June 15, 2010

Argentina: Then and Now

A briefing form Steve Schwager, CEO

We are all familiar with the proverb about the value of teaching a man to fish so that he may feed himself for a lifetime. Similarly, at JDC, we often talk about not only helping to meet the immediate needs of an individual or community today, but investing time to help this individual or community develop the skills and resources to be self-sufficient over the longer term. Recently, on a Board mission to Argentina and Uruguay led by JDC Latin America Committee Chairperson Jane Swergold and her husband, Leo, 13 Board members and guests, joined by JDC Director of Board Relations Nadine Habousha, had the opportunity to see this longer-sighted JDC objective realized.

As many of you know, in the years prior to Argentina’s 2001-02 economic crisis, JDC’s role in Argentina was to guide and offer expertise in the area of Jewish community development. With a small budget of $250,000, we focused on providing technical assistance for leadership development and connecting Latin American Jewish communities to one another.

Argentina was, after all, a model community—one with thriving Jewish institutions that cared for its own neediest members.

But when Argentina’s economic meltdown pushed some 65,000 of the country’s 200,000 Jewish citizens into poverty, JDC quickly shifted gears. What did we do then, and what are the results today?

Providing Basic Relief: Working with local Jewish organizations, JDC rapidly developed a network of social assistance centers that provided direct services to individuals, including food, medicines, and rent and utilities subsidies. Our expectations and hopes were that this assistance would allow the community to “ride the tide” until the need diminished and the local community could assume its original role of serving those who still required help. As anticipated, the local community is increasingly taking over responsibility for the remaining network of more than 40 social assistance centers throughout the country.

Boosting Employment and Businesses: We worked with the local Jewish community to create the Ariel Job Center, which helped scores of unemployed Jews navigate this new reality and find jobs to support themselves and their families, oftentimes in entirely new fields. Today, this center—launched in crisis—is a success story and remains an important service to the community.

At the same time, with credit from banks frozen following the crisis, a loan fund—established by JDC Board member Irv Granovsky of Toronto to encourage small businesses—helped local Jewish entrepreneurs earn a living and employ other community members. One success story: a profitable business making kosher alfajores, a popular Argentine cookie.

Ensuring the Continuity of Jewish Education: Children were able to continue their Jewish studies because JDC helped reorganize and provided direct funding to Jewish day schools that were jeopardized because parents could no longer afford tuition. Today, we have returned to an advisory role, helping the schools fundraise for themselves and build functioning boards.

Offering Critical Intervention for Babies and Pregnant Women: Established during the crisis with a generous gift from JDC Board member Howard Schultz and his family, Baby Help has been providing special assistance—including milk, vitamins, and vaccinations—to babies and children (0-5 years) and to pregnant women living below the poverty line. The program includes a day care center where children are well looked-after while parents are job hunting.

Today, Baby Help has matured into an independent, locally funded initiative that recently moved into the state-of-the-art LeDor vaDor multifunctional complex for the elderly in Buenos Aires. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held during the JDC mission in March. Both Irv and I heard from participants how sweet it was to watch the seniors dote on the children who, in turn, were gleeful with their new playmates. Sounds like we have a model “intergenerational home” on our hands!

Engaging US College Students in Overseas Service: Howard Schultz and his family also helped JDC pioneer a Short-Term Service Program in Argentina. Through the program, now in its 7th year, 180 American college students have volunteered in Argentina, and similar 10-day JDC volunteer opportunities are taking place in other Jewish communities around the world. (I encourage you to read last week’s column for more insight into our STS program.)

As all of you know, a crucial part of JDC’s mission is to strengthen local community leadership and infrastructure in order to foster independence. In some regions, this process can take years—even decades. The community in Argentina, however, demonstrated inner strength and resilience by coming together to address myriad issues in a relatively short time; and for the most part, the community is self-sufficient once again. Our strategy of phasing out direct assistance and helping bring the local community to a point of viability and full ownership of these social welfare programs has become a reality. Irv and I couldn’t ask for more.

To learn more about JDC programs in Argentina, please visit the JDC website

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