When Diane and Woody Jenkins traveled to Central America 20 years ago to assist in the rehabilitation of political refugees there, they had no idea where their desire to be good neighbors would lead them.
Frequent visitors to Latin America and fluent in Spanish, the couple was horrified at the plight of thousands of old people, women, and children who poured into Honduras after the Marxist Sandinistas seized control of neighboring Nicaragua in 1984. Diane, a former Louisiana state prosecutor and assistant attorney general, and Woody, a Republican state representative from Louisiana, felt overwhelmed by the sprawling United Nations refugee camp outside Danli, a southern Honduran town not far from the Nicaraguan border.
All they saw were starving families and orphans living in villages without roads, without sewers, without electricity or proper medical facilities—and just three hours by plane from the United States. And after the war was over, how would someone interested in rendering long-term assistance deal with local officials, many of whom were suspicious of the motives and methods of the U.S. helpers? How would they bypass the politics and corruption and help the people who need help?
Most important, how do you help the poor abroad without importing a U.S.-style social welfare mentality?
“Here Come the Americans”
Friends of the Americas, the nonprofit humanitarian aid organization that the couple founded in 1984, doesn’t presume to have all the answers to these questions. All the Jenkinses can say for sure is that after other humanitarian groups packed their bags and went home once the refugee crisis abated, they found it wasn’t that easy to leave.
“We developed a great love for the people and for the work, so here we are, 17 years later,” says Diane.
While it is difficult to attribute the group’s success to any particular formula, some early decisions by the founders were key. “Friends” only goes where it’s invited, treats everyone who needs medical assistance regardless of political allegiance, and tries to avoid creating welfare-style dependency among the poor. The group also seeks to raise standards of care and sanitation, and local people’s expectations about medical service. In its 17-year existence, Friends has participated in humanitarian relief efforts in more than 50 major projects in several Central American countries.
“In various situations we meet with the village in advance and tell them we have certain things we can do for them and make an informal arrangement, but just to kind of bust in and say, ‘Here we are, the Americans, we’re going to solve your problem’ —I think that’s the worst attitude,” says Diane Jenkins.
Today, Friends is a $1.5 million-a-year program working on the ground in Latin America. (A handful of administrative staff are back in Baton Rouge). Seventy-five percent of the organization’s revenues come from individuals, 15 percent from corporations, and about 10 percent from foundations. Just 10 percent of its budget goes to fund raising and administration, leaving the rest devoted to programs that assist “persons suffering from malnutrition, natural disasters, wars, and famine in Latin America.”
Jenkins’s simple formula—help people to help themselves and don’t duplicate what other groups are already doing—was put to the test when elders from the Miskito Indians, a community of about 50,000 Christians living in primitive conditions along the Caribbean coast in northeast Nicaragua and eastern Honduras, contacted Friends officials in the mid-1980s, seeking medical help for their people. The Sandinistas, trying to drive them from Nicaragua, had frequently attacked the Miskitos, who claimed a 4,000-square-mile territory as their sovereign homeland.
It was a challenge the fledgling Friends organization could not pass up, and the meeting with the chiefs soon led to the establishment of a hospital at Rus Rus, a remote jungle outpost in Honduras, three miles north of the Coco River, the border between Honduras and Nicaragua.
Today, the Miskitos are allowed to live in relative peace in their homeland, and the hospital at Rus Rus boasts two operating rooms, an outpatient clinic, and a staff of as many as 20 people, including doctors, nurses, a pharmacist, a dentist, and lab technicians. The hospital is one of a cluster of medical, nutritional, and vocational centers that have grown up in the region, mostly in Honduras, employing more than 50 people.
Today, Friends’ doctors and workers no longer endure gunfire from Sandinista outposts—an alarmingly frequent occupational hazard in the early years—but the work remains risky, says Danny Smith, a senior vice president with Friends.
During a recent audit, Smith had to fly two accountants from the United States to inventory Friends facilities in Honduras, including the clinic at Rus Rus. According to Smith, the trip was a perfect illustration of the adage that the only constant in Central America is change. To begin with, the Honduran army called Smith and said it needed to substitute a small airplane because it felt the helicopter Smith and his party were scheduled to fly wasn’t safe.
“Then we got a call telling us, ‘Sorry, that plane has crashed, and you’ll have to make other plans,’” Smith recounts. So he and his party drove eight hours through the night to a town with a small airport on the Caribbean coast. On the way they were held up for hours after two trucks collided on a narrow bridge in the dark. The return journey was less eventful, but no less strenuous.
With half of Honduras’s 6.2 million people living below the poverty line, the country is still a major recipient of foreign aid, including commitments of almost $500 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development. While they aren’t funded by the government, Friends’ people-to-people projects illustrate how donor countries can help developing ones by building infrastructure and institutions that spur stability and prosperity.
Friends Comes of Age
Those principles were stretched to the limit when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in October 1998. During that natural disaster—one of the worst to hit the Western Hemisphere in living memory—Friends’ experience in disaster relief and its network of ties with local communities proved invaluable.
In less than five days, Mitch brought 60 inches of rain, washing away hundreds of hillside communities throughout the region. More than 5,000 people died during the storm and its aftermath, and a third of the population was uprooted and dislocated. Estimates of economic losses from Mitch exceeded $4 billion. The agricultural sector, which employs 40 percent of the workforce and accounts for 70 percent of exports, was hit extremely hard. Many small farmers lost everything.
While official agencies were bogged down trying to transport a massive outpouring of relief supplies from the United States, some donor organizations asked Friends to distribute 100 containers of clothing, medical supplies, tools, and generators to people in out-of-the-way places. The project took about a year, but Friends showed it had the “reach” into local communities to get supplies to the people who needed them.
“We learned a lot during Mitch, especially about logistics and distribution,” Smith says.
For one thing, the response to Mitch showed it doesn’t matter how much a donor spends on aid if the aid doesn’t get to the people for whom it’s intended. News of the devastation galvanized the private sector in the United States. But the overwhelming response caused aid to bottleneck at U.S. ports and airports, causing a lot of relief to go to waste.
In Honduras, continuous bad weather and ongoing rescue efforts to dig people out of landslides made distribution of supplies next to impossible. And the generous response, however well intended, had a disastrous effect on the local economy when the arrival of hundreds of containers of free clothes put textile manufacturers and distributors out of business. “We had to tell them, ‘Quit sending free clothes,’” Smith says.
Hope for the Future
Natural disasters leave poor countries vulnerable to political extremism and civil war, and the nations of Latin America are no exception. If the United States fails in its obligation to give effective help to the region, analysts say, a situation that occurred in the 1980s—when Soviet money and arms were routed through Cuba to the Sandinistas—could someday be repeated by other rogue nations seeking a foothold in the Americas.
The United States, among others, is taking steps to prevent such a scenario. Relief agencies have come to regard the devastation caused by Mitch as an opportunity to transform civil society in Honduras. New designs in road construction and sewage infrastructure are being implemented, as well as improved management of water resources and rivers.
Local authorities are expanding the role of municipal workers to control the spread of disease and educate officials in disaster management. To help the country’s agricultural sector, governments are funding the replacement of key transport links and making credit available so that farmers can replace lost stock.
While Friends works on a smaller scale, its hopes for the future of Honduras and its neighbors are no less optimistic. Plans call for setting up a mobile clinic in El Salvador and a “disaster strike force” that would respond to natural and manmade emergencies, and expanding a “child sponsorship” program that links poor kids with families in the U.S.
We want to expand on what we consider to be our strengths, the areas we have become expert in through experience and years of hard work, and that’s primarily in medical care, emergency disaster relief, and child sponsorship,” Jenkins says.
The move toward democracy in Latin America has been dramatic over the last 20 years, Friends’ officials say. Countries have stabilized politically, and economic systems have been opened up for ordinary people.
“The future now is in the children,” Smith says. “If we are able to provide the children an opportunity to go to school and get a good education and see themselves with a high self-image—help them become prosperous and provide for themselves and their families—then we feel we’ve accomplished a great deal.”
Already Smith, during his frequent trips to Honduras, sees many signs of improvement and prosperity trickling into the countryside—new bicycles for the children, new shoes, better clothes, and more and better vehicles on the roads. “I believe that’s a result of the people in the United States extending a hand of friendship and showing people how to improve their plight without creating a social welfare mentality.”
Lawrence Morahan is senior staff writer of CNSNews.com.