Chi-Dooh ("Skip") Li created a non-profit organization called Agros about thirty years ago to help poor farmers in Central America to purchase their own property and become landowners. It was a simple but profound aim. Breaking a four hundred year tradition of servitude, Skip Li realized, would help a middle class develop and introduce the Jeffersonian virtues of the self-sufficiency and personal dignity to lands where those virtues are too rare. Now he has committed his experience and lessons to a surprising book, Buy This Land, that shows the way Americans can meld personal skills (in his case, law and negotiations) with hard work to perform real, lasting works of service.
Skip Li is a Chinese American whose diplomat father from the Republic of China (now Taiwan) was posted to Guatemala and Colombia in the late 40s and early 50s. Skip today is fluent in Chinese and Spanish, as well as English--quite an unusual combination. Also as a young man he became a U.S. citizen and was able to take advantage of the tremendous educational opportunities this country affords, and became a lawyer. He also became a serious Christian who wanted his education to pay off for the world as well as himself and his family.
The true history of America is made up of stories like Skip Li's. Many social entrepreneurs, like him, are motivated and fortified by faith. In such stories there often is a central insight, which in Li's case was the importance of land ownership. There often are practical principles such pioneers have learned in their philanthropy, and Skip Li describes a number of them. For him, one is the importance of having aid recipients repay the loans they take out. That is for their spiritual and mental benefit, not just the ability of the philanthropy to stretch its dollars. "I have seen firsthand how a man or woman's work ethic can be destroyed by a culture of giveaway," he reports, giving examples.
A lesson that has to be taught to donors, in return, is the essential willingness to stay with projects until they are finished, and not just to engage in philanthropy tourism.
Another lesson for donors that Agros exemplifies is the priceless worth of "private initiative." The government just can't do as good a job as small, private groups. USAID in the 80s, when Agros was starting, threw hundreds of millions of dollars at land reform in Central America and had little to show for it. "Getting involved with their money still means stepping into a quagmire of red tape and bureaucracy with endless forms to fill out and reports to write," Li states. Government is so eager to avoid waste that it often wastes everything.
Skip Li and his wife Cyd live in Seattle's University District. There they are co-owners of four houses that offer alternative housing for University of Washington students and mostly attract evangelical Christians. The Li's provide a home-like atmosphere with sincere, caring adult presence. Again, patience and caring make the difference.
Caring is crucial. Li doesn't boast of his faith, but it plainly animates him. "Loving the poor" as individuals means more to him than helping to "solve" the problem of poverty. "When a man or woman has known nothing but abject poverty for a lifetime it is not money or even a title deed alone that will lift that person out of poverty and overcome the mindset that goes with poverty and oppression," he writes. "The human spirit itself must be lifted up and ecouraged--and that takes time."
Agros now has established 42 villages, mostly in Central America. Skip Li dreams of "1,000 villages". That would change the culture of entire countries. But meanwhile, serious charity like Agros, already has had life-changing influence on the thousands of people it has touched.