|Matthew Alexander (right) with Ahmsa program coordinator Milton Garzón, who grew up in Bogotá's slums. "He's turned into a phenomenal community leader," says Alexander.|
In Bogotá, Collaboration at Every Step
Matthew Alexander (BS, Psychology, ‘01) knows a thing or two about international NGOs. He first volunteered for NGOs during college vacations, then worked with humanitarian groups in Latin American—from non-profits to the U.S. Army Humanitarian Brigade to indigenous grassroots organizations—after graduation. He saw that some approaches worked, some didn’t, and many needs weren’t being met. Those experiences led him to found his own NGO, Ahmsa, in Bogotá, Colombia in 2004.
“I had no interest in reinventing the wheel,” says Alexander, who received Mitchell and Fulbright grants to pursue his early humanitarian work. “If an organization had existed that was doing the work that was needed, I would have worked with them. But I saw needs that were not being addressed by others.”
The problem with most NGOs, says Alexander, is that they provide support in ways that encourage dependency. His goal was to help communities become self-sustaining.
To that end, Ahmsa (originally named Fusion) provides skills training, microcredit, and other support to alleviate poverty in Colombia. Alexander was drawn to Colombia—specifically Bogotá—by the severity of its economic conditions, exacerbated by decades of internal armed conflict. “There is 80 to 90 percent unemployment in some areas,” says Alexander, “and the work that is available tends to be exploitive.”
Among Ahmsa's projects is a textile cooperative, for which it provided skills training and nearly $14,000 in seed capital.
How does one tackle a problem of that magnitude? Alexander believed the key was to involve the community from the start. He’d seen the pitfalls of taking on a project without community support.
“In a lot of micro-enterprise development work, an organization will come in and sketch a great new enterprise based on their economic analysis from afar,” says Alexander. “They usually fail because people don’t have buy-in to the program.” Instead Alexander invites the community to suggest programs based on their needs, interests, and pre-existing skills. Together, they complete a market analysis to explore the program’s potential. “The process has to be participatory at every single step,” says Alexander. “The idea is not to tell people what to do, but rather to work collaboratively.”
Such an approach would have been more difficult even a decade ago, when communicating from Bogotá to a central office in the U.S. would have been costly and cumbersome. Now, with technological tools making global communication instantaneous and inexpensive, Alexander is able to live in Colombia full-time, working with Colombians and passing their messages back to colleagues in Seattle, Ahmsa’s base for technological, legal, and financial support.
|Matthew Alexander (in white t-shirt) with members of the local community in Bogotá, Colombia.|
With $150,000 in annual funding and staff of five, Ahmsa currently serves about 1,000 people in the Bogotá area. A microcredit program provides seed capital to small family businesses. A training program funded by Colombia’s ministry focuses on labor rights for women displaced by war. Entrepreneurial and job training programs build and strengthen enterprises run by marginalized groups. These enterprises include a textile cooperative, a recycling cooperative, and an internet café designed in collaboration with at-risk youth. Program participants’ incomes have increased by an average of more than 500 percent.
Alexander, who has lived in Colombia since 2002, is eager to watch Ahmsa continue to grow—without him at the helm. Six months ago he stepped down as director, although he remains active on Ahmsa’s board.
“I was concerned about ‘founder’s syndrome,’” explains Alexander. “It’s dangerous for someone to remain as director too long. It makes the organization too dependent on one person for leadership.”
Alexander was recently accepted to a mid-career masters in public administration program at Harvard University. He’s deferred the program for at least a year, to serve as Latin American regional coordinator for Mercy Corps, a well-established NGO based in Portland, Oregon.
“It’s been the ideal transition, because it allows me to work on similar issues on a much larger scale,” explains Alexander. “I’ll be learning a lot at Mercy Corps that I’ll be able to share as an Ahmsa board member. It gives me insight into growing pains that Ahsma may face in the future.”
To learn more about Ahmsa, visit www.ahmsa.org.