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Lasting change

Indonesia, November 7, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Gunanto is a vendor who sells healthy snacks for children in one of Jakarta's poorest neighborhoods. Mercy Corps staff visit vendors of their healthy street food project, KeBal, several times each week to monitor them and ensure proper hygiene and nutrition standards are met. Photo: Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps

Behavior is hard to change. I know. I’ve tried. Even with support, it’s still extraordinarily difficult to change. To learn new skills. To give up character flaws. To be a better person.

The last program I visited in Jakarta is a Healthy Street Foods Project called KeBal, translated: My Child’s Café. (Coincidently, this program is one of two selected just weeks ago as the 2009 winner of Mercy Corps’ most innovative projects worldwide.)

Children in Jakarta’s slums are extremely malnourished. Oftentimes, the easiest option for a mother is give her child small change (usually about, 2,000 Indonesian rupiah, which is only 20¢) to buy something from a food cart. Most of these options are fried or sugary foods that are really unhealthy and make children sick.

KeBal takes an innovative approach to address this problem: developing a food cart that is child-friendly (colorful, plays music and food is eye-level) and choosing a menu that provides vitamins and nutrients to children. Part of this project is teaching the cooks and food cart vendors about good hygiene and healthy food preparation. (Not wanting to risk getting sick because I was in Jakarta for such a short time, the only food cart I ate from was ours — and it was delicious!).

This pilot project has been so successful that it is being expanded to other neighborhoods in Jakarta.

Mercy Corps field staff talk about “continuous engagement” with the people we serve. I love that term. It’s encouraging, loving, unfailing. It means: we’re here to support you. Whatever it takes. We’re here today and if you need us, we’ll be here tomorrow.

I saw examples of continuous engagement in all the programs I visited in Jakarta. The problems are complex and the solutions are multifaceted. Even if you provide access to clean water, you still need to teach people the importance of washing their hands. Even if you provide a system to turn a community’s waste into compost, people still have to learn how to maintain it. Even if you provide access to a mother’s support group, you still have to have trained facilitators there to dispel myths and answer questions. And, even if you provide a food cart with healthy ingredients, you still have to show someone how to cook the food safely so children don’t get sick.

Mercy Corps’ programs work because there is continuous engagement. We don’t put the well in and walk away. Lasting change — the important kind — comes from teaching people how to do things differently and supporting them along the way.