The mission of Heifer International is an ambitious one: to end hunger and poverty around the globe. But although that may seem like an improbable dream, to date, Heifer has delivered on a grand scale, lifting more than 20 million families out of poverty and hunger.
The organization’s strategy is to give people the tools, education, and livestock that will help them build livelihoods and strengthen their communities. Animals are at the center of this plan, providing life-sustaining products such as milk and wool, and creating a chain of giving -- each family that receives an animal, agrees to pass on its offspring to another individual in need. This simple yet powerful act is called “Passing the Gift.”
In addition, Heifer educates communities on how to manage their water resources, supports small-scale farmers, and empowers women by helping them become more self-sufficient.
At the helm of Heifer’s efforts, is President and CEO Pierre Ferrari. Born in the Belgian Congo (today called the Democratic Republic of Congo), Ferrari assumed leadership of Heifer in 2010, bringing more than 40 years of business experience to an organization which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.
Here, Ferrari shares his passion for the work and explains how the women of the world have inspired him.
What do you most want people to know?
That the poor are not responsible for their poverty and misery. Most of them struggle in conditions that are subhuman, dangerous, full of disease, hunger and despair. But when Heifer International offers a sliver of hope, they grab it with astounding energy, enthusiasm, creativity and optimism. Heifer approaches farmers who are eager and who we know will rapidly strive toward self-reliance and autonomy. We are there to help them do; we don't do it for them.
The poor are not responsible for their poverty and misery. Most of them struggle in conditions that are subhuman, dangerous, full of disease, hunger and despair.
What motivated you to get involved in this work?
One of my earliest ambitions was to work in development. I had planned to work at the World Bank after getting my MBA, but it didn’t work out that way. I spent 20 plus years in corporate business, but the pull to engage in social issues finally got me to leave Coca-Cola and join CARE in the mid ’90s. I then worked in a variety of ways that were mostly oriented to development of distressed communities.
I think both my mother and grandmother influenced me deeply towards this work.
I think both my mother and grandmother influenced me deeply towards this work. My grandmother had a wholesale and retail vegetable business in Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo), working with local African farmers to produce the goods she needed for her trade. I remember going to the villages and buying the produce they had grown at her request, and the importance this trade had on their livelihoods and health. It felt like good and important work. They adored her.
Who or what has made the greatest impression on you during your involvement?
All over the world I come across women who take on leadership roles with energy, vision and great engagement. It is really inspiring. They push me to help more, to move faster, and to support their efforts as they drive to end despair, poverty, hunger, abuse and more. They can leverage our help one hundredfold. They focus on their families and their communities.
All over the world I come across women who take on leadership roles with energy, vision and great engagement. It is really inspiring. They push me to help more, to move faster.
What have you been most surprised to learn?
The depth of passion my colleagues and others in the sector have to help others. It is a commitment for life -- and to life -- for so many. The work is hard and sometimes frustrating, but it’s shouldered with great joy and hope.
What has been the hardest part of this work, or how has it most challenged you?
Development is hard work, and one needs to be patient. Changes only come when the individuals, families and communities decide for themselves that it is time to radically change their own reality. Internal change is hard. It takes patience, and I am not a patient person, but I am learning.
How has this work changed you?
This work has deepened my study of systems, networks, complexity and human motivation. Finding the places where systems can be changed in the most fundamental ways, is important. Becoming more of an activist and an advocate for changes in systems (economic and political) that are responsible for exploitation and maintaining the status quo at the expense of the poor; and channeling resources to combat that exploitation, is exhilarating.
What goal do you have for the next 12 months?
All of us at Heifer have been implementing substantial changes in our way of working in the world. We have scaled up our work as demanded by our partners in the field. We have installed systems that are making us more efficient and effective, and we are raising needed resources in a more balanced way to ensure our stability and impact. Now we will take advantage of all these improvements to help the communities and women with whom we work accelerate their escape from poverty and hunger.
For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com