Transforming Lives

Every day, all over the world, USAID brings peace to those who endure violence, health to those who struggle with sickness, and prosperity to those who live in poverty. It is these individuals — these uncounted thousands of lives — that are the true measure of USAID’s successes and the true face of USAID's programs.

“Don” Felician Castellanos, a subsistence farmer in Guatemala, believes it is a miracle that he survived the massacres and disappearances caused by the violent civil war that hit his region. Although he never went to school, don Feliciano knew he wanted to read and write. He taught himself to read at the age of twenty-three using an adult literacy primer.

Some assume that rural indigenous populations are not ready for information technology, that they are not interested in it, and that, in any case, there is not enough basic infrastructure to extend technology from urban to rural areas.

Enlace Quiché, a technology program supported by USAID in the heart of the Quiché region in the Guatemalan highlands, has proven them wrong on every count.

In 2001, drought and the fall of world coffee prices exacerbated the already extreme poverty that afflicted rural Guatemalan families. A hunger crisis struck, forcing the Chortí Mayan women in Jocotán at times to have to decide between food and medicine. Should she pay $3 to transport their sick children to the clinic - or use that money for food? The $5 a month women earned from the sale of palm frond mats in the local market could not even cover their basic needs, much less medicine to help their sick or starving children.

Guatemala is vulnerable to a range of natural disasters - earthquakes, floods, freezes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions. But disaster assistance has, in the past, been unable to reach many of Guatemala's rural areas, where nearly half of its people live. In urban areas, people live and work in crowded conditions, too often in buildings that would not withstand a strong earthquake like the one that struck in 1976.
Try to imagine a world without books. Imagine if the only pictures you see are on road signs and buses. Imagine if your teachers never read you books, but told you things to memorize exactly the way it was presented. Hard to imagine, isn't it?

Not for Guatemala's rural children. Although like all children they love books, they have none in their homes or schools, and there are no community libraries.

In 2004, a farming association in the town of Tecpán, located about 45 minutes outside Guatemala City, was struggling to keep its vegetable farms profitable. The Asociación de Agricultores Paraxaj, comprised of 35 families during the dry season and 75 families during the rainy season, lacked the infrastructure and know-how to make improvements, penetrate new markets, and turn a profit. If the association continued on this path, participating families would likely face economic hardship and the future of the farms would be in jeopardy.

Cameras roll, and the reality show takes off. Would you believe that ten former gangsters from American and Central America rival gangs — White Fence, Mara Salvatrucha, M-18, and North Hollywood — were “making good” on a second chance at life? Welcome to the innovative crime-prevention TV show that USAID and its partners helped produce for Guatemalan television.

Education reform requires creative practical ideas, good intentions, and a profound understanding of the issues to identify effective strategies. It sounds easy on paper. However, in countries like Guatemala where decision-making is centralized, decisions are often based on assumptions rather than data, scant resources are wasted on trial and error, and reform is an uphill and constant challenge.

Inequality between the genders, social classes, and distribution of wealth is a source of tension in Guatemalan society. Scarce access to information aggravates these tensions. With 23 different national languages and more than 20,000 communities with populations of less than 2,000, communicating about critical issues like health care and family planning is no small task.

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Last updated: August 12, 2013