As a teenager growing up in central Iowa, Nora Tobin had ready access to food, clean water, and medical care. “The only time I didn’t eat was when I didn’t like what was on my plate,” she recalls.
Today Tobin, now 28 and a member of the Rotary Club of Cedar Valley, is working to make sure others have the same advantages that she did. She is the executive director of Self-Help International in Waverly, Iowa, a nonprofit that trains and educates farmers in Ghana and Nicaragua to boost crop yields and improve nutrition. It also administers a children’s feeding program and small-business loan initiative for women.
After living in Ireland, where she received a master’s degree in international peace studies supported by a Rotary scholarship, Tobin says, “It amazes me that I can go anywhere in the world and still go to a Rotary club meeting.”
THE ROTARIAN: You grew up in Iowa. Was it inevitable you’d find yourself working with agriculture?
TOBIN: I never thought I would be working with agriculture, but going to Iowa State University I got a lot of exposure to it. I knew I wanted to work in international development, and it became pretty clear that if you want to work on ending hunger issues, you need to work with agriculture.
TR: What role does food play in promoting peace?
TOBIN: [Nobel Peace Prize Laureate] Norman Borlaug has said that you cannot build a peaceable society on empty stomachs and human misery. And so, if we want peace, we have to address hunger issues. If you look at the conflict in Syria today, there was a drought in Syria, and there are plenty of people who would do anything to provide for their families, regardless of the ideology they believe in. So when you’re economically incentivized to fight, to support your family, who wouldn’t make that decision? We need to build healthy economies that are able to support the people that live within them if we want a peaceful world.
TR: Self-Help aims to fight hunger and poverty with training at the grassroots level. Why is it important to promote self-reliance versus simply supplying aid?
TOBIN: There are definitely situations, especially following a natural disaster, where immediate aid is required. No doubt about that. But if you really want to help people long term, you’ve got to empower them to grow their own food, to have a source of income long term, even after we’re gone. Because we all care a lot when there’s a major earthquake or hurricane, and then we lose interest. Then what happens to the families who are still trying to rebuild their lives after the fact? So Self-Help really takes a long-term, sustainable approach to promoting self-reliance with dignity. All of our programs incorporate both training and education with the financial means to put it into action, typically in the form of a microloan so that it’s repaid, so that we can then use those same funds to help the next family or community.
TR: How did your Rotary scholarship impact your career?
TOBIN: It heavily impacted my career choices, in part because once I finished my scholarship I had no desire to leave Ireland. I applied for one job outside of Ireland and it was in a small town in Iowa, but it was so perfect I couldn’t not apply, and here I am today.