In Argentina, a JDC Model of Local Empowerment

– Rebecca Neuwirth

In recent years, it’s come into fashion to press social service providers – whether government or non-profits – on the long-term sustainability of their efforts to improve the lives of people in need. 

The question is acute when we think of philanthropic dollars: How can we ensure that limited resources are maximized and that donors understand the incredible ability of their funds to make real and lasting change?

For JDC, our work in Argentina is a case study and a story that should be more widely appreciated.

Until 2001, Argentina’s approximately 240,000 Jews were largely middle-class, hailing primarily from Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the early 1900s and, more recently, mainland Europe as Jews sought refuge from the ravages of World War II.

JDC has been engaged with the community throughout its history.

Through the 1980s and ‘90s, JDC’s role in the community was to provide technical assistance to the various organizations and institutions that made up the community; the community was able to provide for its own material needs.

JDC also played a critical role in the wake of bombings in the early 1990s of the Israeli Embassy and AMIA Jewish community building.

But in 2001, the country's economy took a massive turn for the worse and a full-scale financial crisis followed – including the devaluation of the peso and a precipitous drop in living standards of the middle class. The vast majority of Jews were directly impacted, with many experiencing joblessness and hunger for the first time in their lives.

In a matter of weeks, JDC rapidly deployed about $14 million in additional aid.

The JDC response can be divided into three key areas, each of which was carried out in close cooperation with the local community:

1.    JDC provided food and basic needs to Jews who had been plunged into poverty. The “new poor” were unaccustomed to receiving help or handouts, and ingenuity and deep sensitivity were required to make sure aid was received.

2.    JDC helped to streamline Jewish community resources to ensure their viability and created a system to insure accountability.

3.    Realizing the need for medium-term recovery would depend on helping Jews adjust to the new realities through skills training, JDC organized a job center and, with a group of visionary donors, a Jewish loan fund that gave grants to businesses and entrepreneurial projects that would create jobs.  

Observers like Jos Thalheimer, an American intern in Buenos Aires at the time, remarked on the agility, intelligence, and humanity of the JDC response. It had been credited with maintaining the community through perhaps its most difficult crisis.

But JDC is equally proud of its ability to empower local leadership and turn over the reins.

Today, JDC's budget in Argentina has been drastically reduced. The local AMIA organization, Tzedaka Foundation, Chabad Lubavitch, and other local organizations are able to handle services needed for Jews who are remain poor. The infrastructure that JDC created to track and measure results is firmly in the hands of the local community. And Argentine Jews are largely back at work and back in the middle class.

In recent weeks, JDC made another exciting announcement about Argentina. One of its last hands-on programs in Buenos Aires, Baby Help – which includes daily care for Jewish infants and small children below the poverty line – will be welcomed into the Tel Aviv school, a local entity. The guiding principles of JDC's successful work with children will be sustained, but the financing and responsibility will be gradually turned over.

The situation in Argentina remains uncertain. And JDC maintains its close ties, its supportive role, and its deep understanding of the Jewish community and larger country. Who knows? Perhaps JDC will have to step in again in a worsening economic and political scenario, one that could surpass the local community's enhanced capability. If so, JDC will stay true to its promise to be a lifeline to all Jews in need.

But for now, the model stands as a remarkable example of one organization's ability – in a close partnership with its supporters and with its local partners – to parachute in with immediate, effective aid, and to withdraw as circumstances changed, leaving behind a local community and leadership strengthened in its wake.

Care about this work and want to be involved? JOIN JDC in Argentina to see its model in action. June 23-27:  

Rebecca Neuwirth is JDC's Director of Strategic Engagement and a Senior Development Officer.



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