By Lorretta Chung
To someone who grew up in North America, 11 September is a day marked by atrocious destruction committed by mankind – a day when thousands of innocent lives were lost. But last year, 11 September marked the start of a trip to Sichuan where I was able to learn how Oxfam Hong Kong and its local partners assist communities impacted by the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake to restore their livelihoods.
Over the six days, we learned about the various rehabilitation and development projects including reconstruction of roads to improve access in and out of the villages, raising livestock, and farming giant spiny-chested frogs to increase income. During our trip, Oxfam’s field workers emphasised that the villagers themselves know what works best for their communities. The role of NGOs is to examine with them the community’s resources and strengths, and together conclude what could be done to improve their livelihoods – whether it is to provide a fundamental fund to assist them in purchasing the first badge of ducklings, or to equip the villagers with vocational skills and knowledge on breeding techniques.
Despite many being in debt after paying for the rebuilding of their homes, there was a strong sense of resilience and self-reliance among the people that we met. The villagers that we talked to did not feel entitled to “hand-outs” or “aids”, nor did they expect or demand drastic improvements in their livelihoods or lifestyle. They were proud to showcase the growing ginkgo trees, or the duck pen shared by 16 households for breeding cherry valley ducks.
As these projects are still at the nascent stage, majority of the younger family members still have to leave their homes to work as migrant workers to bring in the necessary income for sustenance. However, the vision is that in time, the farms will expand; their products will gain more market shares; and profits from these products will gradually become the predominant source of income. As a result, the community’s development can be sustained.
Seeing and hearing the impact of these projects helped me gain an understanding as to why organisations like Oxfam advocate for sustainable empowerment and development. When people in their local community can collaborate with their fellow villagers to rely on its own resources as a source of food and income, without being forced to leave their homes due to a dearth of economic opportunities, this combination of human, social and economic capital will lead to self-sustaining livelihoods – and a future of promise.
Lorretta Chung is a volunteer with Oxfam Hong Kong.