, benefit 20,000 community members across 37 rural coffee-growing communities, and will contribute to the Starbucks Foundation’s goal to empower 250,000 women and girls in origin communities by 2025.

“The project has only been running for a few months, but we’ve been able to do quite a bit. I recently read the baseline assessment, and even in a place like Peru – which is considered a middle-income country – there is very much of a need for assistance.

“Especially as Peru emerges from the pandemic, this new project will help ensure that thousands of coffee farmers and their families build a sustainable path to better lives.”

The successful approach implemented in Guatemala will underlie World Neighbors’ training and other initiatives in Peru. Schecter says the most important result of World Neighbors’ work in Guatemala that they hope to emulate in Peru is motivation to stay on the land.

“There are so many factors pushing people out of the country and to address issues like migration, we need mechanisms that work in stopping some of these problems,” she says.

Climate change is another issue these communities face that pushes them off the land, which World Neighbors attempts to mitigate by diversifying and improving sustainable farming by applying techniques and practices that increase resilience to adverse conditions.

“Migration and climate change are huge problems not just in Guatemala but across Central America and being so dependent on a cash crop like coffee makes any effect of climate change become monumental,” Schecter says.

“We can’t be naïve about climate change and need to help communities prepare as best they can for natural disasters, especially in places like Indonesia, Timor Leste, and Haiti, which has been hit by hurricanes year after year.”

In the year ahead, World Neighbors will continue its projects in Peru with the Starbucks Foundation, as well as more than a dozen countries around the world.

“We’re always trying to go deeper into every country where we operate and figure out how we can learn from the people we work with. We’re lifetime learners and appreciate discovering new ideas and ways of coping,” Schecter says.

“COVID-19 has been a huge lesson for all of us. We had anticipated COVID getting to these villages and spreading like crazy. When we explained the pandemic to them, people responded very quickly and put appropriate measures in place. It’s been remarkable and many have done better than we have [in the US] with the pandemic.”

Schecter says she hopes more governments and organisations embrace an approach to these issues that treat the cause rather than the symptoms.

“Virtually no one who has participated in World Neighbors programs in Atitlan and Chiquimula has moved to the US or out of Guatemala,” Schecter says.

“Our projects have resulted in better food security, cleaner water, less diseases, and generally a higher standard of living. Their children can go to school instead of working in the fields and the farmers have amassed capital for their own use – it’s really best to help people help themselves.”

This article was first published in the March/April 2022 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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