The Rainforest Alliance, funded by USAID as part of the New Partnerships Initiative, leverages local partnerships to help women in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico develop leadership skills and access economic opportunities. Learn how the project tapped into local partners’ expertise to find success in new ways despite recent challenges.
Change has been something of a constant in Central America since the beginning of 2020: in the past year, the region has been rocked not only by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by two major hurricanes. Due to these unexpected challenges, a USAID project that was started to help Central American women develop leadership skills and access economic opportunities had to pivot to maintain its momentum. Because the project’s prime partner, the Rainforest Alliance, was working closely with local partners as part of USAID’s New Partnerships Initiative, they were able to adapt their programs quickly to continue making an impact on the lives of local women.
The goal of the Rainforest Alliance’s five-year project is to help women in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico enter the workforce, start businesses, and become leaders in their communities. This mission is why Martha Maria Ríos, project director for the Rainforest Alliance, left a job she loved at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome in September 2020 to return to her home country of Guatemala. “I wanted to reconnect with my region,” Ríos said.
Ríos collaborates closely with a cadre of local organizations, USAID staff, regional partners, and private sector partners that expect to work with more than 3,000 participants in the project’s first year. The project has adapted as teams have learned more about the specific challenges faced by Central American women. For example, to achieve the project’s economic development goals, the local partners planned around 20 business development workshops in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico throughout 2021, inviting hundreds of women to attend. While planning and executing these sessions, however, they discovered other barriers that many of the local women had to overcome in order to prioritize personal and professional development alongside other responsibilities.
“We learned they were also taking care of families and working on the land. It [the workshop] was just one more activity—and it was a burden, not a benefit,” Ríos said. As a result of this feedback, the team adjusted to the women’s needs for meeting times and discussion topics—an approach that Ríos said is working. “They are seeing the results of collaboration,” she said. “It is much more fruitful in terms of the willingness of the women to participate and results.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge was the extreme devastation caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota in November 2020 in Honduras, south Mexico, and Guatemala. In Guatemala, the agricultural goals of the project were thwarted by volcanic ash that covered the crops. “It was like losing the last 20 years of work with our communities,” Ríos said. “A lot of the seeds were damaged, bridges were down, and we were still not close to receiving vaccines. We knew we would have to continue working this way for the next few months to face the realities.”
None of the challenges hampered the participants’ enthusiasm, however. Shortly after the hurricanes, local governments, organizations, support teams, sub-awardees, the Rainforest Alliance team, and the project’s participants came together to rehabilitate crops, reestablish communications, and reconstruct buildings and bridges—even as they continued to work diligently toward their project goals.
Adapting to specific local needs and challenges is vital, and local partners are helping the team see what is truly necessary and important. Ríos is beyond thankful for the guidance and experience of the Rainforest Alliance’s partners.
“They [local partners] are true engines of change, both locally and regionally,” she said. “This is a great platform for reaching out to people who really need it.”
This article first appeared on USAID.gov.