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Helping a forgotten village

by Carolyn Oxlee
A remote sub-tropical village in Ecuador has been “adopted” by local Red Cross volunteers, who give up their weekends to provide the health and social care that until recently has been most notable by its absence.

San Gerardo is a peaceful village; the only noise is that of dogs barking and distorted Latin music coming from old cassette players. Chickens wander freely in and out of the wooden houses, while the new church lies half built due to lack of money. Rich in green foliage and colourful pink and red flowers, the village survives from agriculture: coffee and cocoa, bananas and passion fruit, rice and maize.

Not long ago, the 79 families living in San Gerardo had no clean water, no electricity, inadequate sanitation and no health services. People did not wash their hands, boil their water or burn their rubbish. Thanks to
the efforts of the Ecuadorian Red Cross Society (ERCS), how-ever, all that is changing.

The Bolivar branch of the ERCS runs a community develop-ment project that has facilitated the supply of clean water and electricity and provided necessary materials for building latrines. It organises weekend visits of professionals and specialists; loans money for villagers to expand their crops and animals; and encourages initiative and mutual support within the community.




Working weekends

Of the many facets of this project, it is the community action weekends that really capture the spirit of voluntarism at its best. Professional doctors, dentists and laboratory technicians bring their own equipment and devote a weekend to the village, accompanied by relief and social workers.

On a given Saturday, two dentists spend the day cleaning, filling and even extracting teeth. The general state of teeth in the village is poor, and several of their 20 patients need up to three fillings each. Seventeen people, the majority of whom are elderly, may queue up to see the doctor. But the busiest person all weekend is a laboratory technician who has a total of 77 urine, stool and blood tests to carry out. The tests prove that most of the villagers suffer from parasites.

A token charge of 2,000 sucres (US$ 0.65) is made for consultations, and 5,000 for treatment. Likewise, a small charge is levied for drugs dispensed, as one of the key elements of the programme is encouraging the villagers to participate in their own self-improvement. “We want to avoid paternalism,” says Marcela Suarez, the director of the programme. “People don’t really achieve anything if everything is handed out free.”

Teams of up to 20 people including general relief workers visit San Gerardo every two months. Smaller teams of up to five volunteers go every other weekend. The improvements to the village as a result of the programme are obvious, and are not only the physical ones such as latrines. “The Red Cross is making us more united as a community. Before it was each to his own. Now we talk to each other and share knowledge,” explains chicken farmer Mesias Guevara.

In order to provide continuity to the programme, the Red Cross has placed three full-time advisors in the village: one to provide agricultural advice, one to take care of social and welfare matters and one for health.

Investment that pays

Another aspect of the development programme is its credit scheme through which the ERCS loans the villagers sums of US$ 150-300 to expand their crops or to take up livestock farming. As well as giving them the chance to increase their earnings, it has also been a key factor in gaining the confidence of the people in San Gerardo who were initially sceptical about the whole programme, having been disappointed by false promises of other organizations in the past.

One family loan has enabled brothers Balter and William Muñoz to rent and plant more ground. By 7 a.m., they are already at work in the fields, cutting down the weeds that are growing around their rice clumps. Once the rice is harvested, they will plant maize, then another rice crop later in the year. Because the climate is favourable — plenty of sunshine and rain — they can harvest three short-cycle crops a year. “The loan is good, because before we didn’t have enough land to keep us busy,” says Balter, 25.

The ERCS volunteers first came to San Gerardo in 1982, but the programme only took on its current form two years ago when the Finnish and Spanish Red Cross Societies started funding it. So far, assistance has totalled US$ 61,000. But although the volunteers are enthusiastic and devoted, there is a limit to what can be achieved with only goodwill, little money and one minibus.

But the ERCS acknowledges that pouring in external aid would not be waving a magic wand, as the Society does not have the infrastructure to use it. “Before we can expand, we need an adequate administration system, the right people and some good project ideas,” says Dr Tito Cabezas, ERCS’s president.

Dr Cabezas, who has been taking steps to remedy the inadequacies since he stepped into the job two years ago, has great expectations for the expansion of the community development idea. This is already under way, with two more due to start in Indian communities in the Andes mountains with funding offered by the Spanish Red Cross, and Cabezas hopes that such projects will eventually serve as a new focus for the National Society whose main activity has long been blood banks. “More than two-thirds of Ecuadorians live in poverty, and community development projects to help them will be one of the most important areas of work for the ERCS over the next few years,” Dr Cabezas says.




Learning from experience

There are lessons to be drawn from the scheme. Ten families originally took out loans for chickens, but the small market became saturated because they all bought at once. Another problem encountered was the branch’s lack of experience at how to approach a community and identify problems.

“We thought we knew what was best for them, but this approach is wrong, and the ideas have to come from the community,” says Dr Guillermo Lombeyda, president of the Bolivar branch of ERCS. “Next time, we would get to know the community better before we start,” he adds. He also feels the use of volunteers is a limitation of the project, as he cannot ask them to give up too much of their time.

Most important is the lesson that the project does not benefit the village alone. “It’s just as good for the Red Cross as it is for the community. If we don’t have projects with results, then our volunteers will become demotivated, and lose their raison d’être. In addition, our volunteers come away enriched by the experience,” says Dr Cabezas. In this sense, the success of this first project bodes well for future development of the National Society.

Carolyn Oxlee
Carolyn Oxlee is a freelance journalist who has worked as an information delegate for the Federation.

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