I tend to be more than a little cynical about charities and aid organizations, partly because so much of what they do doesn’t solve the fundamental problems of a poor country. The aid just keeps people poor and dependent. Heifer International is different.
I am in Little Rock, Arkansas right now for a travel writers conference and had the pleasure of visiting the Heifer Ranch near here. What exactly is a heifer you ask? A female cow that hasn’t given birth yet. When the organization started, they shipped pregnant heifers to needy people—pregnant so they wouldn’t have to be milked in transit. Hence the name.
What this organization does is pure brilliance. They set up a group of families who have some land with goats, chickens, cows, water buffaloes—whatever makes sense in the situation. Each family is responsible for one of them. When there is a baby, the first-born must be passed on to another family that hasn’t already received an animal. The other babies can be kept. Families are trained on how to set up for and care for the animals and pledge not to just slaughter the gift for immediate food needs.
The result? Lives are changed, sometimes in a drastic way. People go from barely getting by to putting kids through school and adding onto their house. They now have milk, or eggs, or labor for plowing a field. Then the gift spreads to others through plain old breeding. Ingenious.
The ranch I visited is just educational: the animals are sourced locally in each country. It’s a cool place though, with interesting programs for school groups. In one, the kids draw names out of a hat to find out which house they’ll be spending the night in: basic houses modeled after ones in Zambia, Thailand, Guatemala, or “urban slum.” For dinner they eat what those people would typically eat. I’m sure that’s more than a little bit of a shock for some of the Twinkie and Lunchables kids.
If you want to donate, Heifer International offers interesting programs where you really feel like you’re making a difference. A donation of $120 buys someone a goat or sheep, $60 takes care of a trio of rabbits or a “flock of hope”–chicks or goslings. For $30, someone is set up with a hive of honey bees. If you’re of ample means, give the “Gift of an Ark” for $5,000. That’s two each of 15 animals, including some llamas and camels. (Going to the appropriate climate and culture of course—not really loaded up on one flood-escaping ship…)