07 agosto 2014

More than just writing checks: volunteerism celebrates indigenous people

International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

By Hans Shulz*

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August 9th marks the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, a time to celebrate the contributions of the approximately 370 million diverse global indigenous cultures. And to celebrate, I want to reflect on an experience that allowed my team to work with an indigenous community in Panamá thanks to a shared appreciation for skills-based volunteering and sustainable business.

Our journey to know the Ngäbe-Bugle women began in 2010, when my department co-sponsored a 5K run in Washington D.C. to support the Association of Ngäbe-Bugle women (ASMUNG). ASMUNG’s mission: strengthen the living and working conditions for local indigenous women through cultural awareness, income-generating opportunities and economic empowerment. The run was a success!

Motivated IDB staff came out to run on a cold and wet Saturday morning. We raised $10,000. For 5 kilometers I walked and talked with ASMUNG’s two leaders, Doris and Emily. They spoke of the Chiriquí province, their attempts at preserving what few cultural landmarks remain, the restaurant that still could not break even and a handicraft business that had more producers than buyers.

I was struck by the synergies that existed. These women sought to launch a small yet commercially viable businesses focused on eco-tourism and sustainable production, and my team of business professionals focused their work on identifying and developing private sector projects with social and environmental value.  

Determined to continue to engage these women, who represented Panama’s largest and most poverty stricken indigenous peoples, we had two choices – donating money or donating time. Donating money seemed too easy. Plus I wanted a sense of solidarity. I wanted staff to live and feel what someone else’s day-to-day is like. My own experience has shown that through immersion, perceptions change and true development happens.

Learning how to ask questions respectfully

In 2012, eight staff members received training about the social and economic challenges confronting the Ngäbe-Bugle community. Extreme poverty rates near 90%, and birth rates and child malnutrition rates are the highest in the country, men and women have little education and resources to escape the cycle. We were also trained in cultural sensitivity, local customs, and even how to ask questions respectfully.

Training was critical, yet perhaps more important was the focus on skills-based volunteering: leveraging the existing technical and social skills of IDB staff and matching them to voids in the community. According to Point of Light nonprofit, while only 12% of corporate volunteering aligns skills with roles, skills-based volunteerism usually proves more fulfilling for the volunteers, organizations and communities.

The experience of staff immersing themselves in the Ngäbe-Bugle culture was later described by some as “humbling,” “reinvigorating,” “once in a lifetime.” And the businesses improved. Alongside the women leaders of ASMUNG, we created a marketing plan. We marked hiking paths for tourist excursions. Inventories, accounts payable and cash flows were meticulously calculated. The restaurant and artisan store were renovated to attract sought after foreign tourists and share the Ngäbe-Bugle’s history and culture.

There is still much more work to do. We are contemplating ways to bring energy efficient technology like solar panels to reduce energy costs, to further advertise eco-tourism excursions and to develop a community-led waste management program.

Thanks to Indigenous Peoples Day, I am reminded of our commitment to ASMUNG and to the beautiful, influential women leaders who keep its small businesses going. I encourage others to use this day to recognize the contributions of indigenous people. What indigenous cultures can you celebrate?

photo-1scf-16481*Hans Schulz is Vice President for the Private Sector and Non-Sovereign Guaranteed Operations, a.i., of the IDB. He is responsible for overseeing the Structured and Corporate Finance Department (SCF) and Opportunities for the Majority Sector (OMJ), as well as coordinating with the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) and the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC).

1 Response

  1. Anne-Marie Urban

    This blog is very inspiring to me. Since I started my own work in the international development field through volunteerism and immersion, this example takes me back to some of my own “once of a lifetime experiences”- those that set me on my professional path. What a great opportunity for development professionals to be able to connect and indeed learn from diverse peoples in our region through meaningful person to person, hand-on engagement. Thank you for modeling this practice, one that I hope can be replicated.

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