In 2001, Argentina experienced the worst financial crisis the country had seen in more than 75 years. As a result, it is estimated that 50% of the country's population fell below the poverty line.
“In 2001, we started the first food bank as a result of the crisis, and by 2004 there were 12 nationwide,” says Santiago A. Otero of Despierta Argentina, one of that nation's largest food banks. “There was a huge need to feed people who couldn't feed themselves.”
About 10% of Argentineans were in need of assistance, but most of that need was concentrated in the more remote northern and southern areas of this massive country -- making it difficult to coordinate relief drives. “We were trying to figure out how to feed people, but it is a country with 35 million people and, in the process, food was sitting in central warehouses and spoiling,” he explains.
Richardo Locke, another member of Despierta Argentina, explains that because the country had been relatively economically stable and middle-class, independent food banks did not have previous experience with logistics or collaboration. There were no standards for distribution profoundly hindering the mission of the food banks to the point that some government officials were questioning their very existence.
The director of Despierta Argentina knew that something had to be done. So, in 2005, Otero and Locke found themselves on their way to Weatherhead for their first class in the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) certificate. Otero and Locke were tasked with discovering how AI concepts could be applied to a network of large and unwieldy organizations with multiple private and public stakeholders. Their goal was to create a distribution and operations model that would bring consistency and economic sustainability for the entire network of food banks.
The challenge of using AI principles for their organization was that, by definition, the food banks were coming from what Otero refers to as a “paradigm of scarcity.” The food banks were the result of a negative consequence, and it was going to be a challenge to sell to others a process that focused on the positive. “After coming back from the AI course, we took what we learned to a two-day Buenos Aires Appreciative Inquiry summit,” Otero explains. “There were a lot of speeches the first day, and it seemed like everyone came with a different agenda. But the second day, during the discovery phase, people really connected, and before we knew it, we were all talking about the same thing.”
The summit was so successful that it not only set in motion a collaborative process of food distribution throughout the country, but also spanned collaboration with food banks in Paraguay and Brazil. “We now have a procedure manual for each food bank and the network,” Otero says. “We have a newsletter, an electronic database and we are sharing information and resources.”
And only five months after the summit, eight of the projects presented have been implemented with two more in the beginning stages. The summit helped increase the number of food bank locations by 32% with a 28% growth in volume of food distributed overall. According to Otero's estimates, the food banks now prepare 600,000 meals a month. Employing the AI process has allowed Otero, Locke and their network to think beyond a regional need and start to help other struggling Latin American countries.
“It is what you get when you get people to talk one-on-one about things that matter to them,” adds Locke. “What we found from the summit is that AI is much more than just a simple methodology, it is more of a way of life,” Otero says. “You create an appreciative culture and it generates a state of change - actually changing the way you think.”