Pierre Ferrari Talks about Heifer International

Heifer International, the award-winning development organization that grew out of the Heifer Project, is celebrating 70 years of service with events all across the country this year. One of those events, which I’m co-chairing, begins today right here in the land of Heifer’s beginnings. I’d like to kick off that event by sharing a phone interview I had this week with Heifer’s President and CEO, Pierre Ferrari.

Me: Thank you, Pierre, for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview! As you are aware, this blog is about the history of the seagoing cowboys, and that history can’t be told without also telling the story of the Heifer Project, the early years of Heifer International. As its current leader, I’d like to know what drew you to Heifer International. What was there about the organization that made you want to become its leader?

Pierre: First, the job was available. Second, Heifer was the right size for me to have an impact on its operation, and it had sufficient size that the organization would have an impact on poverty and hunger for the things that matter. So it’s really an interesting combination of feeling that I could have an impact as a leader, and also that I could be actively involved in the direction of the organization so it could have a substantially greater impact than it has had. I very much like the idea of community development and firmly believe in the poor being a principal agent for their own future so they can gain confidence, accountability, and self-reliance; and I thought, wow, an organization that is committed to that ideal and philosophy is where I want to work.

Third, the level of independence that Heifer has because it collects donations that essentially aren’t restricted gives the organization tremendous capacity and leverage to try the things that really work and to try to do the right things even better.

Me: This is a special year for Heifer as you celebrate the organization’s 70 years of service with events all across the country. The committee for the northern Indiana event to be held at Camp Alexander Mack in Milford this weekend is thrilled to have you coming to the land of Heifer’s roots to participate. Can you tell us what the theme of these events, Beyond Hunger, means to you?

Pierre: Our mission is to end poverty and hunger. By working in a variety of ways in a more sophisticated approach, we want to go beyond just subsistence. This will end hunger and eliminate poverty in those places where we work, and we can have a genuine fundamental impact on the environment and a whole series of other variables, such as empowerment of women, development, political power, advocacy, beginning to right some of the injustices of existing systems, political, social, economic; that’s the idea – to go beyond hunger. It’s a much bigger agenda and we can do it, because we’re all set to go. We have the resources, and we can be flexible because we have unrestricted funds; we don’t work at the whim of government or major donors; we are strategy makers rather than strategy takers. We have a commitment to be agents of the poor if they want us to; we can stimulate them and encourage them to find the interior motivation to change their lives. That’s part of the answer to “beyond hunger.”

We’re tapping into Heifer’s roots as we celebrate all across the nation in our Beyond Hunger program. I went to Castañer, Puerto Rico, [where some of the early heifers were sent], and what’s left of the work Heifer did in that little town is this: it has held on to the fundamental values about how to be responsible for its own welfare, and so it has a set of democratic practices to hold itself accountable. It established boards for the school, boards for the hospital, and for 70 years has been working on its own responsibilities and a way of looking at how it manages its assets for its own benefit. And it’s evident. Very, very evident. And I think it comes out of the Heifer Project, how it got started. There’s a history, there’s a wisdom, there’s a level of gratitude for what Heifer gave them that is palpable from the children and grandchildren of the people who were first touched by Heifer.

Me: That’s a wonderful example of going “beyond hunger.” What excites you most about Heifer’s work today?

Pierre: It’s building on this huge history of 70 years worth of community self-reliance and autonomy. With that asset, that wisdom, if a community wants to, we can begin to leverage and help it extend its reach and activity into the marketplace or wherever it is that it wants to extend. There’s a very profound power in collective action. Our community development taps into that, engages that, at no cost. We help communities gain collective understanding towards a commitment and then say, okay, here are some things you can do if your community is interested. And generally, they are. I’ve yet to come across a community that says, no, we’ll just hang out. We’re doing good at this level. Which is fine if they wanted to do that, but we don’t get that response. Even if they cross the poverty level to some level of dignity, there’s always more – better roads, better schools, better water. People have dreams: better homes, university education, and whatever it is.

Me: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces to get that work accomplished?

Pierre: Resources are obviously one, right? But we are very blessed to have stable resources. Although I named it first, resources aren’t our principal challenge. We’re headquartered in Little Rock, in the northern hemisphere, and the practice of the aid sector is to be very technocratic and impose – and I hate that word – but impose solutions; and so some of the culture [at Heifer] is sometimes this, why is it that they don’t adopt things that we obviously think they need? So even though our culture is oriented towards our Twelve Cornerstones [watch for these in another post], how do we ensure that we allow communities to have agency for their own decisions? This is a challenge. Success is getting communities we work with to commit themselves and getting them to help themselves get out of poverty; it’s staying flexible and seeing ourselves as helpers rather than doers. That’s the biggest challenge. To see ourselves as helpers, not doers.

I’ll give you an anecdote. I was in Guatemala, up in the hills talking with farmers who were doing quite well from our perspective. Towards the end of the day of our visit, we sat down for a presentation that was made about the numbers, and the data, and what had been achieved. It was very well done. And when I reviewed the day with staff at dinner later that day, I said, it was a great day, and much has been accomplished, but there was one false note in all this: that the presentation about the success of the movement and the progress the community has made was made by our staff. I said, that’s just not right. I said to the guy that made the presentation, I’m not criticizing your presentation skills. That’s not the issue. I said, why is it that the community allowed you to make a presentation about them? What’s going on? I hope that the project is all about the community doing it and not us doing it.

Me: What significance does Heifer’s history have for its work today? How does its history inform the amazing work it continues to do all over the world?

Pierre: I think I mentioned the self-reliance, autonomy, and commitment to the interior change for which Heifer works. And I think this springs out of the spiritual roots of Heifer Project, which is from the Church of the Brethren and Christian. At a spiritual/metaphysical level, I think all religions are about interior change, right? So there it is, you know: when you commit yourself to interior change, then everything is possible.

Me: Anything else you would like my readers to know?

Pierre: This is going to sound a little bit like a fundraising appeal, but here’s what I think is important: that the long-term support for the Heifer Project continues from the everyday donors, so that we can have confidence that we can continue to speak truth to power and that we can look at and challenge systems that are not functioning well and that perpetuate oppression and poverty. We need this support to insure the level of independence that we have, an independence that is deeply needed in development. It allows us to be one of the voices that say, the government policies, the USAID policies, and their staff eventually make the problem worse. Too many of the people that we work with – I don’t mean the project partners, I mean some of the other aid organizations – are captured by the very system that perpetuates it; and so our level of financial independence and long-term commitment is important. It’s what gives us the courage, the vision, and the activism to always be our best selves. It’s not about Gate’s money, it’s not about a major donor, it’s actually the half-million small donors that give to us consistently – that’s the unspoken, vital power of Heifer Project.

Me: That’s a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much, Pierre. And a hearty thanks to you and your staff for your good work at Heifer International, an organization that continues to capture the hearts of those who support it and to provide a more positive and sustainable future for those who benefit from its many programs.

Next post: Snippets from the Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana event taking place this weekend.