Volume 19 Number 2
Family Quest for Today's Heroes
01 April 2006
Worried about the world your children will inherit? So were Laurent and Marie-Hélène de Cherisey.
THE WORLD DOES NOT always run as it should. And that can be frightening. What kind of world will we leave to our children?
In July 2004, we set off with our five children, aged between five and 11, to meet men and women in 14 countries who are working for a fairer world. We wanted to discover the secret of those who, faced with the world's problems, have overcome their sense of powerlessness and started to bring about profound changes. We spent a few days sharing each of their lives and filming them for French television. We produced seven hours of film and two books under the title of Passeurs d'Espoir (hope traffickers), which have become best-sellers (Presse de la Renaissance, 2005).
Our journey started from a dream, one we shared when we first met. Fifteen years and five children later, the dream became reality. Marie-Hélène, a television journalist, took a course in digital camera work in order to film all these 'anonymous heroes'. Laurent sold his marketing business and, with friends, created the Reporters of Hope Association. The idea is a simple one: for everyone to have a part in creating 'a world for our children', we urgently need to develop a 'global information network' to report both on world problems and on initiatives to resolve them.
At the heart of this approach is the idea of people standing up: this can be any of us, when we are ready to change. Change in ourselves helps us to be on the look-out and ready to be involved whenever people's dignity is flouted. We then find the courage to act and take initiatives.
We finalised our project at an Initiatives of Change conference in Caux, Switzerland, in August 2004. There we met the first two of our 18 'pioneers of the 21st Century': Dick Ruffin, an initiator of the Hope in the Cities reconciliation programme, which deals with racial tension and violence in the USA and elsewhere, and Joseph Karanja, a slum kid turned builder of democracy in Kenya. We also had a chance that summer to spend time with Cornelio Sommaruga, the President of the International Association for IofC, who provided us with the preface for our first book.
Our aim was to gather evidence from those who testify, through the initiatives they have taken, that the great social problems of the 21st century have nothing inevitable about them. For this purpose we chose 18 major contemporary issues which make up the TV news headlines: education, health, water, corruption, child abuse, environment, waste disposal, poverty, economic development, energy supplies. All worrying questions: everyday, global ?bad news' which makes us feel there is nothing the individual can do. Through the eyes of our children, we wanted to discover the reality of theseproblems and find out about the solutions being worked out.
The 18 people we met have one thing in common: in the face of these problems, they refused to remain passive and to accept the inevitable. They were not afraid to be the first to take action. Their example is a testimony to man's greatness and to our universal capacity, in the midst of adversity, to find a way to overcome, for the benefit of all.
Take Suzana Padua, for instance. In the 1980s, she discovered the threat to the forests in Southern Brazil, 97 per cent of which had disappeared. Trees and animals were at risk and desertification was accelerating. The government had decided to create huge parks for their protection. The only problem was how to keep out the local people, who were often very poor, and survived on poaching and felling trees.
It dawned on Suzana that the forest could not be saved by keeping people out. She worked out a model of agroforestry which she patiently taught to the most deprived members of the community. This involved alternating the cultivation of such crops as coffee and fruit with tree planting, in order to regenerate the soil. In a few years there was a miracle. All those abandoned families were earning a living replanting the forest. An agreement was concluded with the government to replant 30 per cent of southern Brazil this way. UNESCO voted Suzana Padua's model one of the eight most promising for the planet.
In Thailand, a young academic calleed Pisit made friends with th local fishermen, who were under threat from illegal industrialisation. They were resorting to such desperate measures as fishing with dynamite or cyanide and were eventually being forced to move to the cities. It was a tragedy both for the individuals concerned and for the community.
Pisit did not try to impose his academic expertise. Month by month, as discussions went on, he discovered that these fishermen possessed remarkable know-how handed down through the generations. He urged them to unite in an effort to protect 'their' coast and to defend their rights against illegal industrial fishing, as well as to replant the mangrove forests where the fish laid their eggs. The benefits spiralled. The sea beds were quickly replenished and the nets filled once more. Families came back to the village.
Pisit emerges from all this as an enlightened prophet with a vision of the only type of development which will work for the 21st century-the 'down top' model. He rejected the domination and hand-outs of those who use money to impose 'top down' models, which are unsuited to local realities. Instead, he approached local people, in a spirit of support and cooperation. Their initiatives will prove their own point.
In India, we met a 94-year-old ophthamologist who has inspired a revolutionary approach to the world economy which is both realistic and people-centred. Govindappa Venkataswamy, known by all as Dr V, has developed an effective form of capitalism to serve the millions who, because they have no spending power, are left out of the market studies of the average capitalist. In a country where ten million people have been blinded by cataracts, he applied lessons learnt from the fast food chains to his own specialty of eye surgery.
Dr V has now built five large hospitals in India, without subsidy,and directs a team of 400 surgeons who operate every day, and do so ten times more rapidly than a regular surgeon. This highproductivity means that he can offer free operations to 70 per cent of his patients, who could not otherwise afford them, and still remain cost-effective. In the time that most ophthamologists would take to operate on one person, Dr V's surgeons can operate on ten, of whom three pay. His teams have already operated on two million blind people and expect to operate on the remaining eight million in the coming years.
The operation concerned involves implanting intraocular lenses, which cost $250 in the West. In his situation such costs are out of the question, so he has formed a subsidiary company, Aurolab, which produces lenses of equivalent quality for $5 each, using a similar approach to efficiency and productivity. In a few years Aurolab has become a world leader and a viable company.
These 'best practices' are a tremendous inspiration. The conclusion is simple: models like Dr V's can be developed for all essential products and services required by mankind. If one starts with the price the poorest can pay (most have some purchasing power, even if it is tiny), then, as productivity rises, there is a realistic prospect of access to a non-competitive but profitable world market made up of the billions abandoned by the capitalist system. In such a huge market, production costs can fall drastically. In many spheres of activity where marketing costs reach 50 or 80 per cent of the selling price, there are new and enticing prospects.
Moreover, the motivation of working for profit, while serving the fundamental needs of billions of people at the edge of progress, can generate a fount of energy and knowledge in a company. Finally, allowing a poor person to satisfy his basic needs (for water, food, health, housing, education, work, energy) will turn him and billions like him into economic players with undreamt-of potential for productivity and consumption. A rich vein of durable, global growth!
Other significant examples prove this approach to be neither utopian nor out of the ordinary. They show that international companies need to take these new markets seriously.
In Brazil, we met Fabio, who developed a model of credit-selling to supply the poorest farmers with solar energy at $11 a month- the amount they normally spend on candles and kerosene. As a result, their productivity and income increased four-fold, and the spectre of drift from the land, so damaging to people's dignity, receded. This type of solution could apply to some billion people without electricity in their homes.
In the past, the economic and social sectors have often been unaware of each other or, when they have come together, have not known how to work together. In the context of Dr V's work, our century of globalisation and information offers fantastic new prospects.
Suzana, Pisit, Dick, Joseph, Fabio, Dr V and the rest of our 18 pioneers are happy. They have found joy through discovering ways to enable our generation to offer ?a fairer and more tolerable' world to the eight billion humans soon to inhabit the planet. Meeting them convinced us that, however great the challenges, the solutions exist-and that they will not come from great political or economic organisations, although they have a role in encouraging them.
Change can only come about through the choices and determination of individuals-of every person, each one unique and irreplaceable in the building of 'a world for our children'.
Albina Riez, centre, grew up as one of 11 brothers and sisters in the Amazonian forest of Peru. In spite of his friends' ridicule, her father allowed her to study. When she arrived in Lima, at the age of 18, to start university she was horrified to discover that two thirds of the city's rubbish was left to rot on the streets, riverbanks and sea shore, endangering health and the environment. The poorest areas were most affected, and many people made a dangerous living scavenging.
Albina refused to accept the unacceptable. As a student, she organised a series of voluntary clean-up campaigns. She wrote her thesis on the issue of rubbish disposal-and came up with a scheme for micro-enterprises based on rubbish-clearing and recycling. A revolving loan fund helps local people to set up as rubbish collectors, using specially designed tricycles which enable
them to separate the waste as they collect it. In so doing she has transformed a degrading and precarious activity into a valued, profitable and professional occupation. The incomes and social status of those involved have soared, Lima's poorest areas are being transformed, and the idea is spreading to other cities.