NGOs in Action: First Steps

February 25, 2014 7:00 AM

The headlines on North Korea have been particularly disheartening recently, from Jang Song-thaek to the Commission of Inquiry report. We are thus always interested in the more positive stories of NGOs who continue to labor away at the grass roots.

Angela Cho brought First Steps to our attention, a Canadian Christian charity that has been working on child nutrition. As is often the case, the organization had its origins in the experience of a single individual, Susan Ritchie, who served as interpreter for a Canadian fact-finding mission. Since 2003, First Steps has financed the export of almost a hundred VitaCow and VitaGoat machines to North Korea. Developed by Ottawa-based Malnutrition Matters, the VitaCow and VitaGoat machines process soybeans into nutrient-rich soymilk. First Steps estimates that the soy milk program reaches more than 100,000 children in orphanages, daycare centers, and kindergartens.

In 2007, First Steps diversified into the provision of Sprinkles, another Canadian innovation: a sachet of micronutrients developed by Dr. Stanley Zlotkin at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children that can be sprinkled on food. Working with North Korea’s Institute of Child Nutrition, First Steps has distributed millions of these sachets; in 2012, they exported about C$ 150,000 worth of Sprinkles. Although they don’t post it, First Steps claims to have done an effectiveness study—which we strongly support—and they are now working with North Korean health authorities to make the program national.

In 2012, the organization’s financial statements show expenditures of about C$ 1 million, with fairly lean admin expenses. This could not have been done without perseverance; kudos.

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Tony Namkung

My favorite by far is Christian Friends of Korea, who stand as a model for dealing with the DPRK. True Christians, they do not seek publicity, they do not back down on their faith, and they could teach all of us -- skeptics and diplomats alike -- a lesson or two. Their hosts have long known about their faith -- and their true purpose -- yet welcome them with open arms.


Hi Tony - You make some great points, but can you draw out for us a lesson or two? How do they avoid getting in trouble while others become accidental martyrs so rapidly? Serious question to someone with 100+ trips. You've obviously done something right.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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