The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Development Cooperation category goes in this seventh edition to American NGO Helen Keller International (HKI) for agricultural programs that help families and villages to raise their own nutritious foods.
24 February, 2015
“Hunger and low dietary diversity reduce cognitive function, physical capacity, resistance to disease and quality of life and lifetime earnings. Helen Keller International champions Homestead Food Production, an innovative, interdisciplinary program that promotes improved agricultural and nutritional practices in a synergistic fashion. This approach is mostly applied to communities that have difficult access to labor and food markets,” in the words of the jury’s citation.
Helen Keller International, now into its hundredth year, “is widely recognized,” the citation continues, “for developing, testing and scaling up programs to combat malnutrition, blindness and disability on a global scale, and for striving to integrate these evidenced-based strategies within local government and community structures so that they are sustainable.”
The organization was nominated for the award by the International Food Policy Research Institute and Ángel Gil Hernández, professor at the University of Granada and President of the Sociedad Española de Nutrición.
Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880. At just 19 months, she contracted an illness that left her deaf and blind. When she was seven, she was put into the care of Anne Sullivan, who taught her to read, write and communicate. In 1904, she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, becoming the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.
In 1915, she joined forces with magnate George Kessler, who had survived the sinking of the Lusitania after it was torpedoed by a German submarine, to found a relief organization to help soldiers blinded by mustard gas during the First World War.
Yesterday, Kathy Spahn, HKI President, looked back at the history of the organization: “In the 1950s, we evolved from treating blind people to working to prevent blindness, and this got us involved in vitamin A deficiency, the main preventable cause of blindness in children. Then in the 1970s we collaborated in a groundbreaking study run by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which proved that vitamin A deficiency is also linked to childhood mortality, and that got us all the more focused on the importance of vitamin supplements. But we also felt that there was no golden bullet, so we wanted to broaden our approach. And this took us to our Homestead Food Production program and the industrial-scale enrichment of foods with vitamins and minerals.”
The last year alone 54 million African children received vitamin A supplements
Helen Keller International is also a leader in optimizing delivery efficiency. As the citation points out, its work with local partners ensured that “last year alone 54 million African children received vitamin A supplements” to protect against blindness.
The organization currently has over 180 programs in 21 countries that benefit some 100 million people.
According to Spahn, “the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award will give us major visibility, which is among the goals we set ourselves to celebrate our centennial year.”
The Homestead Food Production program
Malnutrition affects two billion of the world’s people, and each year causes 6.6 million deaths among children under five. The Homestead Food Production program trains local communities with difficult access to labor and food markets in advanced, environmentally-friendly cultivation techniques that allow them to conserve soil and water resources while improving production and extending it year-round. These techniques include integrated pest management, composting, intercropping and crop rotation, raised beds and mulching. Most crucially, the program encourages the growing and consumption of a more diverse selection of vegetables and fruits, with a particular emphasis on species rich in vital micronutrients such as vitamin A and iron, thereby ensuring their year-long dietary availability. Communities are also introduced to the raising of poultry and small livestock animals.
Homestead Food Production (HFP) started in 1990 as a pilot project in Bangladesh, and by 2012 had reached 900,000 households and 4.5 million people in that country. It is now being rolled out in Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Vietnam, as well as five African countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Senegal and Tanzania.
The evaluation conducted by Helen Keller International in the four Asian countries where the program has been running longest has found that participating households cultivate an average of 45 varieties compared to the ten of traditional gardens, and that there are significantly fewer cases among their members of anemia and childhood blindness. The program encourages families to improve not only their nutritional standing but their economic standing as well.
Among the keys to HFP’s success is the ability to involve local communities in its planning and implementation. Its work seeks to empower women and reduce inequalities. And to this end, in the words of jury secretary Norman Loayza, Lead Economist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group in Washington (United States), employs “a methodology that relies less on teaching and more on evidence-based behavioral change. Its teams use village model farms to demonstrate the techniques and results achieved, so households sign up on their own initiative. The three steps the organization follows are: teach, demonstrate and motivate.”
On the role of women, Spahn explains: “It is they who feed and care for family members. Given enough resources, they will lift their families out of poverty. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the men. For if they can be brought to understand the benefits of nutrition, they will help as well. In one of our Bangladesh programs, we invited men to cookery lessons and other classes, and now they help the women with the crops.”
Another HKI hallmark is its accent on ongoing program evaluation. This enables them to make adjustments as needed and to detect, for instance, that models that work in Asia may not fit well in African countries, because it is not enough just to identify local farming practices, you also have to know and understand the local culture. It is for this reason that the organization sets such store by pilot programs.
Homestead Food Production centers on the so-called “thousand-day window” from the time of conception until a child’s second birthday. The cultivation side is accordingly supplemented by a mother and child nutritional support program, educating new mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding – which they are urged to do exclusively for the first six months and keep up until the child reaches two for its considerable immunological benefits – what foods to eat for a healthy pregnancy and lactation, and how and when to introduce new, nutrient-rich foods as the child develops. At times this may mean finding persuasive ways to challenge local food myths, like the long-held suspicion of chicken and eggs in Nepalese culture.
Asked which results she feels most proud of, the HKI President recalls a personal experience: “We called in without warning on one of our Homestead Food Production programs in the south of Nepal – a garden we had started ten years back but were no longer running. And there was this little house, standing in the middle of what had once been a small garden and was now a huge cultivated area full of magnificent legumes and all kinds of vegetables. It was so moving. The matriarch of the family was 101 years old and there she was looking out at it all… beautiful. The project had taken on a life of its own.”
Development Cooperation jury
The jury in this category was chaired by Pedro L. Alonso, Director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme in Geneva (Switzerland), with Norman Loayza, Lead Economist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group in Washington (United States) acting as secretary. Remaining members were Vicente Larraga, Research Professor in the Center for Biological Research of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC); Clara Menéndez, Director of the Maternal, Child and Reproductive Health Initiative and Research Professor at ISGlobal, the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (Spain); José García Montalvo, Professor of Economics at Pompeu Fabra University and Research Professor at the Valencian Institute of Economic Research (Ivie) (Spain); and Francisco Pérez, Research Director of the Valencian Institute of Economic Research (Ivie) and Professor of Foundations of Economic Analysis at the University of Valencia (Spain).