Back in 1988, long before thoughts of Millennium Development Goals, Helen Keller International took a chance on a small idea: could home gardens that produced nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables make a difference in improving nutrition and reducing blindness for families in Bangladesh, a country with one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world?
HKI had been working in Bangladesh since the early 1980s and had seen the ravages of the severe vitamin A deficiency there. Back then more than one million children were suffering from this condition and more than three percent of the rural population was stricken with night blindness, a clinical sign of vitamin A deficiency - all because they did not have enough of the right food to eat at the start of their lives.
So we looked at the research and, with the help of local NGOs, developed a model that provided not only agricultural resources to develop the gardens but nutrition education. These programs were also sensitive to local contexts and cultures, and emphasized local ownership in keeping them sustainable. After all, interventions "for the greater good" can't last if the people receiving them don't have a voice or an investment in the process.
Our Homestead Food Production pilot targeted 1,000 households in rural Bangladesh. Today, 25 years later, more than one million households in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, and the Philippines have benefited from homestead food production and an additional 300,000 will be reached by 2015, with adapted versions well on their way in sub-Saharan Africa. The model has expanded to include small-scale animal husbandry and, with help from more than 200 local NGOS, adjusts to suit a variety of cultures and geographic conditions including rough mountain terrain and urban areas. In addition to significantly increasing consumption of vitamin A rich fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs and liver, children benefiting from programs in Bangladesh have shown a reduced prevalence of night blindness. These programs have also created more than 190,000 part-time jobs, primarily for women living in poorer households in rural areas. An independent economic analysis of one of our Bangladesh program sites found the investment in the program yielded a 160 percent return on investment.
Of course, it's easy to get caught up in all the reports and metrics produced about these programs, especially on the eve of the next UN General Assembly, where governments will be asked to commit more resources to fight against extreme hunger and poverty and demonstrate their support of the Millennium Development Goals.
I like to measure success of programs based on how well they improve the everyday lives of real people and empower them to continue the change going forward - people like Rashida Begum, who lives with her husband and two sons in Howalvangi, a village in southern Bangladesh. Like others in her village, her family was barely surviving on her husband's meager wages as a day laborer. "I could not feed our family. Sometimes we ate only once a day," she explained. "We used to own a few goats and sheep, but had to sell them to buy food."
The garden she kept only yielded a few vegetables in the winter and she knew nothing about cultivating the region's poor-quality soil.
Last year, she took a chance and joined a meeting for local women in the village center coordinated by HKI and some local NGOs. Through the group she received training on more effective gardening practices, pest control, crop diversification and rotation, and the use of organic fertilizers to enrich the soil. She also received nine varieties of vegetable seeds, including spinach, pumpkin and other crops rich in micronutrients. This enabled Rashida to produce enough to feed her family well all year round.
She also had enough surpluses to sell, but soon encountered some additional challenges trying to do so at a market three kilometers away. "Selling vegetables at a distant market place is difficult for women," she explained. In Bangladesh social barriers limit women's ability to travel.
With HKI's assistance, she and the other women in the group established a Sales Center at the Howalvangi bazaar within walking distance of their village. In addition to the income from the sale of their extra produce, Rashida was nominated to run the Sales Center and is responsible for collecting the vegetables. She has emerged as a leader in her community, among women and men.
"I am happy that I am able to meet my children's needs, especially ensuring that we have three good meals to eat every day," she said. Rashida also plans to use some of her earnings to build a tin roof for her family's house, which will better protect them from the rain, as well as purchase a herd of small livestock, which can provide milk for her children.
The MDGs serve as a great tool for helping to keep focus on the most urgent issues and to provide benchmarks for everyone to use in measuring progress in the fight against hunger and poverty. But in working toward these goals - and toward new ones beyond 2015 - we also need to keep an eye on how women like Rashida and her family are doing, how villages like Howalvangi fare once HKI and other international NGOs are gone, and what kind of legacy has been created that can allow future generations to continue to thrive and move out of poverty.
These are the development goals that matter most.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013). The session will feature world leaders discussing progress made on the MDGs and what should replace them when they expire in 2015. To read all the posts in the series, click here; to follow the conversation on Twitter, find the hashtag #No1Behind. For more information about InterAction, click here.
Follow Kathy Spahn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HelenKellerIntl