Recently we ran into a young woman, a sociologist, who loves Mexico and is planning to bring some of her US students down here so she can share her experiences. She is arranging a tour of various development projects in which foreign aid programs and some Mexican university folks are involved. We got kind of cross-wise because she pushed one of my numerous buttons about Mexico. I'm actually not at all sure she assumes this, but a lot of people in the US do: that Mexicans somehow always need foreign aid to learn how to do stuff, to get themselves going. I suggested she should visit some locally successful farms and projects which had nothing to do with foreign support.
Coincidentally, today in The New Yorker, read Atul Gawunde's commencement address to The University of Chicago Med School's graduating class. In it, he talked about a very good friend of his who worked to bring better nutrition to Vietnamese villages:
Jerry Sternin was a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, and with his wife, Monique, he’d spent much of his career trying to reduce hunger and starvation in the world. He was for awhile the director of a Save the Children program to reduce malnutrition in poor Vietnamese villages. The usual methods involved bringing in outside experts to analyze the situation followed by food and agriculture techniques from elsewhere.
The program, however, had itself become starved—of money. It couldn’t afford the usual approach. The Sternins had to find different solutions with the resources at hand.
So this is what they decided to do. They went to villages in trouble and got the villagers to help them identify who among them had the best-nourished children—who among them had demonstrated what Jerry Sternin termed a “positive deviance” from the norm. The villagers then visited those mothers at home to see exactly what they were doing.
Just that was revolutionary. The villagers discovered that there were well-nourished children among them, despite the poverty, and that those children’s mothers were breaking with the locally accepted wisdom in all sorts of ways—feeding their children even when they had diarrhea; giving them several small feedings each day rather than one or two big ones; adding sweet-potato greens to the children’s rice despite its being considered a low-class food. The ideas spread and took hold. The program measured the results and posted them in the villages for all to see. In two years, malnutrition dropped sixty-five to eighty-five per cent in every village the Sternins had been to. Their program proved in fact moreeffective than outside experts were.