Letters from Alfonso:
Praise for Letters from Alfonso: Learning to Listen
When natural disaster forces rural families from their homes, giving birth to Puerto Badel, government programs, international aid, and, above all, the community’s tenacious energy all come to the fore. As the struggle to become a stable and secure neighborhood goes on, each victory seems short-lived, followed by another crisis. The story of how the poor are the victims of the environment—floods, windstorms, tremors, drought—is rarely told as beautifully as by Alfonso, the community’s leader, to Earl, his Peace Corps friend and supporter.
Senior Director Environmental Economics, World Wildlife Fund
Twice I have read Letters from Alfonso, and each time I learned something else. The book is real—and including the voice of Alfonso is the best part. In the ’60s, many of us heard the words “Listen to the people.” Earl did just that, as well as talking to them, with them, and following up. Great text, wonderful, moving photos, and what a long friendship!
Senior Natural Resources Officer, U.S. Agency for International Development
Earl Kessler’s wonderful book intertwines two revealing narratives. Alfonso’s letters tell us of the struggle for social and economic development as it appears to a leader of a fragile community struggling in a difficult ecological context. Earl’s story is that of a humane development professional—someone who cares, is personally engaged, and listens to those he is trying to help. This last has become a rarity in a world where much of the work of development has become a top-down business managed by aloof professionals in vast bureaucracies. The lessons of Letters from Alfonso are important for anyone interested in understanding the process of development, and particularly for those who want to get deeply and meaningfully involved in the good work of helping real people who are trying to better their lives.
President, Center for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad University, India
In forty-three letters, spanning a period of thirteen years, Earl Kessler and Alfonso Pérez kept their friendship alive while Puerto Badel, the community they helped found, continued to expand and develop. Some initiatives worked; others didn’t. Discouragement is always present, but it never gets the upper hand. The book is not only a testament to the value of not throwing anything away—these letters, for example—but reading and re-reading them to cull their wisdom. Kessler learned to listen and appreciate the lives his clients lived, and could better help them because he trained himself to open his senses to the multiple clues they provided. His contribution is a great lesson for those who would make the world more livable for us all.
—Margarita Sorock, Ph.D.,
Former Peace Corps Volunteer, Cartagena, Colombia
… a remarkable unvarnished and unique look back over forty years. Letters from Alfonso has timeless development lessons applicable today just as over the last four decades. Donors’ increasing emphasis on participation, sustainability, scale-up, and climate adaptation strategies makes this required reading for those engaged at the local or national level.
Development Economist, Senior Energy Officer, U.S. Agency for International Development
The story of Puerto Badel as told by its first leader is at once inspiring and sobering. Slowly establishing itself as a legitimate neighborhood, the community follows the advice of government advisers into deep debt, lurching from breeding cattle to raising rice to fish farming to shrimp production as the development fashions change and funding follows suit. Befuddled by the “experts” and struggling to cohabit with the bureaucracy, the individual families try to survive each wave of change and to put their savings into their simple homes. Letters from Alfonso pits the case study against the human story, and produces a winning tale.
—Tova Maria Solo,
Senior Urban Specialist, World Bank (Retired)
Working shoulder to shoulder with men, women, and children living in tremendous poverty is both a challenge and a blessing. Earl Kessler’s endearing book Letters from Alfonso comes as close to depicting both as anything I have ever read. It is a must read for anyone wanting to work at the community level in the developing world. Just make sure you don't simply read. Read and listen!
—Kip A. Scheidler,
Senior Director, Disaster Risk Reduction and Response, Habitat for Humanity International
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