Improvements big and small in East Asia

By Oxfam

The woman crouched near the ground, balancing a notebook on her knee.

She was writing her name in Chinese characters, painstakingly shaping each slope and spike, trying to remember what she learned in school.

She'd lived her 30 years in this remote village on a mountain with no official name. She was a picture of dignity in a place facing difficult times.

For generations the people on this mountain had cut and sold timber. Then, just a few years ago, the Chinese government banned logging to conserve trees.

It was an important decision for the environment, one that helped protect the watershed of Lashi Lake. But it eliminated some important interaction for the Yi people who live here. An ethnic minority who only met with the lowland Han people when they sold their timber, they risked being left behind.

To survive the logging ban, the Yi needed a plan.

Green Watershed, an Oxfam America partner, came up with one. After consulting with the villagers, they discovered potatoes could replace timber as a cash crop. And the women who formed the backbone of the community could learn to speak Mandarin and write Chinese characters so they could sell and trade the potatoes to the Han at the base of the mountain.

In May, I went to China, Cambodia, and Thailand to capture stories like these, illustrating Oxfam America's work in Asia. I had never been to the region before. Like so many in the West, I knew about the extreme poverty only from the media.

But suddenly there I was filling notebooks with the results of our work, watching village after village preserve their way of life using their own expertise:

Rice farmers in Cambodia finding a niche in the market, creating the first organic rice mill in the country. Burmese refugees studying law, risking their lives to document human rights abuses back home. Fishers living on the Tonle Sap lake measuring the impact of over-fishing and developments planned for their community.

I marveled at the dignity of these men and women. They just wanted what we all want: to make a decent a living and feed their families.

Some sought to do the work their families had done for generations, only to watch the developed world encroach on their waterways and flood plains. Some needed to diversify and adapt their way of life.

But for others, the plan was even more ambitious. Let's say these communities make enough to get by.

Then what?

Then, it turns out, Oxfam partners help them learn how to participate in development decisions. They diversify their work options and insist on better governance. They put money away and buy farm equipment, fishing boats, tuition for their kids. They build health clinics, schools, and courtyards for meetings, traditional dancing, and singing with family and friends.

In short, when poor people aren't so poor anymore, they can effectively plan for the future.

What I saw during my travels illustrated the vast range of work Oxfam and its partners do in the regions.

And surrounding it all are the many challenges—few resources, limited participation in decision-making, outside interference, droughts, floods.

But somewhere in between, the work gets done.

A woman writes her name. A village survives.