As Jonathan Bart approached his 60th birthday, he decided he wanted to give back. But rather than volunteering or writing a check to a charity, he and his wife, Susan Earnst, founded Village Hope.
The start-up nonprofit is dedicated to making substantive and comprehensive change in the small African nation of Sierra Leone by building schools, teaching new construction and agricultural methods, granting micro loans and helping build a new economic model. Bart works as a wildlife biologist specializing in bird populations for the United States Geological Survey and has used his scientific approach to quickly build a network of academics, government officials and volunteers to help achieve Village Hope's goal. Bart sat down with BW as he prepared to leave for more than a month in Africa for the group's first overseas work.
What made you want to do this?
I started thinking that, with luck, I still have enough time for a major new endeavour. And I decided I wanted to make an endeavour, not just keep working 60 to 80 hours a week, and that I wanted it to be in the humanitarian area. I spent two or three years investigating different possibilities and then, through a chain of coincidences, really, ended up in Sierra Leone. It's kind of a long process, but this is something that I expect to be doing as long as I'm active.
How did you get started?
I wrote to [Mark and Sherry Grashow, founders of U.S.-Africa Children's Fellowship] to inquire if we might form a partnership or maybe they'd be interested in starting an Idaho chapter or whatever. And they wrote back and said "by coincidence, somebody ... just wrote to us, a man who grew up in Sierra Leone named Humphrey Sonny, but now lives in Minneapolis ... he just wrote us and said, 'Could you possibly include us, include Sierra Leone in your program?'"
Why Sierra Leone?
I had been looking into Sierra Leone by then and I knew although it's one of the poorest countries in the world, quite literally, and though it has had terrible civil wars—it is the blood diamond country—that it was on the road to recovery, and also that it is a country rich in natural resources, so in a sense it's a country that doesn't need to be poor. And they had just elected a new government a year ago now that had come to power in a peaceful transfer of administration, which of course is a very good sign.
What about funding?
The last piece that fell into place was that [Sonny] knew someone in Minneapolis, Victor Bangura, who is a successful businessman and grew up in Lunsar, the town where we are now working. He grew up in Sierra Leone, and [said] if we would do the work, and provide the ideas, he said he would put up a lot of the money.
Why jump to starting your own charity?
I was serious about wanting to make a major commitment to a humanitarian effort, and I tend to go whole-hog or not at all.
Why a comprehensive plan?
One of the things that is pervasive in the writing about development is that an awful lot of it doesn't lead to sustainable improvements. On the one hand, the big government agencies like [U.S.] AID, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, have been very sharply criticized ... as being very ineffective ... On the other hand, the private-side groups are often only there for a short period of time. They struggle and struggle to get resources. What seemed to me to be coming out of that literature was that we need on-the-ground programs ... It's like if you go in and you deliver some school supplies ... they're still starving. And then you're not going to be there forever, so what happens? If you get them some more food somehow, they're still going to die of malaria.
What are you taking to Africa?
We had a big drive, which a lot of people locally helped with, for school supplies, including athletic equipment and so on. We had about 300 boxes of school supplies that were in the [shipping] container. Then [Bangura] donated a refurbished Toyota Land Cruiser, which is critical—you have to have transportation over there—and a brand new motorcycle. The second container had a tractor and a bunch of implements and 40 bicycles that the Village Bicycle Project and the Boise Bicycle Project helped us collect.
Are the bikes going to teachers?
Some combination of teachers and community health officers, maybe, so that they can get out to the villages they're trying to serve. But we're also going to move toward a program which is really sort of pay-as-you-go ... But it won't be a matter of us coming in like Santa Claus and passing out presents, because I think at least half of the challenge here is helping these people develop the business skills they need to function in a modern economy. If we simply go in and pass out presents, what choices are they making? Whereas, if we go in and give them technical assistance and offer them the possibility of loans, then they're the ones making all the decisions.
How are you working with local communities?
We're working with six clusters of villages, each is a primary school and the villages that send their kids to that school. So we have what we call Community Development Teams in each of those communities.
You're working with a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What will they be doing?
[They will] work on new and cheaper construction methods for schools—the [compressed] earth-building approach. Secondly, building latrines for them, again using a new approach. Thirdly, working on charcoal ... Another one will be working on nutritional analysis, and another one will work in the schools with the teachers helping them learn new instruction methods now that they've got all these supplies that they've never had before.
Why the focus on economics?
Economics are the root of it. Without an improvement in economic situation, you're not going to have sustainable improvement, We're not going to be there forever.
What's in the future for Village Hope?
One of the reasons we want to move to a pay-as-you-go, we-give-you-loans, you-pay-us-back basis is that micro-finance organizations very often grow enormously and very quickly because there's tremendous demand. I would like us to be benefiting as many people as possible.