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Director at Silver Spring-based CHF International Celebrates Work in Latin America

Published 10/06/2011 by Global Communities

Director at Silver Spring-based CHF International Celebrates Work in Latin America
Community Contributor looks back on 26 years of humanitarian aid as Peace Corps turns 50
By Randy Lyness
The Peace Corps turned 50 this year. Such a milestone prompted me to think back to my own Peace Corps experience, my first trip to Latin America, and how it all shaped my career. 

The year was 1985 and the country was Costa Rica. While this was not my first international trip, I really had no idea how much the experience would impact my life. I was a small business/export promotion volunteer. I was assigned to two cities Puntarenas and Cartago where I helped businesses export and promote their products. 
I mostly worked with medium enterprises that wanted to beef up their existing exporting businesses, and got the unique chance to learn about their culture and their people. Back then, agriculture (coffee, bananas and sugar) was the greatest contributor to Costa Rica’s GDP, but the country was little known to most Americans as was the case for the majority of its Latin American neighbors.
As I was completing my Peace Corps service, I was given the opportunity to work as a program intern on a home improvement lending program with CHF International. This got me started down a 26-year-passion for development work and Latin America.
Back in the late 80s, we were just starting to get a glimpse of what the region would become. Many economies were struggling with debt and instability. Even the emergence of Brazil as an economic power was a distant thought. Costa Rica was a strong and stable democracy, but in many of its neighboring countries, democracy was just a promise. I have dedicated the last two and a half decades to this promise.
Fast forward to today. Costa Rica is now a leader in ecotourism, a concept that the country pioneered in the 90s. Most Latin American countries are democracies and are experiencing greater economic growth. Throughout the region, we are beginning to see an emerging middle class, better access to education and higher purchasing power. And, while coffee and bananas remain important exports for Costa Rica, its main foreign exchange earner is now an Intel plant.
Now, as I look back 26 years later, I realize that I have spent half of my life and my entire career working in the region. I have lived through earthquakes in Costa Rica, hurricanes and coups in Guatemala, and raised a family in Honduras (and Guatemala and Costa Rica!). I have witnessed and been part of many of the changes, successes and challenges that our southern neighbors have faced in the last three decades.
In my current job as regional director of the Americas for CHF International, I know that despite the many strides most countries have made, there are still many challenges to be addressed. If globalization has brought positive changes, it has also brought its share of hardship. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, and inevitably leaving many people in the margins. These are people like those displaced in Colombia, or the Afro-descendent populations in Honduras, who are still underserved and lack access to basic services such as health care and infrastructure.
This is where I come in. As CHF International partners with communities, we focus on youth who need vocational training and job opportunities so they can help in the development of their countries; we focus on women who need access to finance so they can provide for their families and contribute to their communities; we focus on indigenous populations and Afro descendents who need access to health care and education so they can fully exercise their citizenship; we focus on what the community needs.
When I visit our partner communities in Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras or Haiti, I want to hear from them. I want them to tell me what we can do together to make their communities better. My work isn’t about hand-holding; instead, it’s very much demand driven. These communities and these countries need to be the drivers in their own development and we want to be there, as partners on equal grounds, sharing best practices and learning from each other. 
In my office in downtown Silver Spring, I can come up with endless ideas and proposals, but just as I learned in the Peace Corps, it’s only when I get out to the field, spend time with our staff on the ground and communities we serve, that I know that we are doing what we set out to do; building a better world.
Randy Lyness is director of the Americas for CHF International with over 25 years of experience in the design, implementation and management of community-based development projects in culturally diverse and challenging settings. He is fluent in Spanish and has a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from California State University, Fresno.
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