Several people reading my 12 Days of Giving for Women and Girls commented that they hadn’t thought aboutthe impact that Heifers work has on women and girls, and were glad I included the organization. I decided to interview Elizabeth Bintliff, Heifers Interim Vice President of Africa Programs, to get a better sense ofits work and Heifers approach. Bintliff, originally from Cameroon, leads programmatic aspects of Heifers work in Africa, managing a portfolio of over $50 million in 12 countries.
A lot of people are familiar with Heifers work, frankly because of the great way you all have made it very concrete and clear about what donations are for, such as buying animals for people and communities. Can you talk a little about the philosophy behind this approach?
Its true that people identify with Heifer as that organization that works with animals. But what we try to impress upon our audiences is that we work with people, using animals. Animals are only the conduit that allows us to do what we exist to do, which is help families feed themselves and generate income. What we know to be true is that strong families are the foundation of strong communities and strong communities are more resistant and resilient to shocks that come their way, whether they are in the form of natural or man-made disasters.
Yet, the animals are an important part of this work. In many parts of the world, animals not only provide proteins for improved nutrition, they also provide manpower. There is a saying in parts of Africa that a woman who does not own a donkey becomes a donkey, because she has to perform a lot of the tasks that a beast of burden could perform, such as carrying large amounts of water. Cow dung or other animal waste provides a source of fuel in many places, and is burned or converted into bio-gas for household use (mostly cooking). Animals also confer status, something that empowers women in communities where they often are not allowed to own property. Ive heard Heifer beneficiaries often refer to an animal- say a goat- as a bank on hooves because in the absence of banks or access to loans it is the thing the family would sell to have money to pay for household needs and expenses. So the value of the animals is many and varied.
I know that you personally focus on Africa, a very diverse continent with many challenges and at the same time, many tremendous resources. Can you talk about some of the most interesting successes Heifer has had in Africa? Do you see any differences based on the country, the political system, the type of government they have?
It has not been our experience that government types or political systems affect our work too much, though I have to say that specific government policies can either enable or handicap our work in a given context. Primarily, Heifer also works in countries that are quite stable and having certain closeness with government is critical to the success of our programs. In many countries in Africa our staff and country directors serve on government policy-making or advisory committees on livestock or agriculture or the environment. That is something we are very proud of. It has also been an important element of our success in those countries.
Our biggest success in Africa right now is a large dairy program in east Africa that is working to double the incomes of 170,000 families (affecting about 1 million people) through improvements in the dairy sector in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The project is generously funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and we are excited for the results it is producing.
We also have a project in Senegal, which is funded by USAID which will assist 10,000 families through the provision of sheep, goats and poultry and help them improve farm production and their household nutrition levels. These are only examples of the kinds of work we are doing in 12 countries across the continent.
Is Heifers work in Africa different than your work in other places around the world?
Bintliff: Our work in Africa is at once similar and different from our work elsewhere in the world. The difference is primarily the context. At the center of our operating model is the belief that communities possess the abilities to be the main actors in the changes that they want to see in their lives. We are only facilitators in the process. Sometimes we transfer the skills and sometimes we transfer the assets that they need to do this, but our role there is only one of support. They determine the vision for themselves and they do they work that needs to be done to achieve it.
Heifer isnt seen as a womens organization, yet from what I know, your work has a profound impact on women and girls. Can you talk about Heifers approach to working with women and girls? Do you do a type of gender analysis as you are developing your programmatic work?
Our work does have a profound impact on women and girls – some of it is deliberate and some is accidental. Prior to starting any projects we conduct what we call a needs assessment, which is a survey that allows us to critically determine what the community needs. We apply a gender lens in doing thiswomen have different needs that men. Getting families to recognize that is very important to the success of the project. A part of all of our projects, in fact, one of Heifers cornerstones is Gender equity. Ive sat in gender trainings where husbands and wives are asked to list the tasks they carry out in their daily lives. It has been amazing to see the husbands who reveal that theyd never realized their wife is the first person to get out of bed every morning and the last to go to sleep. So project design takes this into account. Giving a family a gift of a cow, for example, may add an extra burden on the women and girls, who are primarily responsible for fetching water for the family. So if the water source is far this may not been a good option for the family. Poultry tend to be easier for women and the impact on the family in terms of income and nutrition tend to be more immediate. A chicken can be sold quickly for income, where a larger animal could not. Likewise, a chicken can be easier for the family to consume at once without need for refrigeration. Those are all considerations that go into planning projects and making sure the desired impact is achieved.
Finally, how does Heifer define success? Do you see working yourselves out of business a possibility?
Heifers measures of success in terms of how the groups we work with describe the change the community wants to see at the end of Heifers intervention (be it after one project or a series of projects with a particular community). These changes can be seen at three levels following Heifers impact model. They include changes to the immediate environment, their ability to meet basic needs such as an increase or decrease in household food, income, assets, education, and health, their knowledge, attitudes, and fundamental values and how they are able to influence or impact the broader community, as well as regional and higher levels (changes in policies and governance, ensuring that networks and groups are in place, and representation at decision-making forums).
It is very important to us that our measures of success look not only at our indicators but also and perhaps even primarily at the indicators used by the communities themselves. If they did not find our interventions to be valuable then we would have failed.