We’re all familiar with charitable donations, but Heifer International uses charity in a unique way. By providing key natural resources, the idea is to build communities that are self-determined and sustainable. In a sense, the decades-old organization works continuously to put itself out of a job.
“Many organizations have used the lens of charity, which in itself is not always sustainable,” Elizabeth Bintliff, vice president of Heifer International’s Africa Area Program, told Organic Connections. “We take quite a different approach at Heifer. We’re working with farmers producing at a small scale in rural communities, giving them access to markets to be able to really create their own livelihoods in a sustainable way; that’s the end game. Once they have access to markets and they can have lucrative sources of income, then their lives are more likely to be sustainable and less dependent on charity.”
“A cow, not a cup”
Heifer International was founded some 67 years ago by Dan West, an Indiana farmer, volunteer relief worker and Church of the Brethren member. In volunteering for the Spanish Civil War, he was moved by the plight of orphans and refugees as he ladled out meager rations of powdered milk. He realized that people needed “a cow, not a cup.” Cows could produce milk so that families would not have to depend on temporary aid.
It was West’s neighbors who donated the first cows sent abroad, to Europe following World War II. Since that time, Heifer has broadly expanded its mission along with the types of animals it now provides: goats, geese, guinea pigs, bees, silkworms, water buffalo and many others.
“We have been in existence for going on 70 years now,” Bintliff said. “We’ve worked with 8.5 million families or households around the world—men, women, boys and girls. We’ve really impacted their lives in sustainable ways, and that’s something that we’re very proud of. We work in the agriculture sphere, primarily though not exclusively with livestock. What we focus on is giving people and communities the tools to build their communities.”
A prime example: Africa
Bintliff’s job has allowed her hands-on assistance with many impoverished areas of Africa. “The best part of my job has really been the opportunity and the honor of being in the field as often as I am,” Bintliff said. “The last trip that I made was to Malawi. I was really fortunate, while I was there, to accompany the Minister of Gender on Women’s Affairs to projects in that country. I was in the field with men and women who were really trying to eke a simple life out of small parcels of land—people we had given livestock to who were producing small quantities of crops to take care of their families and feed their families throughout the year. With the gift of a draft animal, for example, they had doubled and even tripled the amount of food that they were growing on their land."
Bintliff also has been doing work in Ghana.
"I’ve been there many times in the past, and I remember particularly a family that I had visited some time ago. We had provided them with 20 chickens to start with, to begin a poultry project. In a few years they had multiplied those manyfold and became the family that then supplied to us so that we had animals to place amongst other families. They had effectively become our supply chain. Stories like that are really inspiring—not just for the people who are ultimately benefited but for ourselves, because it gives us the momentum to continue our mission.”
Currently, Bintliff is overseeing major work on the African continent. “We have several big programs in different parts of the continent,” Bintliff related. “We have a very large scale 180,000-family project, called the East Africa Dairy Development Project, in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. We’re looking to expand that project into Ethiopia and Tanzania in the coming year. What we’re trying to do essentially is build the dairy industry in East Africa in such a way that it’s responding to the needs of dairy consumers and is also very lucrative for dairy producers.
In West Africa, the organization works primarily with sheep and goats, which are highly valued animals. "They are traded across borders, and it’s not always done in the most efficient ways. We think that we have the experience to improve that sector and make it again profitable for the producers, while making it affordable for consumers at great quality,” he said.
A personal mission
Bintliff came to Heifer International in what she calls a “random job search.” She has now been with the organization for 13 years. “I’m originally born and raised in Cameroon,” Bintliff said. “I came to the US in the early 1990s, went to college and grad school here, then started working for Heifer not long after that.
“The reason I have stayed with Heifer International all these years is primarily the mission. As an African woman it was very important to me in my career that I maintain my contact and my connection with Africa. This work has really allowed me to do that. I find a lot of joy in having this unique opportunity to represent the voice in the world that’s seldom heard well enough—the perspective of African women. A large majority of people that we work with and assist are women, and I think that’s a perspective that is not understood very well. To the extent that I can, I want to help represent it accurately.”
Not telling people what’s best
“How we see our role is, we aren’t there to tell people—whether they be African or otherwise—what’s best for them,” Bintliff concluded. “Self-determination is a big part. We start at a grassroots level; we help build communities, and we help repair the fragmentation that may occur so that people can find their own voices to advocate on their own behalves. We do it in such a way that when we step out of the picture, the work can continue without dependence on us. We find that to be critical for sustainability.”