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Signs of success: 
the Race Against Poverty Awards
by Cielito Pascual

Six people are recognized for initiating projects to fight poverty in their countries. (1746 words)

New York, USA
Ranging in background from a farmer to a PhD holder, six people who have brought fresh impetus to the effort to end poverty were honored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in ceremonies marking the third year of its Race Against Poverty campaign.

The event, featuring media and music celebrities, also officially launched UNDP’s NetAid website — a project that partners world renowned musicians with internet technology to educate and mobilize popular participation in the fight against poverty.

The work of the six awardees, representing six countries on four continents, exemplifies the creative range of anti-poverty activism. Their efforts, aided in part by UNDP funds, have advanced the lives of thousands of people, influenced the policy-making of local governments and rejuvenated indigenous traditions.

Though the projects are heartening, they remain dwarfed by the social and environmental threats posed by economic globalization. In his statement at a United Nations press conference in New York City, UNDP Director Mark Malloch Brown called this world situation a time of "risk and opportunity". "Global economic integration and sustainable rates of economic growth are the vehicle for lifting the world out of poverty if they can be combined with socially equitable policies," said Brown. "If we can take what activists like these six individuals are doing and try to make them the global norm, this could actually be one of the most promising periods of world history in terms of reducing poverty."

Brown said it is the belief of many economists that by the end of the first decade of the new century, the figure of 1.3 billion people who are living on less than $1 a day can be reduced by half. "We must turn the tide of public cynicism about development. People have got to see that it works and what these six people are doing in their countries is indicative of that. Whether it’s American public opinion or European public opinion, there’s a hunger for signs of this kind of success."

From left to right: Victor Estrada Quispe (Bolivia);  Dietrich Fischer (Germany); Mookda Intrasan (Thailand); Emaz Alimovna Appazova (Ukraine); Abdallah Baghi (Egypt); Athanase Rwamo (Burundi)

Victor Estrada Quispe, Bolivia

Unlike many of the people in his rural birthplace of Tecoya, Victor Estrada Quispe can read and write and has attained a high-school level education. It should have been his ticket out of one of the poorest regions of Bolivia and onto the ‘hardscrabble’ life of urban survival. Instead, when UNDP and the Government of the Netherlands began offering villagers training, technical assistance and cash loans to plant new crops, he made a firm decision to remain with his community.

Quispe took a leadership role in the project, which rejuvenated the age-old tradition of Mink’a, the Quechua tradition of communities working together. Since l983, he has organized and led 9,000 families in building 12 hectares of terraces into the hillsides and constructing irrigation systems. They have learned to farm the very difficult terrain to yield two crops instead of one, increasing the average family income to $1,000 per year. The villagers also founded the Grassroots Territorial Organization to plan together for a viable future in the area, electing Quispe president of their association. He emphasizes: "The answer to our problems is not to leave for the cities, because people also suffer there. We must change and we must stay and by working together improve our way of life ourselves."

Athanase Rwamo, Burundi

Working for Burundi’s National Council of Childhood and Youth, Athanase Rwamo watched too many children become orphaned by inter-ethnic conflicts and the AIDS pandemic. Starting out with his own money, he set up small shelters for homeless children. Linking up with Catholic and Methodist churches, he co-founded an organization called d’Oeuvre Humanitaire pour la Protection et le Developpement de L’Enfant en Difficulté (OPDE).

OPDE has found families to take in 370 children and created homes for another 154. The organization’s shelter provides 100 more children with food and a safe place to sleep each night. It has also given schooling to 524 children and provided skills-training for older children in welding, carpentry and sewing. A hen- and pig-raising business created with UNDP funding helps traumatized children learn how to care for animals and in turn how to care for themselves and others. The egg trade that the children have established has also taught them how to manage and save money.

The children call Rwamo "Boss Mkubwa" or "the great man who helps those whom others pass by." He says: "My wish is that there will be no more wars and that the living conditions of households improve, so that there will be no more children seeking to survive by wandering the streets."

Emaz Alimovna Appazova, Ukraine

Stalin’s persecution of the Crimean Tartars led to their brutal deportation by the Soviet Government in l944. Some 250,000 people were forced en masse out of the Crimea and into remote parts of Central Asia. In l988 as the Soviet Union began its political dissolution, Crimean Tartars were granted permission to return to their homeland.

In l994, Emaz Alimovna Appazova arrived in the Crimean village of Kamenka with her family nearly 50 years after her grandparents had fled the country. She arrived as a single mother with a degree in dentistry and little else. She was one of the 85 per cent of returning Tartars who were unemployed, facing living conditions that to this day have remained very poor.

With the help of the UNDP Crimean Integration and Development Program (CIDP), Appazova is now able to use her skills at an outpatient clinic to provide dental care at half the rate of other clinics in the area. She will even provide her services free to those unable to pay. Her son benefits from the same program, attending a CIDP sponsored multi-ethnic school next to the clinic.

Although water mains, sewage systems, electrical lines and other basic utilities in Kamenka are far from fully developed, what gives Appazova the most cause for hope is seeing a reduction in ethnic violence. CIDP’s core effort is to diffuse such a likelihood by involving 20,500 people in the creation of community partnerships with settlers of other cultural backgrounds.

Says Appazova: "Life is not easy here but no one regrets returning to our motherland. We have very urgent needs and I’m proud to make a difference in the lives of many people."

Abdallah Baghi, Egypt

As a leader in the town of Siwa, Abdallah Baghi is working to show that prosperity can come to his community without sacrificing its rich ancient tradition. He is one of four university graduates out of the 15,000 inhabitants in this oasis town in the desert of northwest Egypt. With his background as a teacher, Baghi works on many levels to promote the economic and cultural growth that reinforces the vision Siwans have for their future.

The new can build upon the old through tourism, he believes, which is now Egypt’s second largest source of foreign revenue. To reinforce his people’s consciousness of their past, as well as to attract tourists, Baghi helped establish Siwa House, an ethnological museum. He conducts tours of the area to visitors, including government officials and private investors. The profits from his tours finance a local arts center that sells the pottery, basketry and embroidery crafted by Siwa’s women. Baghi works with government and private investors on the area’s agricultural problems to emphasize environmentally-sensitive development. This has prompted the construction by local craftsmen of "eco-lodges", reviving the art of traditional Siwan building crafts.

"If we are looking for real development, we need to look at what resources already exist for people in their communities and work with that," Baghi believes. "Given the right support, people can overcome all challenges."

Dietrich Fischer, Germany

Well before the reunification of Germany, University of Potsdam Professor Dietrich Fischer forecast massive unemployment for the working population of the German Democratic Republic. In the state of Brandenburg, where 20 per cent of the population is unemployed, Fischer has become one of the leading activists, working to help the newly jobless avoid slipping into poverty.

Fischer has doctoral degrees in economics and sociology, and with his close contacts with policy-makers he is well suited to provide programs to help the unemployed cope with national economic shifts. He co-founded the East German Association for the Unemployed and is the German delegate to the European Anti-Poverty Network. He has trained more than 1,000 counselors in poverty prevention with one of his innovations called "Debt Advice Desks". This program helps the unemployed adjust their monthly budgets to the increased costs of living and to restructure their debts so that they can be manageably repaid.

Says Fischer: "If somebody is unemployed he should do something for himself and try to overcome his situation by helping others. There’s a certain satisfaction when you have been able to do something against poverty so people don’t fall into social misery. I saw I could help others with my knowledge. This brings me joy."

Mookda Intrasan, Thailand

There are an estimated 100,000 children under the age of 18 in Thailand who are involved in prostitution. Ten years ago in her native Dok Kham Tai district, Mookda Intrasan began to take poor children into her home, many of them girls whose poverty might otherwise have sent them into prostitution. She was following on her school-days’ resolve to restore respect to the women of her birthplace. As a schoolgirl from a well-to-do family, Mookda had been harassed by her classmates for being native to an area whose chief ‘export’ was prostitutes.

Today, Mookda and her husband, Sangvorn Intrasan, have ‘adopted’ nearly 100 children, helping them obtain scholarships with funds from non-governmental organizations, watching with pride as many of them have gone on to become village leaders. The Intrasans’ efforts have branched out into the creation of craft, savings and agricultural co-operatives which have increased the incomes of families in 35 villages throughout Dok Kham Tai. Mookda has been named "Hero for Today" by Readers’ Digest and awarded the title of Khon Dee Sri Sangkhom (Good Person of Society) by the Thai-Rat Foundation.

Says Mookda: "We cannot fight poverty with single great acts but rather we must be willing to start with many small acts of great love."

For more information about the United Nations Development Program: http://www.undp.org

For more information about the UNDP sponsored Netaid campaign: http://www.netaid.org


Cielito Pascual is a Share International co-worker based in New York, USA.

From the November 1999 issue of Share International.


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005