What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?
Please read Social Innovator section (below) first.
There are two defining moments in this story: one personal and one organizational. Using the term 'moment' is also misleading, since the moments were more akin to a process of learning/adapting to observed need and opportunity. VFI continue to adapt and improve through a never-ending series of 'moments', because we want to better understand the priorities of local people and facilitate the communication/networking of diverse and vested groups.
With that as a backdrop, allow me to summarize the 'defining moments' of the Rights-LINK Lao project, including the creation of VFI and our evolution during these past 10 years.
The first years of VFI focused on service delivery for a dozen villages in southern Laos. We had a 'one village at a time' approach to development, where village issues were considered and addressed on their own merits. We had no interest in scale but rather issues specific to each individual village.
In 2003 our Lao field staff began to focus on comprehensive land use planning and legal advocacy for villages, since they observed ever-increasing natural resource exploitation. Before land use planning and land titling became widely promoted in Laos, we developed a 'Village Rights’ guidebook, with focus on rural people. The use of the term 'Rights' as it applies to local people was (and is) a fairly radical notion in Laos, where forestland and natural resources are owned by the state.
VFI began to aggressively work with the government to promote the development of this manual and pushed itself into the national debate about benefits sharing for local people, in a way that emphasized the authority of local officials but encouraged open dialogue/networking with civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders. In 2007 we began dialogue with a number of NGO partners to establish the Land Issues Working Group, then became a founding member of the Legal Issues Working Group, both parts of the INGO Network.
In 2008 our work came to the attention of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), a donor committed to Natural Resource Management and Governance. Rights-LINK addresses both and, after a year of study/partnership building, VFI launched the Rights-LINK project.
Rights-LINK is explained in other sections, but the most important and innovative part is the nurturing and support of local people and groups – at all levels – to build networks and communication channels where none existed before.
Tell us about the social innovator—the person—behind this idea.
I am a small town boy from northern Michigan, USA and grew up in a very close, conservative, religious family. I spent my youthful energy playing sports and dreaming of a future in the NBA. College fed my interest to explore the world and led, to make a rather long and circuitous journey short, to the Peace Corps in the Philippines. If there was ever a defining moment in my life, I suppose it was the moment I was assigned to live in Itbayat, Batanes Province, perhaps the most remote and fascinating island in that country of 7100 islands. I lived and worked on Itbayat for 5 years; the first 3 as a Volunteer and the remaining 2 for a local NGO.
Itbayat is a farm of 3000 people in the middle of the ocean. It is an uplifted atoll with 100-300 meter cliffs and no beaches. The people are hardworking and as resilient as one can imagine. They became my family, my mentors, my confidants during this time. The people of Itbayat exist on what they grow, even while living within the typhoon belt of the Philippines. Most products, tools, building materials, come from the island’s natural bounty, even when it isn't particularly bountiful.
I learned far more from these hardy and kind people than I ever gave in my role as a water systems volunteer. Almost every day I learned that some fundamental preconception I held as truth was wrong and my understanding of the people or the projects needed to be reevaluated. These 'moments' taught me to listen, and then to listen again. As empathetic as we are it is unlikely that we can imagine living where all food must come from a family’s effort in the fields. It was impossible to live with them and not be moved and inspired. So, after graduate school, I brought this attitude with me to Laos as the director of an international NGO.
In 2000 I co-founded VFI - the first international NGO created in Laos, with several Lao and one American colleague. VFI is my home. We continue to struggle with project cycles and budget shortfalls but we continue to evolve, to learn, to innovate, much like the vulnerable people we are committed to serve in the far corners of this country.
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