“We Want to Make It Happen”: A Conversation with Scott Killough

Editor’s Note: We continue our series of posts highlighting some of the people who make up the Feed the Children team. Here is an interview with Scott Killough, Feed the Children’s Senior Vice President of International Operations. Other blogs in this series can be found here and here.

Tell us about your role at Feed the Children.

I’ve been at Feed the Children just over two years, and am currently the senior vice president for international operations. I coordinate and oversee all our international program activities around the world, as well as our program staff in the three regional offices and all ten of our country programs.

What’s your background?

My background is in international development. I’ve been living and working overseas for non-profit organizations for most of the last 30 years. My particular area of expertise is in international agriculture and rural development, and I spent many years living and working in the Philippines and Central America.

Last time we heard from you on the blog was after Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. You visited the Philippines this past fall. Can you give us an update on the recovery and rebuilding that’s happening there? And what role is Feed the Children playing?

Unfortunately, typhoons are an annual occurrence in the Philippines, although Haiyan was a particularly bad one. I visited in November and had a chance to visit some of the communities and talk with families that had been affected.

Our response is twofold. Typically, our team will mobilize for an immediate relief response to communities that were affected, whether we are working in those parts of the country or not. Our staff and volunteers and partners were out quickly, providing food and supporting communities that were in the path of the storm.

The second phase of our response is to sit down with communities and identify ways we can support rebuilding and recovery efforts. And that’s where we invest more time and effort. As an example, we’ve been working with one community in Cebu province to help them rebuild their school.

We also helped develop a psycho-social counseling session for children and parents whose lives had been devastated. We worked with staff and volunteers from San Carlos University in Cebu to walk people through a process to better deal with their grief. In many cases their homes had been destroyed; they’d lost all their belongings.

Talk about the four pillars of Feed the Children: Food & Nutrition, Health & Water, Education, and Livelihoods. Talk about how those four pillars work together to help impoverished communities, with maybe a story to illustrate.

Improving livelihoods is one of the four pillars of our work.
Improving livelihoods is one of the four pillars of our work.

The four pillars for me represent the priorities that are universal to communities and families who face poverty in their lives every day. Everyone needs food and water, a decent education, and a chance to improve their livelihood.

As an organization though, the four pillars also provide Feed the Children with a concrete program framework around which we can plan our activities.

We typically start our programs with the first pillar: food and nutrition interventions. We may work with mothers to organize a school feeding program, or help parents introduce home gardens as a way to address food security at the household level. We bring the community together, and the social capital that’s built in the early work of the food and nutrition pillar becomes a platform for launching other activities— addressing health concerns, improving access to drinking water, improving education, and working with communities to support livelihoods.

One example of the four-pillar framework comes from the Philippines, where our four-pillar program framework was originally developed (although we’ve modified it, over time). What you see there are a number of communities working in partnership with schools, which have established school feeding activities. We’ve made investments in water systems both at the school and made drinking water more accessible to the wider community.

Tiyamike VSL group (3)
A village savings and loan group in Tiyamike

And we’ve had great success with the village savings and loan approach. We work with those same volunteer mothers and parents as we did in the beginning. The village savings and loan becomes a concrete mechanism for organizing small groups and getting them to build their own capital fund through savings. This happens not through an external infusion of capital from Feed the Children or our donors, but through their own group savings. Then, we work to support the community as they begin making small loans to the members of the group.

On the family level, the funds enable them to generate income by opening a small store, for example. Maybe it’s a “buy and sell” initiative in which they buy sweet potatoes, do some food processing/preparation and then sell the product at a higher value. There’s a lot of flexibility for individual families or groups to figure out the best way to improve their own household income. But that whole process often starts with meeting basic needs of food and nutrition.

What’s one misconception about international development work—something you wish people better understood?

Two points. One, in order to really bring about social change in communities we support, it is a process that takes time. It’s not something that you can map out in a two-year plan or a four-year plan. Development doesn’t follow a straight timeline: “We’ll do this, then this will happen.”

Second, many of us in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world think it’s our job to be on the ground doing the work. I don’t minimize the contribution and role that Feed the Children staff play, but when we see change, it’s because local people—mothers and fathers, community leaders—are stepping up and saying, “This is what we want for ourselves. We want to bring about these changes, not because you are giving us resources and training and support, but because this is our vision for our community and family. We want to make it happen.”

It sounds like community development work is very contextual, like there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Or are there certain best practices or universal principles in play everywhere?

Well, it’s both. So much of what we do is location-specific. At the same time, there are certain attitudes and behaviors that we have as outsiders, that have been proven and time tested. We also know, from practice and learning, that there are certain ways of supporting ‘development’ – certain interventions – that will bring about better results or outcomes, and that are more cost-effective. We see those in a number of Feed the Children values: recognizing and respecting the dignity of individuals, working to develop local leaders, and understanding cultural diversity.

What motivates you in this work and keeps you going?

Right out of university many years ago, I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. That’s when I became involved in community development programs, with a focus on engaging men and woman at the community level.

That experience motivates me even today. How can we support men and women as they develop leadership and practical skills to make a difference for themselves, their families and their communities?  How can we support local communities to take a stake in their own well-being, in their own hopes and dreams for a better life? Those questions inspire me to work with colleagues in my own organization and other partner organizations to help make change at the community level. They really drive the work I do.

Top photo: Scott Killough visits with program coordinators and school faculty in Cebu City, Philippines.