Rooted in Revolution, Private Aid Group Grows in Central America

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

(Editor's Note: Senior Staff Writer Larry Morahan spent a week traveling the jungles and back roads of Central America in this profile of Friends of the Americas, a private aid organization based in the U.S. This is the first of four installments on Morahan's findings.)

El Portillo, Honduras ( - When 20 Honduran farmers met recently with representatives of Friends of the Americas at a remote clinic not far from the Nicaraguan border here, they had good news to report.

In addition to a plentiful harvest of coffee and bananas, the Good Friendship farming cooperative was showing a surplus of twenty 100-pound bags of beans and 45 bags of corn.

"Things are getting better every year," Viktor Lopez, the co-op president, told his American guests through an interpreter. By participating in the community projects, the farmers have seen steady "economic and spiritual growth."

"We still have problems, but we're on a good track," said a smiling Lopez, who farms the steep hillsides about 4,500 feet above sea level and lives with his family in a house without electricity or telephone.

Danny Smith, a senior vice president with Friends, the co-op's sponsor, thanked Lopez for his report. "There are improvements every time I come," Smith told the farmers. "It's a great joy to see your success."

Click to EnlargeA familiar figure in the area, Smith visits Friends' clinic at El Portillo every couple of months when he makes the trip from the organization's headquarters in Baton Rouge, La., as part of his mission to monitor the progress of numerous projects Friends sponsors in Honduras.

Fighting the War on Poverty Amidst Marxist Revolution

Before the co-op - which has grown to 45 one-and-a-half-acre farms in two years - there was only the clinic, with its sparsely stocked pharmacy of essential antibiotics, and a nutritional center.

Today, the facility is one of a cluster of medical, nutritional and vocational centers that have grown up in the area since 1984, when Friends was founded by Diane Jenkins, a former Louisiana state prosecutor, and her husband, Woody Jenkins, a Louisiana state representative from 1972 to 2000.

Longtime friends of Latin America and fluent in Spanish, the Jenkins' initially established a facility in Danli to help the thousands of refugees who poured into Honduras after the Marxist Sandinistas seized control of neighboring Nicaragua in 1979.

The group quickly distinguished itself among the many groups assisting refugees by setting up only in areas in which it was invited, and treating everybody who needed medical assistance, regardless of what side they took in the civil war.

In the beginning, the humanitarian mission involved considerable danger. Doctors and medical personnel working with the group frequently came under fire from Sandinista positions as they traveled "the most dangerous road in the world," an unpaved mountain trail connecting Danli and the border town of Las Trojes, where Friends set up another clinic.

"We were always careful not to get involved militarily in any way," Smith said. "We were there by invitation to serve the medical and humanitarian needs of the people - and that's the way we are today."

Over the years, the projects that began in Danli and Las Trojes have grown into a $1.5 million a year non-profit operation that has employed more than 70 people, including doctors, nurses and teachers, mostly in Honduras.

With half of Honduras' 6.2 million people living on the poverty line, the country is still a major recipient of foreign aid, including commitments of almost $500 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development since 1998. The Red Cross and other non-governmental relief agencies also administer numerous projects in Honduras.

But Friends' "people-to-people projects" have become a template for how a donor country can help a developing one, by empowering local people to help themselves.

"Basically we work on the principle that says, 'If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach him how to fish, you give him something for life,'" Smith said.

Working in the Trenches

While disaster relief is only a small part of Friends' mission, the providing of humanitarian service to needy people throughout Latin America is an essential part of the organization's charter.

The group's experience and its network of ties with local communities proved invaluable when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in October 1998, bringing more than 60 inches of rain in less than five days and washing away hundreds of hillside communities in one of the worst natural disasters to hit the Western Hemisphere in living memory.

While many official government agencies were bogged down trying to transport a massive outpouring of relief supplies from the United States, the organization World Relief, a large donor organization, asked Friends to distribute 100 containers of clothing, medical supplies, tools and generators to people in out-of-the-way places.

The project took about a year, but Friends showed it had "the reach" into the local communities and got the goods to the people who were meant to receive them.

"We learned a lot during Mitch, especially about logistics and distribution," Smith said.

For one thing, the response to Mitch showed it doesn't matter how much a donor spends on aid if the aid doesn't get to the people for whom it's intended, Smith said.

Instant communications about the devastation alerted the private sector in the United States. But the overwhelming response to appeals for supplies caused bottlenecks at U.S. ports and airports, and some of the relief went to waste.

In Honduras, washed-out roads and bridges, and ongoing rescue efforts to dig people out of landslides made distribution of supplies impossible. And the generous response, however well intended, had a disastrous effect on the economy of some villages when the arrival of hundreds of containers of free clothes put some small textile manufacturers and distributors out of business.

"After the disaster caused by the hurricane, the economy took a pounding from all of the free goods," Smith said. "We had to tell them: 'Quit sending free clothes.'"

Wednesday: Not Duplicating What's Already Being Done

See Photo Page