Small Steps Lead Toward Big Future for Private Aid Group

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 final installment on Morahan's findings.)

Tegucigalpa, Honduras ( - In a country so poor its economic development is measured in terms of its recovery from Hurricane Mitch, the private aid group Friends of the Americas realizes it can do no great things for the 6.2 million people living in Honduras.

But Friends' officials said they hope to do enough small things to improve the lives of the tens of thousands of people it touches here through an array of medical and sponsorship programs, and help U.S.-Latin American relations in the process.

"Friends' mission is not just humanitarian," said Diane Jenkins, president of the Baton Rouge, La.-based non-profit organization. "We promote the ideas of free elections, free enterprise, self-reliance and the opportunity for everyone to make a better life for themselves."

Recent history has shown that natural disasters leave poor countries in Latin America vulnerable to political extremism and civil war.

If the United States fails in its obligation to give effective help to the region, analysts say, a situation that occurred in the 1980s when Soviet money and arms were routed through Cuba to the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua could someday be repeated by the communist Chinese, who are increasing their presence in Latin America.

"Americans need to come in and show great compassion and assistance after natural disasters. At this time in El Salvador they are quite vulnerable because of the earthquakes," said Danny Smith, a vice president with Friends.

Honduras has shown dramatic recovery since Hurricane Mitch washed away whole towns and communities across the country during a week of torrential rains in October 1998.

But the disaster left deep scars. More than 5,000 people died during the storm and its aftermath, and a third of the population was dislocated and uprooted from their homes or livelihood.

Estimates of economic losses from Mitch exceeded $4 billion. The agricultural sector, which employs 40 percent of the workforce and accounts for 70 percent of exports, was extremely hard hit. Many small farmers lost everything.

"Overall, what was destroyed over several days took us 50 years to build," Honduran President Carlos Flores said after the hurricane.

What the U.S. Agency for International Development is doing on a large scale to help Honduras recover from Mitch, Friends has been doing in miniature since its inception as a humanitarian relief agency in 1984.

But while USAID helps with taxpayer money, Friends relies solely on private donations.

Relief agencies have come to regard the devastation caused by Mitch as an opportunity to transform Honduras into something better than it was. New designs in road construction and sewage infrastructure are being implemented, as well as upgrading the management of water resources and rivers. Local authorities are expanding the role of municipal workers to control the spread of disease, and educating officials in the management of future disasters.

To help the country's agricultural sector, governments are funding the replacement of key transport links and making credit available so that farmers can replace lost capital stock.

While Friends works on a smaller scale, its hopes for the future of Honduras and its neighbors are no less optimistic.

Plans call for the setting up in El Salvador of a mobile clinic and a disaster strike force that would be able to respond to major disasters which regularly hit that country.

"We want to expand on what we consider to be our strengths, the areas we have become expert in through experience and years of hard work, and that's primarily in medical care, emergency disaster relief and in child sponsorship projects," Jenkins said.

The group also has plans to deploy a second mobile clinic to Guatemala, Honduras' northern neighbor. In Honduras, the group hopes to add an operating theater to the clinic at Los Trojes, and expand nutritional facilities in the region to accommodate more people. There is also a constant demand for reliable trucks to travel the punishing mountain roads.

The move toward democracy in Latin America has been dramatic over the last 20 years, Friends' officials said. Countries have stabilized as they moved from dictatorships to democracies, and economic systems have been opened up for ordinary people.

"The future now is in the children," Smith said. "If we are able to provide the children an opportunity to go to school and get a good education and see themselves with a high self-image - that they can be prosperous and provide for themselves and their families - then we feel we've accomplished a great deal."

Already Smith sees a great many signs of improvement and prosperity trickling into the countryside during his frequent trips to Honduras - new bicycles for the children, new shoes, better clothes, and more and better vehicles on the roads.

"I believe that's a result of the people of the United States extending a hand of friendship and showing people how to improve their plight without creating a social welfare mentality - showing them how to fish, rather than giving them fish to eat."

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