I have heard some of the same people who support organizations like the HSUS say that they do not support Heifer.org, because they're concerned about animal rights. This blows me away, because the sort of sustainable, direct aid that Heifer can provide has the potential to save so many human lives. Maybe people are afraid that they're donating an animal so that it will be immediately butchered and put on a dinner table? That's not the way it works--remember the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs? Heifer's whole idea is one of sustainability and self-reliance--to help people not only feed, clothe, shelter and educate themselves, but to be able to make a little income beyond that, and, in turn, to help others. It works. That's why the program is so successful. It's just a variation on the old "Give a man a fish..." proverb. Give a family a chicken dinner, and they eat well...once. Give that same family a small flock of laying hens and a couple of roosters, and they suddenly not only have a renewable supply of highly-digestible protein and nutrients by way of daily egg production, but as those eggs pile up and those chickens reproduce, they've got a product to sell, affordably, to other families in need. And then they share their gifts, both the animals and the knowledge.
If all you know of raising livestock is the industrialized, inhumane factory models that are so much the norm in modern times, then sure, I can see where you'd have some concern. But Heifer works hard to ensure that livestock goes where it can thrive, and provide what's most needed, whether that be milk, eggs, fiber (as in wool, not wheat-bran), muscle-power, or, yes, meat. As with any sustainable livestock farming model, there are going to be animals that wind up as food--most often in the form of "extra" male offspring. I think that the livestock world is one of the only places that exist in which it is NOT advantageous to be male. (This is, perhaps, a deeply-seated reason that so many hard-worked mothers throughout history haven't so much minded the occasional addition of a loud-mouthed rooster to the family stew-pot, I'd imagine.) But these animals lead good lives, and feed and clothe and work for many people, people who are often able to demonstrably improve their economic situations because of that simple, one-time, "hand-up." It's a beautiful thing.
I should say, here, that I do not want to give the impression that Heifer is only about livestock animals--quite the contrary. In the U.S. alone, they operate many, many projects that concentrate on crop farming, seed-saving, and more.
Yesterday's New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Nicholas D. Kristof titled "The Luckiest Girl," about Beatrice Biira, a Ugandan child whose family was given a remarkable, life-changing gift...in the form of one single milk-goat--a goat named Mugisa ("Luck").
"The tale begins in the rolling hills of western Uganda, where Beatrice was born and raised. As a girl, she desperately yearned for an education, but it seemed hopeless: Her parents were peasants who couldn’t afford to send her to school.
The years passed and Beatrice stayed home to help with the chores. She was on track to become one more illiterate African woman, another of the continent’s squandered human resources."
The children of a Connecticut church gathered money to donate goats to families in Africa, and one of those goats, a doe named Luck, went to Beatrice's family. That doe kidded (gave birth) to twins, and the family drank nourishing goat's milk...and had enough left over to sell.
"The cash from the milk accumulated, and Beatrice’s parents decided that they could now afford to send their daughter to school. She was much older than the other first graders, but she was so overjoyed that she studied diligently and rose to be the best student in the school.
An American visiting the school was impressed and wrote a children’s book, “Beatrice’s Goat,” about how the gift of a goat had enabled a bright girl to go to school. The book was published in 2000 and became a children’s best seller — but there is now room for a more remarkable sequel.
Beatrice was such an outstanding student that she won a scholarship, not only to Uganda’s best girls’ high school, but also to a prep school in Massachusetts and then to Connecticut College. A group of 20 donors to Heifer International — coordinated by a retired staff member named Rosalee Sinn, who fell in love with Beatrice when she saw her at age 10 — financed the girl’s living expenses.
A few years ago, Beatrice spoke at a Heifer event attended by Jeffrey Sachs, the economist. Mr. Sachs was impressed and devised what he jokingly called the “Beatrice Theorem” of development economics: small inputs can lead to large outcomes."
Cut to today, and see what that one goat helped make possible (not discounting what a remarkable, gifted, and driven person is Beatrice herself).
"...villagers in western Uganda recently held a special Mass and a feast to celebrate the first local person to earn a college degree in America.
Moreover, Africa will soon have a new asset: a well-trained professional to improve governance. Beatrice plans to earn a master’s degree at the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas and then return to Africa to work for an aid group.
Beatrice dreams of working on projects to help women earn and manage money more effectively, partly because she has seen in her own village how cash is always controlled by men. Sometimes they spent it partying with buddies at a bar, rather than educating their children. Changing that culture won’t be easy, Beatrice says, but it can be done."
I strongly encourage you to visit Nicholas Kristof's blog entry on this story, to see all the wonderful ways that you can help very much by doing very little. He's gathered scads of links to different amazing aid organizations, all in one powerhouse post. Kristoff ends his telling of Beatrice's story with this summation.
"The challenges of global poverty are vast and complex, far beyond anyone’s power to resolve, and buying a farm animal for a poor family won’t solve them. But Beatrice’s giddy happiness these days is still a reminder that each of us does have the power to make a difference — to transform a girl’s life with something as simple and cheap as a little goat."I spent a good long time reading through the hundreds of comments generated by that article and post (by comparison, I think the previous post on the blog had 7 comments at the time of this writing), and one in particular was enlightening and uplifting. It came from Eliza Penick, a Heifer staffer, and I've reprinted it in its entirety here, because every word of it is informative and important. Please, please, read the whole thing. It's deserving of its own post.
"Responses to concerns about Heifer International:
-Heifer is a grassroots organization in which the community makes all the decisions. Heifer does not approach families with solutions in mind, but instead partners with a community & first “shuts their mouth & opens their ears.” The concern of Western culture or identity being pushed on communities does not exist in regards to Heifer, as they do not employ Americans abroad. Each country office is staffed & run by nationalists from that country & those hired as trainers or veterinarians are often from the partner communities themselves (cutting down on language & cultural barriers & choosing to invest, rather than ignore, the valuable human resources already available).
-Many responded with concern about those that do not receive animals or the longterm impacts. First, the community decides who will receive animals, not Heifer. In every project, Heifer’s goal is sustainability–economic, social & environmental sustainability. Animals are not placed in areas where the environment will not support them or where they will cause harm. Heifer partners are trained in environmentally-sound farming & animal husbandry. For us in the land of huge corporate farms, we have forgotten that it is possible for humans, livestock & environment to form a mutually-beneficial relationship. But, Heifer works in a vastly different capacity with small, individual family farms & communities.
Each family makes an agreement to “pass on the gift”, giving away the first female offspring of their animal (or its monetary equivalent) & the training they have received to another family (which the community also chooses). Each gift multiplies to benefit all & recipients now have the dignity of giving back & becoming donors. While we think of individuals & families, Heifer truly works with an entire community.
-Heifer also works in the U.S., partnering with struggling families in both rural & urban settings, supporting family farms & the ever-increasing need for food security through locally raised produce & livestock.
-I also feel convicted to mention that while the story of Beatrice is truly incredible & moving, it is a unique exception. Heifer is not in business to take the best & brightest from communities abroad & educate them in U.S. schools. As it’s been mentioned here before, the American public do not respond to humanitarian needs when it is presented in numbers & figures, but in stories of individuals. I encourage you to check out Heifer’s website (www.heifer.org) or do a search on YouTube & see numerous other amazing stories from project participants.
Heifer does not follow the traditional foreign-aid models of the past. Heifer provides a hand-up to families who need a relatively small amount of resources & training to bring their talents & ideas to fruition in benefit of their own community & country. People cannot get an education, start a business, advocate for social change, run for local office, fight disease, stop a war, or numerous other things if their biggest concern is where their next meal is coming from. The face of Heifer International is animals, but it’s really about people. About empowering communities to provide for themselves & share with those around them. Its this approach that will change the world & hopefully achieve Heifer’s vision of a world of communities living together in peace, equitably sharing the resources of a healthy planet."
Heifer staff & lifelong supporter
So if you can, during this month when we in the U.S. are celebrating our independence, and thinking and writing about food, especially those of us who have the great luxury of more than enough, or land and resources to grow our own, spare a $20 donation and send a family a clutch of chicks or ducklings. One of those birds may just be "Lucky" for someone in need. (If you're a high-roller, then give a water buffalo! Or honeybees, or wool-sheep!) It might not be someone on the other side of the planet that you're helping, either--Heifer operates all over the world, and chances are they've got something going on right next door to you.