By LISA K. WING
LIMA — Amid the seemingly ordinary possessions of a family in the Peruvian highlands — cooking pots, toothbrushes, a towel hanging from a nail, and a small table for the children’s meals — Pilar Nores de García said she sees progress for the poor.
“Before, the mother of those children squatted on the floor to cook, and the children sat on the ground with their plates in their laps,” Nores said as she described how she measures improvement for Peru’s poor in her role as president of the Sembrando Program, a non-governmental organization dedicated to raising living standards for extremely poor families. “This table means that the mother is on her feet, literally, and that means a lot to me.”
Nores, who is the first lady of Peru, has spent the past four years on this effort, which she believes is delivering improvement in health and hygiene. She keeps track, recalling a return visit to a particular house in the district of Cajabamba, in the northern province of the same name, where she said the walls were no longer blackened with soot and the floors no longer covered with ash.
Nores founded Sembrando — or Sowing — in 2006, the year her husband, Alan García, was elected president of Peru for a second term and at a time when Peru was entering an era of unprecedented economic growth.
“At that moment, the main challenge was how to continue to grow economically and become more inclusive,” Nores said during an interview in her office at Sembrando in downtown Lima. “We are trying to create a social program that will really have an impact on extreme poverty and chronic malnutrition.”
Sembrando is part of the umbrella organization of the Instituto Trabajo y Familia, another non-governmental agency for which Nores serves as president. The program focuses on reversing child malnutrition, reducing maternal mortality and improving the incomes of rural families. The approach is down-to-earth and aimed at self-help, with initiatives such as replacing indoor wood-burning fire with stoves, building outhouses, providing children with sippy-cups to carry purified drinking water to school, and teaching families to plant vegetable gardens.
A native of Argentina who studied economics at the University of Cordoba, Nores was long concerned about social issues. But she points to a trip to Asia in the 1970s when she was 24 and had recently graduated from college as her wake-up call. She and a group of fellow students traveled for nine months through Europe — still rigidly separated into the west and the Soviet bloc — and then India.
“That trip to India changed my world view,” said Nores, who grew up in a family of 14 children. “There I had my first contact with poverty that was really structural. It was a change of vision of a universe I didn’t know, and it affected me in the sense that I became interested in working to reduce inequities.”
She met her husband at a congress on Latin American development in southern Spain in 1975. Nores is a naturalized Peruvian citizen, and she and García have four grown children, three girls and a boy.
Although as first lady she enjoys direct access to government offices such as health, education and agriculture — all of which touch on the work at Sembrando — Nores said her official role presents difficulties when fundraising for these not-for-profit organizations. “A donor is very careful about having a direct relationship with the government in power because it can be misinterpreted,” she said.
She says some question her credibility, thinking the program is an example of government aid and not the result of careful planning.
But Nores brings a powerful combination of credentials and commitment to the program. She earned a master’s degree in economic and social development from the Universidad San Martín de Porres in Lima in 2008. She is an accomplished speaker, demonstrating considerable aplomb in answering tough questions, with an air more like a corporate CEO than an advocate for Peru’s needy. And she is one of the first people to arrive at the office in the morning, according to her aides.
“She lives for the program,” said Nelly Castillo, who oversees educational efforts at Sembrando. “When we visit the communities, she sleeps with us, eats what we eat.” Nores has been known to hike into remote communities, ride for hours on the back of a donkey and sleep on floors when needed. Nores shrugs off this aspect of her work. “It would not be the same if you were to arrive by helicopter,” she said.
The Sembrando program has worked with 46,000 families — about 200,000 people — since its inception through the end of the past year. One of the program’s innovations has been enlisting teachers in efforts to promote good hygiene. The educators check to see whether the children have clean hands and faces and are drinking water that has been boiled.
So far the results from the program are promising. The percentage of children under age 5 who stayed healthy over a 12-month period rose from just 8.5 percent in 2007-08 to nearly 34 percent in 2009. The program also helped cut the number of intestinal infection among children by a third. Sembrando aims to double the number of families it helps to 90,000, or half a million people, by mid-2011.
Sembrando has received attention and funding from the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Andean Development Corporation. In Peru, local and regional governments have also given money, while in 2009 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation extended a $5 million grant to the program to be disbursed over three years.
Nores plans to keep Sembrando going, even after her husband steps down as Peru’s president next year and despite the difficulties that nonprofits have faced during the global economic crisis. She also believes the Sembrando model can be copied elsewhere. “Almost half of humanity is cooking the same way people are in the Peruvian Andes, with coal, wood or dung,” she said. “The problem is serious from the standpoint of the environment, but much more serious from the point of view of health within the home.”
And Nores emphasizes the program’s accomplishments. “We rely on the results, sustainable results at a lower cost,” she said. “This is what we can sell to investors.”
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