Strategies on wise giving at Christmas, and all year
By Naheed NenshiDecember 18, 2008
Canadians are a generous people. About 85 per cent of us give to charity each year, with an average gift of about $400. This money helps fund a significant part of the economy--the non-profit sector employs about two million people in Canada, and accounts for about six times as much of the economy as auto manufacturing.
Much of our giving occurs at this time of year, both as a Christmas tradition for many people and as a year-end tax savings strategy.
Whatever your motivation, once you've decided to give, it makes sense to think about how best to give. After all, if you want to make change in the community, you should find the most effective ways of doing so.
I believe that there are two general rules to giving well: give mostly cash, and treat your giving as you would your financial portfolio.
The first rule is pretty straightforward. It can feel good to give something tangible, like a shoebox filled with trinkets, or a goat to a family in the developing world. Such gifts do have their place--the shoebox, for example, can start children on a lifetime habit of giving. However, such gifts rarely produce lasting impact.
For that to happen, organizations need some unrestricted cash. Sometimes this is used on non-sexy items--a new roof for the office, a better computer system--that nonetheless allow the organization to function and be more effective.
This is also why you should not be too worried about that scary term, "administration costs."While there certainly are some charities who squander money on office expenses, my experience is these are few and far between. Sometimes organizations with slightly higher administrative costs are the most effective, precisely because they are spending money on bookkeepers who carefully track where the money goes, or specialists who continuously track whether programs are having any impact, or even on meetings so people working in different parts of the world can share best practices.
The second rule is to think about how to maximize your social return. One helpful framework is to think about your giving as a portfolio, much as you think about your financial investments. I suggest using three buckets to organize this portfolio.
The first bucket is causes that you are personally close to. If the Cancer Society was there for you when you needed them, or if Scouts changed your life as a kid, or if you, like me, love nothing more than going to the theatre, this is where you support those organizations.
The second bucket is further away. As citizens of the world, we all have issues that we are concerned with that may not impact us directly. This might include global poverty, human rights or environmental degradation. Giving to organizations that deal with the most pressing problems in the world is also a good idea. Sometimes it takes a bit of research--who does the best job on anti-malarial bed-nets, for example, or which is the best community economic development organization? Going with reputable names like the Aga Khan Foundation or CARE or the Stephen Lewis Foundation can be a good bet here. For those who like a little more tangibility, kiva.org provides a chance to loan--not donate--money directly to micro-entrepreneurs around the world, allowing them to invest in their own businesses.
The third bucket deals with issues you may not even know exist in your own community. Much as you may rely on your financial adviser to keep an eye on opportunities in new industries, this is where you might rely on an intermediary to help you--organizations like the United Way or the Calgary Foundation are very close to the issues here in Calgary, and a donation to them helps funnel your money to the most effective agencies working on the most important problems.
One of the best examples of this is the Calgary Herald Christmas Fund. Each year, the Herald chooses agencies focused on issues of poverty and need in this city. The 12 agencies chosen this year are among the very best in our city, and you can be comfortable that a donation to the Fund will be well-used.
And for those (OK, me) who are a bit last minute, there's always a gift card. Canadahelps.org sells one that can be used to donate to any charity in Canada. This can be used as a gift or for your own giving: if you don't have time to choose before Dec. 31, but want the 2008 tax receipt, buy a gift card in your own name, and choose the charities you want to support at your leisure.
Happy holidays and happy giving!
Naheed Nenshi Teaches Non-profit Management At Mount Royal College's Bissett School Of Business.
December 21, 2008
Bleeding Heart Tightwads
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
This holiday season is a time to examine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, but I’m unhappy with my findings. The problem is this: We liberals are personally stingy.
Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.
Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.
Other research has reached similar conclusions. The “generosity index” from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.
The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans — the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.
“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”
Something similar is true internationally. European countries seem to show more compassion than America in providing safety nets for the poor, and they give far more humanitarian foreign aid per capita than the United States does. But as individuals, Europeans are far less charitable than Americans.
Americans give sums to charity equivalent to 1.67 percent of G.N.P., according to a terrific new book, “Philanthrocapitalism,” by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. The British are second, with 0.73 percent, while the stingiest people on the list are the French, at 0.14 percent.
(Looking away from politics, there’s evidence that one of the most generous groups in America is gays. Researchers believe that is because they are less likely to have rapacious heirs pushing to keep wealth in the family.)
When liberals see the data on giving, they tend to protest that conservatives look good only because they shower dollars on churches — that a fair amount of that money isn’t helping the poor, but simply constructing lavish spires.
It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.
According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.
In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It’s great to support the arts and education, but they’re not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)
Conservatives also appear to be more generous than liberals in nonfinancial ways. People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often. If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.
So, you’ve guessed it! This column is a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable. Since I often scold Republicans for being callous in their policies toward the needy, it seems only fair to reproach Democrats for being cheap in their private donations. What I want for Christmas is a healthy competition between left and right to see who actually does more for the neediest.
Of course, given the economic pinch these days, charity isn’t on the top of anyone’s agenda. Yet the financial ability to contribute to charity, and the willingness to do so, are strikingly unrelated. Amazingly, the working poor, who have the least resources, somehow manage to be more generous as a percentage of income than the middle class.
So, even in tough times, there are ways to help. Come on liberals, redeem yourselves, and put your wallets where your hearts are.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
December 25, 2008
The Sin in Doing Good Deeds
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Here’s a question for the holiday season: If a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good works, is that charity or greed? Do we applaud or hiss?
A new book, “Uncharitable,” seethes with indignation at public expectations that charities be prudent, nonprofit and saintly. The author, Dan Pallotta, argues that those expectations make them less effective, and he has a point.
Mr. Pallotta’s frustration is intertwined with his own history as the inventor of fund-raisers like AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days — events that, he says, netted $305 million over nine years for unrestricted use by charities. In the aid world, that’s a breathtaking sum.
But Mr. Pallotta’s company wasn’t a charity, but rather a for-profit company that created charitable events. Critics railed at his $394,500 salary — low for a corporate chief executive, but stratospheric in the aid world — and at the millions of dollars spent on advertising and marketing and other expenses.
“Shame on Pallotta,” declared one critic at the time, accusing him of “greed and unabashed profiteering.” In the aftermath of a wave of criticism, his company collapsed.
One breast cancer charity that parted ways with Mr. Pallotta began producing its own fund-raising walks, but the net sum raised by those walks for breast cancer research plummeted from $71 million to $11 million, he says.
Mr. Pallotta argues powerfully that the aid world is stunted because groups are discouraged from using such standard business tools as advertising, risk-taking, competitive salaries and profits to lure capital.
“We allow people to make huge profits doing any number of things that will hurt the poor, but we want to crucify anyone who wants to make money helping them,” Mr. Pallotta says. “Want to make a million selling violent video games to kids? Go for it. Want to make a million helping cure kids of cancer? You’re labeled a parasite.”
I confess to ambivalence. I deeply admire the other kind of aid workers, those whose passion for their work is evident by the fact that they’ve gone broke doing it. I’m filled with awe when I go to a place like Darfur and see unpaid or underpaid aid workers in groups like Doctors Without Borders, risking their lives to patch up the victims of genocide.
I also worry that if aid groups paid executives as lavishly as Citigroup, they would be managed as badly as Citigroup.
Yet there’s a broad recognition in much of the aid community that a major rethink is necessary, that groups would be more effective if they borrowed more tools from the business world, and that there is too much “gotcha” scrutiny on overhead rather than on what they actually accomplish. It’s notable that leaders of Oxfam and Save the Children have publicly endorsed the book, and it’s certainly becoming more socially acceptable to note that businesses can also play a powerful role in fighting poverty.
“Howard Schultz has done more for coffee-growing regions of Africa than anybody I can think of,” Michael Fairbanks, a development expert, said of the chief executive of Starbucks. By helping countries improve their coffee-growing practices and brand their coffees, Starbucks has probably helped impoverished African coffee farmers more than any aid group has.
Mr. Fairbanks himself demonstrates that a businessman can do good even as he does well. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, hired Mr. Fairbanks’s consulting company and paid it millions of dollars between 2000 and 2007.
In turn, Mr. Fairbanks helped Rwanda market its coffee, tea and gorillas. Rwandan coffee now retails for up to $55 a pound in Manhattan, wages in the Rwandan coffee sector have soared up to eight-fold, and zillionaires stumble through the Rwandan jungle to admire the wildlife. President Kagame thanked Mr. Fairbanks by granting him Rwandan citizenship.
There are lots of saintly aid workers in Rwanda, including the heroic Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, and they do extraordinary work. But sometimes, so do the suits. Isaac Durojaiye, a Nigerian businessman, is an example of the way the line is beginning to blur between businesses and charities. He runs a for-profit franchise business that provides fee-for-use public toilets in Nigeria. When he started, there was one public toilet in Nigeria for every 200,000 people, but by charging, he has been able to provide basic sanitation to far more people than any aid group.
In the war on poverty, there is room for all kinds of organizations. Mr. Pallotta may be right that by frowning on aid groups that pay high salaries, advertise extensively and even turn a profit, we end up hurting the world’s neediest.
“People continue to die as a result,” he says bluntly. “This we call morality.”
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
Jack Lowe President of BlueOrchard, USA (SUPPLIED)
Shveta Pathak on Tuesday, December 30, 2008
At a time when investor confidence across the globe has hit an all-time low and most asset categories having lost attractiveness, institutions expect the micro finance industry emerging as the strongest asset category.
Jack Lowe, President of BlueOrchard, USA, a Swiss micro finance company, says stable returns and low volatility offered by micro finance would make it a preferred asset class.
And this is "because micro finance is closely linked to real economy, the society and has the advantage of managing the current situation better," he said.
Typically, micro finance institutions (MFIs) provide loans and other services to organisations that further offer financial services to those in low-income category. Investors in MFIs, hence, gain returns from the income earned by such institutions, and, at the same time, manage to attain their social responsibility by contributing towards poverty alleviation — the main goal of micro financing. With the UAE Ministry of Economy having been assigned the task of launching a federal strategy to develop a programme to support and finance small start-ups in the UAE, MFIs are hopeful of tapping the market which largely remains untapped, Lowe told Emirates Business in an exclusive interview. Excerpts from the interview:
The global crisis has shaken investor confidence in most asset categories. In such a situation how do you view micro financing?
In such a crisis, it is important to have stable returns. In micro finance, volatility is low and the returns are stable, which is very useful. There has been no depreciation in assets. Micro finance will become an interesting asset class to understand today. The only problem today is that of liquidity. Many institutions have liquidity but they are not investing. They are saving in case there is a disaster. When this mentality goes away we would see a huge amount of funds coming. We too, hence, are working with focus on medium term.
What business sense does micro finance make to an investor?
To an investor, micro finance brings in a lot of qualities. One is lack of volatility in the returns, also very wide geographic diversification that allows reducing risks through diversification. Thirdly, it brings a certain lack of correlation with events. What micro finance debt investments cannot provide is higher than average returns. It only gives average returns. But we also say it gives you a social returns as well. A double benefit in the aspect that many investors, corporations, or pension funds or insurance companies can also say to their investment committees, look we are getting a very decent return and we are also getting an impact on the social side which is our contribution to the world economy and to helping alleviate poverty. Many institutions look at us first because they have that social investment philosophy. That's a form of return as well.
How does an investor make money?
If they want to invest in our mutual fund, a micro finance credit fund, they make a subscription and put in say half a million dollars; interest gets accumulated, a profit is given every quarter, and calculation is so they make decent return at the end of the year. In atypical cases they make whatever a six-month Libor is plus two per cent. That is included in the net asset value. If they want to realise their investment, they sell back to the fund at their net asset value. Besides, there is no fee to go in, fee to come out – it's a net calculation.
Considering the potential that it holds, why the penetration is still low in many countries? Even in the Middle East, figures point out that more than 90 per cent potential is yet to be tapped.
In several countries, the penetration has been low due to regulatory controls. For micro finance institutions to grow more licences have to be given easily. Syria is a big break through where they have just approved the first micro finance non-banking institution, promoted by the Agha Khan Foundation in Geneva. Cultural differences, different mentalities also make it slow. Unawareness is also an issue. Lots of people told me this morning they did not know much about micro finance. There is a lot of teaching element to go through to be able to know what it is, how it works, how you invest, what you can expect as return, and what are the risks.
Is it because countries are getting more relaxed in their regulations pertaining to micro financing?
Yes. We think in several countries within 12 months change in regulations would make it easier for micro finance institutions to start base. We have received some assurances on that front.
What kind of a potential do you see in the Middle East?
It's huge. Micro finance has penetrated only five per cent of the market here, 95 per cent is still to come, as per studies by third parties. This region has more potential it terms of growth than any other region in the world. We have seen very fast growth in Central Asia, Latin America, now it's time for this area to grow very quickly. As Arab investors get to tap into micro finance, it would result in more MFIs in this region reach out to small borrowers and help in building wealth and alleviating poverty.
In which countries are you expecting speedy growth now?
So far Central Asia has seen enormous growth. Now, we are hoping for a fast growth in the Gulf region.
PROFILE: Jack Lowe President of BlueOrchard, USA
Lowe has more than three decades of experience in business and finance. He started his career as a crude oil salesman covering the Far East area.
After coming to Switzerland in 1974, he started several franchising businesses, including McDonald's in Switzerland and Midas in France. In 1986, upon the sale of these businesses, he became a partner of Montgomery Securities and managed their new global investment and brokerage activities. In 1997, post the sale of Montgomery to Bank of America, he acquired several medium-size businesses he now controls, some of which are outside Europe in emerging markets.
Lowe joined BlueOrchard in late 2004. He is Swiss and holds an MBA in finance from Stanford University, USA.
December 29, 2008, 4:31 am
We start a school in Cambodia
By Nicholas Kristof
There was a special reason for the timing of this trip to Cambodia, one you won’t read about in my columns: My family has built a junior high school in Cambodia, and we just had the opening ceremony. We timed it for the Christmas vacation, so our three kids — aged 11 through 16 — could see it. Oh, yes, and so that they could see kids who are desperately eager to get an education.
I’ve been visiting Cambodia for the last dozen years and have been particularly moved by the horrific sex trafficking here. One of the antidotes to prevent trafficking is education, and Cambodia is desperately short of schools. A couple of years ago I wrote about a school in Seattle that had funded a school in Cambodia through American Assistance for Cambodia. I was impressed with the organization and the way it gets extra bang for the buck through matching funds from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. Moreover, in some countries, you build a school and have a nice new building, but the teachers never show up. That’s much less of a problem in Cambodia, where one of the bottlenecks truly is school buildings.
So my wife, Sheryl, and I talked it over and decided to start our own school. We had just received an advance for a book about women in the developing world — “Half the Sky,” coming out this fall! — and it seemed only appropriate to use the money to support girls in a poor country. And we also wanted to show our kids a glimpse of need abroad and the way education can transform people’s lives.
Our school is a middle school a couple of hours east of Phnom Penh, and it was finally finished this month. So Sheryl and I and the kids came here as a family trip, all five of us, and participated in the school-opening ceremony. It was quite an event: Buddhist monks opened it, the deputy governor spoke, and each member of our family spoke briefly. There were about 1,000 people attending, mostly students and their parents, and they got a real kick out of seeing my kids speak.
American Assistance for Cambodia is the brainchild of Bernie Krisher, a former news magazine correspondent who in 1993 started it as an aid group to support Cambodia. He has built 400 schools around the country, as well as health programs and projects to fight sex trafficking. He also publishes the Cambodia Daily, an English-language paper, and even persuaded J.K. Rowling to donate Khmer-language rights to “Harry Potter,” so that cheap Harry Potter books could encourage Cambodian children to start reading. Bernie is truly an extraordinary figure who is having a far-reaching impact on the people of Cambodia, and I’m just proud to know him.
If anyone out there wants to volunteer to teach English in the Cambodian countryside, the principal of our school said he would welcome an American teacher. He said the village would put the teacher up either at the Buddhist pagoda or in a local person’s home. If you’re interested, contact American Assistance for Cambodia to be put in touch with the principal.
Of course, there are lots of other ways to help Cambodia. I met a woman volunteering at teaching English to children at the garbage dump in Phnom Penh; she loves it and finds new meaning in the project. The organization is A New Day Cambodia, run by a Chicago couple and getting rave reviews all around. (There are fewer children at the dump now than when I last visited in 2004, and one reason is the New Day school.) And I had lunch with Alan Lightman, an MIT professor who on the side runs Harpswell Foundation, which provides a free dormitory and leadership training for young Cambodian women who otherwise would not be able to attend university.
In my speech to the new school, I told the kids that I sometimes wondered why America was so rich and Cambodia was so poor. It’s not because Americans are smarter or more industrious than Cambodians, because Cambodians are sharp as a whistle and incredibly hard-working. One of the factors, I believe, is the educational gap, and we’re just so pleased to do our part to reduce that gap.
January 1, 2009
The Evil Behind the Smiles
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
Western men who visit red-light districts in poor countries often find themselves surrounded by coquettish teenage girls laughingly tugging them toward the brothels. The men assume that the girls are there voluntarily, and in some cases they are right.
But anyone inclined to take the girls’ smiles at face value should talk to Sina Vann, who was once one of those smiling girls.
Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.
After that, she was locked on the upper floors of a nice hotel and offered to Western men and wealthy Cambodians. She said she was beaten ferociously to force her to smile and act seductive.
“My first phrase in Khmer,” the Cambodian language, “was, ‘I want to sleep with you,’ ” she said. “My first phrase in English was” — well, it’s unprintable.
Sina mostly followed instructions and smiled alluringly at men because she would have been beaten if men didn’t choose her. But sometimes she was in such pain that she resisted, and then she said she would be dragged down to a torture chamber in the basement.
“Many of the brothels have these torture chambers,” she said. “They are underground because then the girls’ screams are muffled.”
As in many brothels, the torture of choice was electric shocks. Sina would be tied down, doused in water and then prodded with wires running from the 220-volt wall outlet. The jolt causes intense pain, sometimes evacuation of the bladder and bowel — and even unconsciousness.
Shocks fit well into the brothel business model because they cause agonizing pain and terrify the girls without damaging their looks or undermining their market value.
After the beatings and shocks, Sina said she would be locked naked in a wooden coffin full of biting ants. The coffin was dark, suffocating and so tight that she could not move her hands up to her face to brush off the ants. Her tears washed the ants out of her eyes.
She was locked in the coffin for a day or two at a time, and she said this happened many, many times.
Finally, Sina was freed in a police raid, and found herself blinded by the first daylight she had seen in years. The raid was organized by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who herself had been sold into the brothels but managed to escape, educate herself and now heads a foundation fighting forced prostitution.
After being freed, Sina began studying and eventually became one of Somaly’s trusted lieutenants. They now work together, in defiance of death threats from brothel owners, to free other girls. To get at Somaly, the brothel owners kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter. And six months ago, the daughter of another anti-trafficking activist (my interpreter when I interviewed Sina) went missing.
I had heard about torture chambers under the brothels but had never seen one, so a few days ago Sina took me to the red-light district here where she once was imprisoned. A brothel had been torn down, revealing a warren of dungeons underneath.
“I was in a room just like those,” she said, pointing. “There must be many girls who died in those rooms.” She grew distressed and added: “I’m cold and afraid. Tonight I won’t sleep.”
“Photograph quickly,” she added, and pointed to brothels lining the street. “It’s not safe to stay here long.”
Sina and Somaly sustain themselves with a wicked sense of humor. They tease each other mercilessly, with Sina, who is single, mock-scolding Somaly: “At least I had plenty of men until you had to come along and rescue me!”
Sex trafficking is truly the 21st century’s version of slavery. One of the differences from 19th-century slavery is that many of these modern slaves will die of AIDS by their late 20s.
Whenever I report on sex trafficking, I come away less depressed by the atrocities than inspired by the courage of modern abolitionists like Somaly and Sina. They are risking their lives to help others still locked up in the brothels, and they have the credibility and experience to lead this fight. In my next column, I’ll introduce a girl that Sina is now helping to recover from mind-boggling torture in a brothel — and Sina’s own story gives hope to the girl in a way that an army of psychologists couldn’t.
I hope that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will recognize slavery as unfinished business on the foreign policy agenda. The abolitionist cause simply hasn’t been completed as long as 14-year-old girls are being jolted with electric shocks — right now, as you read this — to make them smile before oblivious tourists.
January 15, 2009
Where Sweatshops Are a Dream
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about “labor standards,” I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh.
This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.
The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.
Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.
Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.
“I’d love to get a job in a factory,” said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. “At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it’s hot.”
Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.
I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade.
When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.
My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared — including those in my wife’s ancestral village in southern China — because of sweatshop jobs.
Manufacturing is one sector that can provide millions of jobs. Yet sweatshops usually go not to the poorest nations but to better-off countries with more reliable electricity and ports.
I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and “living wages” have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.
Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It’s a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes — sometimes a month’s salary — in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.
The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things America could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage African imports, called AGOA, and nudge Europe to match it.
Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.
Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.
“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.”
I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
January 18, 2009
Win a Trip You Won’t Forget
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
A few years ago, soon after I returned disconsolate and shellshocked from a trip to Darfur, I found New Yorkers burning with moral outrage.
The spark wasn’t genocide, war or poverty, but rather homelessness — of a red-tailed hawk nicknamed Pale Male. Managers of a Fifth Avenue apartment building had dismantled his nest.
Fury! Television cameras! And public pressure that led to a solution for rebuilding the nest.
I wondered how some of that compassion for a hawk could be rechanneled to help human beings like those I had just seen dying in Darfur. The potential is vast: just imagine if we felt the same sympathy for the 25,000 children who will die today of poverty as we do for, say, a lost and terrified puppy on the street. But it’s very difficult to generate activism for distant people whom we can’t visualize.
So I concocted a contest to take a university student with me on a reporting trip to Africa. I figured that the student’s journey might help connect American students to truly desperate needs abroad.
We’ve held two of these student trips so far, and today I’m delighted to announce the third.
If you apply, you should know that within The Times, my colleagues say that first prize is one trip with Kristof. Second prize is two trips.
But they’re just jealous. The trip may not be comfortable, but if you don’t obsess about rats under the beds, bats in the outhouses or drunken soldiers at checkpoints, then the trip will be memorable and perhaps even life-changing.
If you win, you won’t be practicing tourism but journalism. You’ll blog for nytimes.com and file videos for The Times and for YouTube.
I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I want to engage young people about global issues that I’m passionate about. Second, it’s good journalism, for you’ll bring a tool to reporting from Africa that I no longer have: a fresh eye.
The contest is open to undergraduate or graduate students at American universities. Details for applying are on my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground. You can apply by essay or by video on YouTube, or both. The International Committee of the Red Cross will help me winnow the applicant pool, and I’ll pick the winner.
For my first win-a-trip journey, I chose a Mississippi student, Casey Parks, who had never been out of the country. In rural Cameroon, we came across Prudence Lemokouno, a mother of three who was dying in childbirth. We gave money and donated blood in hopes of saving Prudence. We failed, and we watched Prudence’s life ebb away.
Casey and I visited the Central African Republic and played basketball in a forest clearing — against Pygmies. Then we traveled to insecure areas to understand the human toll of banditry. Our reporting went well: we were held up at gunpoint. Twice.
The second trip, with Leana Wen, a medical student, and Will Okun, a Chicago teacher, started with a tour of booming Rwanda. Then in Congo we dined with a warlord in the jungle — and interviewed villagers raped by his troops.
A documentary of that second trip, “Reporter,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday and will be shown on HBO later this year.
In this brutal economic environment, it’s especially difficult to sustain compassion for people out of our line of sight. But the contest winner can help put a face on global poverty — the child who contracts malaria for want of a $5 bed net.
Grass-roots reporting encourages not only compassion but also a tough-minded appreciation for the messiness of life and the complexity of solutions. In many cases, the family is too poor to buy a bed net not just because of poverty but also because Dad spends the family money on his priority, which is banana beer.
One of the failures of the American education system is that it rarely exposes students to life around the world. As Bill Gates put it in his 2007 Harvard commencement address, “I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world.”
Let’s hope that Barack Obama’s presidency makes public service more appealing. But if you want to save the world, you first must understand it.
So, embed yourself deep within a developing country for a summer or a year. I wish colleges would offer credit for such gritty experiences — and extra credit for getting intestinal worms.
I’ve posted some overseas volunteer possibilities, from helping at a maternity hospital in Somaliland to teaching English to brothel children in India, on my blog. Even if you don’t win my trip, you can still win your own.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
By Roger Gibbins, For the Calgary HeraldJanuary 18, 2009
To this point, public discussions of the economic meltdown have focused largely on how to fix a broken financial system and stimulate a business environment sliding into recession. However, there is another consequence of the meltdown that may strike closer to home as it will hit basic social services, recreational activities, and arts and cultural programs, all of which are delivered in large part by 161,000 charitable and non-profit organizations across the country.
Some parts of this sector, including universities, colleges and hospitals, can speak effectively on their own behalf. However, there are thousands upon thousands of smaller organizations that deliver critically important social, cultural and recreational services, and which are in a very precarious state as we move into 2009.
Many of these organizations rely on charitable donations from individuals and corporations, and these are beginning to fall precipitously as the general economy worsens. For most of us, charitable donations are discretionary spending, and discretionary spending tends to get cut as economic insecurity grows and belts are tightened.
Charities fortunate enough to have endowment funds have seen their investments and thus their revenues slashed, just as seniors have seen their RRSPs and incomes eroded. Charities without endowments often receive an important proportion of their funding from philanthropic organizations such as the Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg Foundations, all of whom are facing shrinkage in their own endowments, leaving them with less capacity to help other organizations.
All of this gets even worse when we realize that most charities operate without significant financial reserves, government grants are precarious at best, and demand for their services is likely to grow when economic times get tough. Although not all charities and non-profits serve vulnerable populations such as low-income Canadians, the newly unemployed, new immigrants, and seniors on fixed incomes, those who do serve such populations will soon be asked to do more with less.
This impending crisis was brought into focus for me by a recent Imagine Canada round table in Toronto. Imagine Canada is the peak organization representing Canada's charitable and non-profit sector, and the purpose of the gathering was to address how the federal government's upcoming stimulus package might help the sector. Unfortunately, good answers were tough to find.
Part of the problem is that the sector is both huge and terribly diverse, ranging from tiny recreational associations to employment services, counselling programs and immigrant settlement agencies to complex, multi-faceted organizations like the United Ways, YMCAs and Salvation Army.
It is much easier to create channels of support for a handful of big firms, such as the automakers, than it is to 160,000 very diverse nonprofit organizations. Nonetheless, all face a common challenge in finding a way to sustain charitable giving as the economy goes pear-shaped.
One way to keep the taps open is to provide greater tax support for charitable giving, and thereby to complement private charity with public charity. We do this already with charitable tax receipts, but we could do more. Hopefully this will be part of the federal government's stimulus package, although even a dramatic increase in tax credits for charitable donations may have little impact on individuals who are deeply concerned about their own financial well-being.
A second strategy is to use some of the stimulus package to increase direct government support for charities, and particularly for those delivering social services to highly vulnerable Canadians. This strategy would not reach very far into the thousands and thousands of small charities, but its effect on the big players and the hundreds of thousands of Canadians they serve would be significant.
A third strategy is to direct some of the inevitable increase in infrastructure funding to the charitable sector, thereby strengthening the capacity of organizations. Given that charities generally work with limited capital support, the impact could again be significant.
At the same time, no single strategy will be sufficient, and even investments across all three will not prevent what will be a very tough year for the charitable sector.
In closing I should note a personal interest in all of this, as the Canada West Foundation itself is a charitable organization navigating very troubled financial seas. However, we are but a very small player in a vast network of charities that enrich the lives of all Canadians in so many ways, and it is this vast and complex network that is at risk. I can only hope that its vulnerability is recognized as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty adds the final touches to his stimulus package. If the charitable sector is ignored, Canadians have a lot to lose.
Roger Gibbins is president and CEO of the Canada west foundation, a public policy research group based in Calgary.
January 25, 2009
Bill Gates’s Next Big Thing
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Here’s a paradox: In these brutal economic times, one of the leading advocates for the world’s poorest people is one of the richest.
Bill Gates will publish his first “annual letter” on Monday outlining his work on his twin passions — health and development in the poorest nations and education in America — and calling for the United States to do more even during this economic crisis. I came here to Seattle for an advance peek at the letter and to ask how he is adjusting to his transition from tycoon to philanthropist.
Mr. Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.
He does seem to be going through withdrawal, for software engineering was his passion. “I miss that,” he said, but added that he is becoming equally maniacal (that’s his word) about poverty and education.
Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, are already having an effect on the developing world that is simply transformative. Just one of their investments, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, has saved more than three million lives since 2000.
That’s a down payment.
In 1960, almost 20 million children died annually before age 5, Mr. Gates notes. There are more children today, yet the death toll has been halved to under 10 million annually. Now his goal is to see it halved again, saving an additional five million children’s lives annually.
“We’re on the verge of some big advances,” Mr. Gates said. In particular, a promising malaria vaccine will enter its final phase of human trials this year, with others behind it. Mr. Gates said he is “absolutely confident” that a successful malaria vaccine will be achieved, probably within a half dozen years, and an AIDS vaccine 10 or more years from now.
Look, I’m a cynical journalist, and I don’t want to sound too infatuated. I think the Gates Foundation has missed the chance to leverage the revolution in social entrepreneurship, hasn’t been as effective in advocacy as it has been in research, and has missed an opportunity to ignite a broad social movement behind its issues.
But if Mr. Gates manages to accomplish as much in the world of vaccines, health and food production as he thinks he can, then the consequences will be staggering. Squared. In that case, the first few paragraphs of Mr. Gates’s obituary will be all about overcoming diseases and poverty, barely mentioning his earlier career in the software industry.
Mr. Gates said he got the idea for an annual letter from Warren Buffett, who writes such a letter ruminating about investments and the business world. (You can sign up to get Mr. Gates’s letter, or read it beginning Monday, at www.gatesfoundation.org.)
In the letter, Mr. Gates goes out of his way to acknowledge setbacks. For example, the Gates Foundation made a major push for smaller high schools in the United States, often helping to pay for the creation of small schools within larger buildings.
“Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” he acknowledges. Small schools succeeded when the principal was able to change teachers, curriculum and culture, but smaller size by itself proved disappointing. “In most cases,” he says, “we fell short.”
Mr. Gates comes across as a strong education reformer, focusing on supporting charter schools and improving teacher quality. He suggested that when he has nailed down the evidence more firmly, he will wade into the education debates.
“It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one,” Mr. Gates writes in his letter. “Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.”
Mr. Gates told me he was optimistic that President Obama would make progress on these issues, notwithstanding the economic crisis, and he noted that the downturn had only added to the need for foreign assistance and education spending. “The poorer you are, the worse the impact is,” he said.
I asked Mr. Gates what advice he had for ordinary readers who might want to engage in micro-philanthropy.
“The key thing is to pick a cause, whether its crops or diseases or great high schools,” he said. “Pick one and get some more in-depth knowledge.” If possible, travel to see the problems firsthand, then pick an organization to support with donations or volunteer time.
So try it. The only difference between you and Mr. Gates is scale.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
By Valerie Fortney, Calgary HeraldFebruary 20, 2009 11:01 AM
He's the first to say he can't move mountains, that the work he does is a mere drop in the bucket in a world in crisis.
But last month, Dr. Chris Brooks moved a mountain of bureaucracy enough to let his truck laden with 40 tons of medical supplies slip into Zimbabwe, the southeast African country plagued with corruption, poverty and a cholera epidemic.
"There was nothing heroic about it at all," says the former Calgarian, anticipating the inevitable response to his adventurous tale. "I just had to stand my ground, and play a political game of cat and mouse."
The youthful 70-year-old, who practised medicine in Banff and Calgary from 1968 to 1998, made the solo trip at the end of January from nearby Malawi, his home for the past decade, and made it into Zimbabwe thanks to sponsorship from its national pharmacy association.
"I tried all the conventional methods-- the embassy, the Red Cross, the World Health Organization--with no luck," says the British expat. "Then I got in through the back door."
Once in Zimbabwe, he managed to convince high-ranking officials to let him, not them, determine where the medicine would be dispensed.
"I wanted it to go to the people who needed it most, not to who voted the politically correct way," says Brooks of the country where President Robert Mugabe has kept an iron, and often brutal, rein on power for more than 30 years.
Over a 10-day period, he worked with local medical personnel in three of the country's mission hospitals, providing emergency medicine to some of the more than 73,000 Zimbabweans (according to the United Nations) stricken by the disease.
"Only three short years ago, Zimbabwe was a beautiful country with well-tended farms as far as the eye could see," says Brooks on Thursday while on a post-mission visit to Calgary. "Now, they're all gone, and all you see are people standing or sitting on the side of the road, their hands stretched out, looking like they've lost all hope."
I met Brooks at his spartan office in Calgary's southeast industrial district, a place he makes sure to visit at least four times a year. It's the headquarters for Lifeline Malawi ( www.lifelinemalawi.com),the organization he formed three years after he moved from Calgary to Malawi with wife Heather and daughter Chloe to work as a doctor at a Swiss-run orphanage. With the strong support of a local donor base that includes several churches, Samaritan's Purse and the Rotary Club, over the past decade Brooks has overseen the creation and running of two clinics in Malawi, fighting to stem the high incidence of diseases such as HIV/ AIDS. Over the years, westerners from all walks of life have travelled to his clinics on humanitarian missions, helping the doctor in his quest to care for the health of the most vulnerable in one of the world's poorest countries.
But woe to the journalist who wants to know too much about the man himself. He doesn't think he's an interesting story in the least, and has no qualms letting me know this; the fact he gave up the good life in Calgary, complete with vintage Mustang and country club membership, is long behind him.
Ask him about the people he helps and those who help him, though, and any coolness quickly evaporates. When he tells of seeing a 10-year-old girl pushing her cholera-stricken grandmother in a wheelbarrow, his eyes mist over as he describes the scene as "heart-rending."
His eyes once again brighten when asked about the support he's received from Calgary, the former home that he says will always have a special place in his heart.
"The Zimbabwe trip cost $15,000, and almost all of that came from people right here," he says, adding that his two clinics in Malawi, which today employ 100 people, "could not survive without the generosity of Calgarians. Our donors have such big hearts."
As clearly does the otherwise pragmatic Brooks, an already-busy humanitarian who is characteristically modest about the reasons for his Zimbabwe mission.
"I just felt a conviction that I was able to do something," he says matter-of-factly of Zimbabwe, a country with a fatality rate from cholera between five per cent and 20 per cent, a number that should be closer to one per cent.
"If anyone could get into Zimbabwe, it would be me," he adds, noting he was able to quell suspicions by greeting people in Chichewa, Malawi's dominant language.
He does admit with a chuckle that at 70, he "might be getting a little too old for this." But when asked if he'd do it again, he doesn't miss a beat.
"If somebody said to me, 'Chris, I'm going to give you funds to go back to Zimbabwe,' I'd do it."
Then the doctor pauses, looks straight into my eyes, and with a "What can I say?" expression on his kind face, offers up just what you'd expect from a man who regularly moves mountains to give hope to the world's poorest beings.
February 22, 2009
Sisters, Victims, Heroes
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
GOZ BEIDA, Chad
So I’m bunking with George Clooney in a little room in a guest house here in eastern Chad, near Darfur in Sudan. We each have a mattress on the floor, the “shower” is a rubber hose that doesn’t actually produce any water, and George’s side of the room has a big splotch of something that sure looks like blood.
He’s using me to learn more about Darfur, and I’m using him to ease you into a column about genocide. Manipulation all around — and, luckily, neither of us snores. (But stay tuned to this series for salacious gossip if he talks in his sleep.)
The slaughter in Darfur has continued for six years largely because world leaders have been complacent and preoccupied. In the coming weeks, the International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for orchestrating the killings — and that will give the world a new opportunity to end the slaughter.
But to seize that opportunity, world leaders will have to summon some of the same moral courage that Darfuris show all the time.
Take Suad Ahmed, who is in the pantheon of my personal heroes. I introduced her to George in her little thatch hut.
Suad, 27, fled from Darfur to a refugee camp in Chad five years ago with her husband and beloved younger sister, Halima, who is now 12 — if she is still alive.
Then Sudan dispatched its janjaweed militias into Chad to slaughter members of black African tribes — applying to eastern Chad the same genocidal policies that had already gutted Darfur.
Shortly before I met Suad two years ago, she was out gathering firewood with Halima. A group of janjaweed fired into the air and yelled at them to stop.
Suad, who was married with two children and another on the way, ordered Halima to run back to camp. Then Suad made a decoy of herself and ran loudly in the opposite direction, making sure that the janjaweed saw her.
That night, after the janjaweed had left, the men from the camp found Suad semiconscious in the bush, brutally beaten and raped.
Suad refused medical treatment, for fear that word would get out that she had been raped, and she didn’t even tell her husband, instead saying that she had been robbed and beaten. Yet she revealed the full story to me and allowed me to use her name.
I grilled her to make absolutely sure she understood the dangers of publicity — from stigma and revenge — and finally asked her why she was willing to assume the risks. She replied simply, “This is the only way I have to fight genocide.”
Ever since, in a world that has proved so craven in the face of Sudan’s genocide, Suad’s courage has haunted me. Thus on this trip I tracked her down and introduced her to George and to Ann Curry of NBC News, who for years has borne powerful witness to the madness of Darfur.
Alas, Suad’s latest news isn’t good. Her back, injured in the beating, still pains her. She doesn’t dare go outside the camp to get firewood, so she must buy wood, which leaves the family poor and short of food. Her baby, Abdel Malik, whom she was carrying at the time of the rape, is one and a half years old and was just hospitalized for malnutrition.
The most heartbreaking news concerns Halima. Ten months ago, Halima decided to go back to Darfur to the camp where her parents were living. They had sent messages that they were sick, and that there were too many soldiers around for them to escape to Chad.
So Halima, at age 11, resolved to walk back through janjaweed lines into Darfur to rescue her parents and bring them to safety.
The girl disappeared into the desert.
“I haven’t heard from her since,” Suad said grimly. “I don’t know if she got there, or if she was killed on route.” Suad has spent a fair amount of money trying to call people in the camp to find out news of her sister and parents, but she has found out nothing. We tried with our satellite phones and couldn’t get through either.
This is my 10th trip to Darfur and the area around it, and people always ask how reporters and aid workers keep their sanity among such horrors. Yet the truth is that genocide spotlights not only the worst of humanity, but also the best — the courage and altruism of people like Suad and Halima.
So the most indelible memories I will take back from the region aren’t from my famous roommate on the mattress beside me, but from uncommon heroes like Suad and Halima. We can learn so much from them.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
The fog of jet lag from the long return flight from Uganda was still evident in Kevin Wiens' face.
But the project leader for Engineering Ministries International Canada (EMI) was crystal clear when asked why he does what he does.
"It's a life-altering experience. It changes you emotionally forever," said Wiens of the work of the organization, which takes Christian design professionals-- engineers, architects, surveyors and the like --to Third World locales to use their talents in a unique, practical ministry.
EMI was launched 27 years ago in the U. S. and now has six offices around the world. The Canadian branch opened in January, 2003, and is based out of a modest, second-storey office which overlooks Calgary's Bowness Road.
The organization assembles teams of six to 10 cross-denominational Christians from the design professions and matches them with missionary groups and faith-based organizations who want to build facilities in developing countries. The professionals pay their own airfare and often use vacation time to volunteer for EMI missions.
In northern Uganda, Wiens' team prepared a topographical survey and produced conceptual drawings for a vocational centre planned by a group called Connect Africa. The complex will train leaders from nearby refugee camps in sustainable technologies for agriculture, locally produced water filters and improved sanitation. Other EMI projects have included designing schools, clinics, orphanages and churches.
Teams spend eight or nine days overseas, working at a breakneck pace around intense rain squalls to get the crucial groundwork in. Back in Canada, they help create the detailed working drawings, often suggesting a phased development as funds become available, which are supplied to the faith-based organizations when they're ready to break ground.
And it's all done free of charge.
Steve Ulrich, director of EMI's Canadian operations and the staff architect, estimates the work the teams accomplish in a week would be valued in the $60,000 range for a similar project in Canada.
"Our mandate is to go where we're asked and serve the poorest of the poor," says Ulrich. "We've all come from the secular professional world and been attracted by this chance to use our skills to serve a different master."
Ulrich says EMI takes pains to ensure their teams are in as safe an environment as possible, given that they are sent to some of the world's most dangerous countries.
When on site, EMI teams are housed in modest hotels or even in tents. They worship with the locals on Sundays, hold daily devotionals and get the chance to interact with the people the buildings they are designing will eventually serve.
David Marquardt, a project manager for Calgary's Midwest Surveys, has volunteered for four EMI Canada projects.
"As a Christian, I was searching for a way to use my professional talents for the benefit of my fellow man," says Marquardt. He experienced his personal spiritual epiphany in Haiti while surveying for an orphanage in one of the world's poorest nations.
"When you get to meet these kids, when you hold some of these tiny little orphaned babies in your arms, it really tears at your heart," says Marquardt. "It makes you realize how lucky we are to live in Canada and how the vast majority of our complaints are so trivial."
Michael Fryer, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Victoria, joined Wiens' team in Uganda last month. He'll help prepare the working drawings in the coming weeks as part of his internship with EMI.
"I was the rodman for the surveyor after they had 'de-snake-ified' the area, if that's a word," Fryer recalls with a laugh. "As a student, it was a great opportunity to work with a multi-disciplinary team on a real project."
For Wiens, a civil engineer by trade, part of EMI's attraction is the chance to work with Christians from many denominations.
"I'm from a Mennonite background, but in a team of six or eight you can get people from just as many churches," says Wiens. "When you're working side-by-side in the jungle, there are no denominational lines."
Since 1981, the international EMI movement has worked on an estimated 800 projects in 27 countries. Ulrich says the Canadian office hopes to continue to co-ordinate six to eight trips a year, despite the global economic recession.
"There's just so much need out there that can't wait," he says.
When Karim Chandani first found out that his eight-year-old daughter has lupus, he cried.
Then he took action.
Since Chandani’s daughter, Jalisa, was diagnosed with the disease last year, the North Vancouver businessman has put the rest of his life on hold to realize his dream of raising more than $4.2 million to open the first Canadian research centre for children and teens suffering from chronic autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. To date, his foundation, Celebs for Kids, has raised more than $2.2 million.
As soon as Chandani, 44, learned there was no research centre in Canada focused on childhood autoimmune diseases, he took it upon himself to raise funds to establish the Ross Petty Research Chair in Pediatric Rheumatology at Children’s Hospital.
“We have good friends from the NHL that I could call on,” says Chandani, explaining why he immediately thought of harnessing the power of celebrity to raise funds. Seven years earlier, he had struck up a friendship with Todd Bertuzzi after the then Canucks player stopped by one of the two Esso stations that Chandani operates.
“We became friends, he introduced me to a couple of other players and I developed lasting friendships with guys like Brad May, Brendan Morrison and others. As time went on, I met more and more players and was invited to many games and events.”
The idea gained further momentum after family friend Shelagh Boyd, who works as a waitress at the Shark Club, joined the cause. “Shelagh told me she knows stars who regularly came into the Shark Club and so she started recruiting... Everyone pitched in and all of a sudden we had over 40 celebrities on board, such as actor Gregory Harrison, Boston Bruins’ Milan Lucic and the Canucks’ Brendan Morrison.”
Celebs for Kids was born.
Brad May says he didn’t hesitate to get involved. “I’m great friends with Karim and our families are close friends,” says May. “I got involved with the charity because of Jalisa and because of the Chandanis’ desire to help not only their daughter but all afflicted with various arthritis diseases. Karim is a beacon of light for all to follow! His leadership and his execution make him an unbelievable friend and leader.”
The sentiment is echoed by Thomas McClary, founding member of the band The Commodores. “When you meet people like Karim, who has given so much to others, how can you not want to do whatever you can to help Celebs for Kids make a difference?” says McClary. “I support his vision.”
NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr hosted this year’s inaugural Celebs For Kids fundraisers, which took place in August at the Sutton Place Hotel and the River Rock Casino Resort.
For almost a year, Chandani’s days have been a whirlwind of meetings with potential sponsors and celebrities. Life is hectic, but Chandani is tireless in his efforts.
“Here’s the beauty of this: Celebs for Kids started for my daughter, but three weeks into it, I realized if I’m lucky, if I start today, my daughter’s kids will benefit from this research, too.”
He credits his wife, Shala, for keeping his spirits strong. “She constantly reminds me that I have a goal and a task and I must complete it,” he says. “She has put up with me not being around for seven or eight months while I was trying to launch the foundation and she never complained . . . she’s amazing. She’s also had to pick up the slack at work and at home.”
His life-altering journey began just after Jalisa turned eight and her parents noticed a bump on her face that wouldn’t go away. “We assumed it was a bug bite, but it grew and grew,” recalls Chandani. “My wife took her to a walk-in clinic.”
Doctors didn’t know what was wrong and ordered tests, but the family didn’t suspect anything serious. In the meantime, Chandani was invited to watch the Stanley Cup finals in L.A. “My friend Brad May, who had played for the Canucks and was now playing for the Anaheim Ducks, invited me down for the big playoff game,” says Chandani.
He was drinking from the Stanley Cup in the Ducks’ changing room when he heard that his daughter had been rushed to B.C. Children’s Hospital for further testing. “I couldn’t get a flight out (of Los Angeles), and not knowing what she had and not being able to do anything about it was killing me. I got there the next day, but doctors still didn’t know... The diagnosis of lupus didn’t come for a month or so after that initial hospital stay.”
After Jalisa was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, one of the most serious forms of the disease, the Chandanis made it their priority to learn everything they could about the condition.
“I was shocked to learn how many children and teens were affected by lupus,” he says, citing the statistic that 5,000 children in B.C. are living with lupus and arthritis. “I also learned that people from the South Asian community are three times more likely to get lupus or arthritis than a Caucasian.
“Often, we take our children and life for granted,” reflects Chandani. “A friend of mine, Dean Duke, really taught me that. At the end of the day, he became my biggest sponsor. He and his staff brought in more than $200,000 for the foundation . . . . So many angels have just came out of nowhere.”
Today, nine-year-old Jalisa is trying to be a regular kid again despite the effects of the disease and the side-effects of the medication she must take.
“She has put on roughly 30 pounds because of the steroids and medication to keep her lupus and arthritis under control,” says Chandani. “It’s tough on her, kids tease her, but my daughter is so strong and has a great attitude.”
Chandani sees his fundraising and other efforts in the fight against lupus as a lifetime commitment.
“I have to do it for all children. I can’t stop,” he says. “I need to do this.”
For information on how you can help children and teens suffering from lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, go to www.celebsforkids.ca. Donations to Celebs for Kids can be sent to the foundation’s office located at 3136 Duchess Avenue, North Vancouver, V7K 3B6
By Sarah McGinnis, Calgary HeraldMarch 27, 2009 7:04 AM
Calgary Catholic teachers have cancelled a fundraiser for AIDS relief in Africa after Bishop Fred Henry spoke out against a prominent Canadian and his foundation's AIDS prevention programs, which include promoting condoms.
But with the Stephen Lewis Foundation donating hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to several church-run AIDS programs in Africa, Lewis said Henry's efforts to "excommunicate" the charity are only going to hurt Catholics there.
"The bishop didn't stop to think, when you say to teachers you can't raise money for a foundation that is directly supporting Catholic projects in Africa, then you are discriminating against those projects. You are harming your own people," Lewis said.
Teachers at the Calgary Catholic School District have been passing the hat among themselves during Lent for the past five years to raise money for the Stephen Lewis Foundation's AIDS work in sub-Saharan Africa.
Last year, teachers raised $45,000 through personal and matching donations, said Calgary Catholic Teachers' Association president David Cracknell.
But in December, a parishioner approached Henry with questions about teachers raising funds for an organization that uses condoms in its AIDS prevention programs, he said.
Henry met Cracknell to discuss the issue, then sent a letter to the teachers' association encouraging members to focus their fundraising efforts on other organizations in Africa that share Catholic values.
"For me, it's been a difficult issue," said Cracknell.
"I understand the commitment our teachers have toward helping people in Africa with AIDS. I understand the fact Stephen Lewis is a very prominent Canadian, and people are very committed to his charity. But I also understand the bishop is our moral guide."
In a letter to the editor, Henry said the Christian virtues of chastity, abstinence and fidelity are "the most effective means of primary HIV prevention," and should not be pushed aside as valid prevention options in favour of passing out condoms.
When asked about his opposition to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Henry said teachers do have other options in supporting AIDS charity efforts in Africa.
"If you have two businesses or organizations, one that doesn't support your values and mission statement and an-other that does, which one are you going to support? I think that the answer is obvious," Henry told the Herald in an e-mail.
"In this case, the African Jesuit Aids Network better reflects who we are and what we are about."
The Calgary Catholic Teachers' Association is evaluating whether it will organize fund-raisers for Lewis's foundation in future.
March 29, 2009
A Boy Living in a Car
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
CAP HAITIEN, Haiti
As America’s unemployment rate rises, those paying the severest price aren’t necessarily in Detroit or Miami. One of the newest street children here in this northern Haitian city is a 10-year-old boy whose father was working in Florida but lost his job and can no longer send money home. As a result, the family here was evicted, the mother and children went separate ways to improve their odds of finding shelter, and the boy found refuge in an abandoned wreck of a car.
The boy is one of 46 million people in the developing world — more than double the New York State population — who will be driven into poverty in 2009, according to a World Bank estimate.
In Haiti’s largest slum, Cité Soleil, in the capital, Port-au-Prince, I stumbled upon a one-room public school. The principal, Claude Lafaille, lamented that enrollment had dropped from 150 at the start of the year to 60 today.
“Haitians in America stopped sending money back, and so their family members can’t pay fees,” he said.
The school used to provide free breakfasts to ensure that students got at least one solid meal a day. But in January, the charity that provided the food had to stop because its donations were dropping, so now the remaining children are often too hungry to concentrate.
In the St. Catherine Labouré hospital in Port-au-Prince, the number of children admitted for malnutrition has approximately doubled since September, said a pediatrician, Dr. Armide Jeanty. She pointed to a 15-month-old child, Richardson, skeletal and covered with sores. He stared blankly, for when children are severely malnourished their bodies shut down and do not waste energy crying, laughing or smiling.
It’s natural in an economic crisis to look inward, to focus on America’s own needs, but it’s worth remembering that the consequence of a deep recession in a poor country isn’t just a lost job but also a lost child.
In Cité Soleil, a woman named Chantal Dorlus told me that her 5-year-old daughter, Nasson, starved to death last month, and neighbors confirmed the account. Ms. Dorlus said that her three other children would have starved as well if not for the generosity of her neighbors, who share their meager food supplies.
If slum-dwelling Haitians can share what little they have, I hope we can be equally generous during this downturn when needs are greatest.
On this trip, I met a couple of American women, Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell, both in their early 30s, who offer an example of outward commitment at a time when most of us are retrenching and focusing on ourselves. Sasha and Sarah run a hand-to-mouth aid group, called SOIL; they speak fluent Creole and get around on motorcycle taxis while waving back at legions of fans on every street. (You can watch a video of them at nytimes.com/ontheground.)
I was interested in their work because it addresses two of the developing world’s greatest but least glamorous challenges. One is sanitation, for human waste in poor countries routinely spreads disease and parasites. The second is agriculture, for poor countries must increase crop yields if they are to overcome poverty and hunger.
Sasha and Sarah create dry composting toilets that turn human waste into valuable fertilizer. They say that the yearlong composting process kills the pathogens in the waste, making it safe to use the fertilizer.
Frankly, I was taken aback when, 10 minutes after they had met me, they pulled out a Ziploc bag and proudly declared that it was compost made from their own toilet. They were so impressed with what they had accomplished that I felt obliged to take a whiff and hold it in my fingers; it simply felt and smelled like rich potting soil, and I would never have guessed its origins.
Haitian farmers use virtually no fertilizer — less than a pound per acre, compared with about 90 pounds in the United States — and soils are severely depleted. But Sasha calculates that if half of Haitians’ human waste could be used as fertilizer, that would amount to a 17-fold increase in fertilizer use, more than doubling the country’s agricultural production.
Sasha and Sarah have deployed 45 of their toilets, and now they are trying to introduce a municipal composting system in Cap Haitien.
I don’t know if this is feasible. But I love the idea that even when the needs of the United States are so immense, a couple of young Americans aren’t complaining or finger-pointing, but are hard at work to assist others whose distress is incomparably greater than our own.
April 2, 2009
At Stake Are More Than Banks
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
As world leaders gather in London for the Group of 20 summit meeting, the most wrenching statistic is this: According to World Bank estimates, the global economic crisis will cause an additional 22 children to die per hour, throughout all of 2009.
And that’s the best-case scenario. The World Bank says it’s possible the toll will be twice that: an additional 400,000 child deaths, or an extra child dying every 79 seconds.
“In London, Washington and Paris, people talk of bonuses or no bonuses,” Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president, said this week. “In parts of Africa, South Asia and Latin America, the struggle is for food or no food.”
That’s what makes the G-20 summit — and Europe’s penchant for sniping at the United States instead of doing more to resolve the mess — so frustrating. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is obstinately resisting a coordinated global stimulus package, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France threatened to walk out if he didn’t get his way and the Czech leader threw a tantrum.
For Americans like me who deeply believe in multilateralism, all this is enormously disappointing and makes us doubt Europe’s seriousness.
Granted, there are some exceptions here. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, has a steady hand on his economy and has pioneered approaches to bank nationalization that we could learn from. But much of Europe seems paralyzed.
Japan’s prime minister, Taro Aso, drew on the lessons of Japan’s “lost decade” to scold Germany in an interview with The Financial Times for its dithering about a stimulus. When a Japanese prime minister scolds you for passivity, you know you’re practically a zombie.
As usual, the greatest price for incompetence at the summit will be borne by the poorest people in the world — who aren’t represented there and who never approved any bad loans.
I’m just back from Haiti and the Dominican Republic where I saw the impact of the crisis firsthand. In the Haitian slum of Cité Soleil, ravenous children tore at some corncobs that my guide had brought; it was their first food that day.
In a slum hospital, where admissions for malnutrition have doubled since September, I met a woman who used to sell shoes on the street. Shoe sales dropped with the sagging economy, so the woman was forced to use her sales revenue to buy food for her child instead of to replace inventory. Now she has no more merchandise to sell, no food to eat and the child she cradled was half dead with starvation.
Ann Veneman, the executive director of Unicef, says that reports coming in from the field suggest that malnutrition rates are rising.
“If you have prolonged malnutrition in kids, it will have a long-term impact on cognitive abilities,” she said. “It impacts your ability to learn in school and to earn as an adult.”
Impoverished parents in developing countries often try to keep their sons alive in famines by taking food from their daughters, so mortality is disproportionately female. The United Nations Development Program says that in some countries, the increase in child mortality during an economic downturn is five times higher for girls than for boys.
One of the most preposterous ideas floating about is that the world’s poor feel “entitled” to assistance. Entitled?
Wall Street plutocrats display a sense of entitlement when they demand billions for bailouts. But whether at home or abroad, the poor typically suffer invisibly and silently.
Oxfam has calculated that financial firms around the world have already received or been promised $8.4 trillion in bailouts. Just a week’s worth of interest on that sum while it’s waiting to be deployed would be enough to save most of the half-million women who die in childbirth each year in poor countries.
The 500 richest people in the world, according to a U.N. calculation a few years ago, earned more than the 416 million poorest people. It’s worth bearing in mind that the first group bears a measure of responsibility for the global economic mess but will get by just fine, while the latter group has no responsibility and will suffer the worst consequences.
If the G-20 leaders want to address these needs, there are many ways they can do so with negligible sums. Mr. Zoellick at the World Bank is pushing a trade support program to help developing countries sustain their trade. Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance pioneer who won the Nobel Peace Prize, urges the G-20 leaders to create a fund to invest in organizations that offer small loans or otherwise bolster commerce in poor countries.
So what will it be? More squabbling and recalcitrance, or something constructive for those whose lives are at stake in this downturn?
April 5, 2009
Pregnant (Again) and Poor
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
For all the American and international efforts to fight global poverty, one thing is clear: Those efforts won’t get far as long as women like Nahomie Nercure continue to have 10 children.
Global family-planning efforts have stalled over the last couple of decades, and Nahomie is emblematic both of the lost momentum and of the poverty that results. She is an intelligent 30-year-old woman who wanted only two children, yet now she is eight months pregnant with her 10th.
As we walked through Cité Soleil, the Haitian slum where she lives, her elementary-school-age children ran stark naked around her. The $6-a-month rental shack that they live in — four sleep on the bed, six on the floor beside it — has no food of any kind in it. The family has difficulty paying the fees to keep the children in school.
There’s simply no way to elevate Nahomie’s family, and millions like it around the world, unless we help such women have fewer children. And yet family-planning programs have been shorn of resources and glamour for a generation now.
Nahomie is one of 200 million women worldwide who, according to United Nations estimates, have what demographers call an “unmet need” for safe and effective contraception. That is, they don’t want to get pregnant but don’t use a modern form of family planning.
This “unmet need” results in 70 million to 80 million unwanted pregnancies annually, the United Nations says, along with 19 million abortions and 150,000 maternal deaths.
The push for contraception was at the center of development efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, but then waned. In part, it was tarnished by its own zealotry, including coercion in China and India. Another reason was abortion politics, which led to a cutoff in American financing for the United Nations Population Fund — even though the upshot was more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions.
In addition, family planning turned out to be harder than many enthusiasts had expected, for it requires far more than condoms or the pill. Haiti has family-planning clinics, spending on contraception is fairly high, and women say they want fewer children — yet only one-quarter of Haitian women use contraceptives.
Nahomie’s story helps explain the enigma. She tried injectables, but she says they caused excess bleeding that frightened her. The clinic had little counseling to explain and reassure her, so she stopped after nine months.
A sexually transmitted infection at the time meant that she couldn’t use an IUD just then, and a doctor told her that the pill would be inappropriate because she has vascular problems. Reluctant to return to a clinic that seemed scornful of poor women, she drifted along with nothing.
A couple of babies later, her first husband left her, and her next husband wanted to have children with her, so she acquiesced. A few children later, she began to push back, but in Haiti’s social structure she felt she had to accede to her husband’s whims. “I asked to use condoms,” Nahomie said, “but he refused.” Last fall, shortly after she became pregnant with her 10th child, her husband ran off.
A book published a few years ago, “Reproducing Inequities,” notes that we are, painstakingly, learning what does work. The effective strategies go beyond the contraceptive devices themselves to include better counseling, more dignity for women in clinics, a greater choice of methods that are completely free — and a broad effort to raise the status of women.
The best way to elevate women, by far, is to educate girls and to give them opportunities to earn income through micro-loans, factory jobs or vocational training. It is sometimes said that the best contraceptive isn’t the pill or the IUD, but education for girls.
(A side note: Whenever I write about efforts to save children from malaria or diarrhea, I get cynical letters from neo-Malthusians who argue that saving children’s lives is pointless until birthrates drop. That’s incorrect. There’s abundant evidence that when parents are confident that their children will live, they will have fewer and invest more in each of them.)
In any case, the mounting academic evidence underscores what is intuitively obvious in Haiti: unless family planning is more successful in poor countries, they won’t be able to overcome poverty. “There’s no other way,” says Tania Patriota, the representative of the United Nations Population Fund in Haiti. “It’s indispensable.”
President Obama has already lifted the ban on aid for the Population Fund, and we now have an opportunity to lead a global effort to regain lost momentum for family planning. And while Nahomie’s story shows that this won’t be easy, it also underscores that there’s simply no alternative.
International Volunteer Week is taking place April 19 – 25, 2009, and to celebrate the occasion, I’ll be spearheading an initiative where I’ll live life without shoes for the entire week. As they say, “You never really know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes,” so I’m taking it a step further: I’m going barefoot!
I am asking fellow students, teachers and the general public to do the same, or as long as they can, to better understand the struggles faced by underprivileged children in the developing world – many of whom cannot afford shoes, let alone attend school or even know where their next meal is coming from.
Children in these countries walk miles in their bare feet every day to fetch water, work on their farm lands, go to school, or perform other chores. For many of them, the first priority is to take care of their families.
I am happy to say that people such as Nigel Fisher, president of UNICEF Canada, is on board. Also taking part is ORCA book publishers, award-winning novelist Eric Walters, World Partnership Walk deputy convenor Leigh McMaster-Virani, and most importantly, schools in Ottawa, Calgary and Montreal. The idea is also gaining momentum in countries as far away as Australia, Afghanistan, England, Thailand, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. The word on the initiative is travelling fast!
I am also featured in a documentary, Yes We Can!, produced by In Sync video, which is premiering on April 19, 2009 at the Sprockets Film Festival in Toronto, where the campaign is planned to officially kick off.
I’m urging everyone to spend just one hour bare feet any day during International Volunteer Week. Even better, you can spend a half or even a full day bare feet at work, at school or at home. What are you prepared to do to make the world a better place?
Going barefoot to raise awareness about poverty Bilaal Rajan, 12, hopes to recruit others
April 15, 2009
At least one pair of tired black dress shoes will get a rest next week, as 12-year-old Bilaal Rajan intends to go barefoot.
And he hopes to recruit others, not in a protest against his school's dress code, but instead to raise awareness about children and poverty during International Volunteer Week, which begins Sunday.
The initiative, dubbed the Walk a Mile Barefoot Challenge, stems from the adage about understanding another person's perspective by walking a mile in his or her shoes.
"It's simply to raise awareness to the fact that really there are so many children in other parts of the world that don't have something simple like shoes," Bilaal said in an interview yesterday from his home in Richmond Hill, Ont.
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"It's really about awareness, I realize that money is important and another way we'd be able to help, but how is anyone going to be able to help when they don't know what they're supporting, when they don't know the dire situation that other people are in?"
Bilaal's foray into fundraising began at the age of four with a box of clementines. Going door to door selling the small, sweet fruit, he raised $350 for earthquake victims in India.
He was eight years old when he was appointed as a child ambassador for UNICEF Canada and recently published a book, Making Change: Tips from an Underage Overachiever.
Throughout his young life, Bilaal has raised nearly $5-million for various children's causes, and last year he was named one of the country's Top 20 Under 20 by not-for-profit organization Youth in Motion.
Bilaal will kick off the barefoot challenge Sunday at the Sprockets film festival in Toronto, where he is the subject of a documentary set to premier at the event.
The idea for the barefoot challenge was hatched during a five-kilometre walk and fundraiser that Bilaal said was "pretty difficult, but I began to wonder how hard it would be to walk five kilometres without shoes."
The eighth grader has recruited nearly 500 participants through his Facebook page, and 150 students from his middle school at St. Andrew's College in Aurora, Ont., to abandon footwear for at least a day next week.
His parents, who own and operate a wholesale food distribution service, will be more reluctant participants: His mother, Shamim Rajan, has pledged to spend a day at home without shoes, but intends to have a box of bandages at the ready.
"I am concerned, he's going to play tennis in bare feet!" she said, referring to Bilaal's Wednesday practise with the school's tennis team.
Asked if he was hoping for good weather next week, Bilaal said he actually hoped for snow and ice.
"Then it'll be even better, because even more will we see how hard it is to live the life of others," he said.
April 19, 2009
Changing Lives, Mitt by Mitt
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
AZUA, Dominican Republic
Whenever I write about global poverty, I’m deluged by readers with variants of a single question: What can I do?
It’s a vexing query, partly because thousands of excellent aid groups compete for your checkbook, and I don’t feel qualified to make endorsements — even if I were a philanthropic adviser, which I’m certainly not.
That said, let me tell you about my own visit recently to Yuneiris, a boy in the Dominican Republic (who turns 6 years old today — happy birthday, Yuneiris!). I’ve sponsored him since 2004 through Plan USA, a major aid group, and since I was in Haiti on a reporting trip I arranged a visit while I was in the neighborhood.
Look, I don’t know that sponsorship is the most cost-effective way of helping. Some people make small business loans on kiva.org, or support girls’ education, or buy anti-malaria bed nets, or pay for deworming children, or donate to organizations that battle modern slave traders, or underwrite trained rats that sniff out land mines. This is simply one more way in which almost anyone can lend a hand — and I do know that it felt pretty wonderful to meet a little boy whom I’d been supporting for five years.
I met Plan officials in Azua, in the particularly poor southwestern part of the Dominican Republic, and from there we drove together to the village and found Yuneiris and his family. He was beaming shyly at me — but especially at the baseball and glove I was carrying as a present for him.
Although I had also brought a load of books, pens, crayons and a soccer ball, it was clear where Yuneiris’s interest lay. He answered my questions about school politely, but his eyes were riveted on the baseball glove.
“There aren’t a lot of kids in the area who have a glove,” explained his mother, Cecilia. As soon as the conversation shifted, Yuneiris wriggled out of his seat and disappeared with the ball and glove to practice throwing with a chum.
I didn’t choose Plan over other sponsorship organizations through any elaborate research. As a backpacking student traveler in 1984 I had visited Aziza, a girl my parents were then sponsoring in Sudan through Plan, and my visit left me enormously impressed. So when I joined The Times later that year and began drawing a paycheck, I signed up myself and became one of the one million people worldwide sponsoring a child through Plan.
So I send in $24 a month, along with periodic letters, photos and birthday gifts. Every now and then, a letter arrives from my child’s family, with a drawing, a photo or a simple note from a family member, translated into English.
Through the letters, I learned that Yuneiris was living with Cecilia and other family members in a ramshackle wooden house. Cecilia worked as a domestic servant in the capital, Santo Domingo, returning to the village every other weekend.
Sponsorship is a bit of a marketing gimmick, since the donor’s money doesn’t go directly to the child’s family (which might spend it on beer). The funds underwrite community projects like new wells, toilets and clinics. Local people must volunteer their labor and some materials, and Plan supplies the money and the expertise.
Cecilia has taken courses, paid for by Plan, to learn how to use a computer and a cash register, so she hopes to find a better-paying job this year. In addition, Plan is starting up a microfinance group for women in the area, and the family would like to borrow to start a small baby-sitting and after-school tutoring business in the home.
Many people doubt the effectiveness of foreign aid, and a new best-selling book called “Dead Aid” by an African finance expert, Dambisa Moyo, even argues that government-to-government assistance is often harmful to recipient countries. It’s true that aid of all kinds is harder to get right than people usually assume, but the kind that has the best record is grass-roots investment — with strong local buy-in — in health, education, agriculture and microfinance. I’ve repeatedly seen these kinds of programs transform families and communities, from Africa to Afghanistan.
Frankly, this kind of aid is also pretty beneficial to the donor. For my part, I gain far more than $24 a month in psychic value from sponsoring Yuneiris, and my family’s tiny foreign assistance projects also remind my own kids that there is a world out there in which children have needs greater than the latest iPod.
Will my dollars and letters utterly transform Yuneiris’s life? Probably not. Will they make a significant difference? Probably yes. Is it worthwhile? For me, absolutely!
And if Yuneiris ends up pitching for the Yankees, I’m pretty sure he’ll get me season tickets.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
April 19, 2009
Op-Ed Guest Columnist
It’s 2009. Do You Know Where Your Soul Is?
I AM in Midtown Manhattan, where drivers still play their car horns as if they were musical instruments and shouting in restaurants is sport.
I am a long way from the warm breeze of voices I heard a week ago on Easter Sunday.
“Glorify your name,” the island women sang, as they swayed in a cut sandstone church. I was overwhelmed by a riot of color, an emotional swell that carried me to sea.
Christianity, it turns out, has a rhythm — and it crescendos this time of year. The rumba of Carnival gives way to the slow march of Lent, then to the staccato hymnals of the Easter parade. From revelry to reverie. After 40 days in the desert, sort of ...
Carnival — rock stars are good at that.
“Carne” is flesh; “Carne-val,” its goodbye party. I’ve been to many. Brazilians say they’ve done it longest; they certainly do it best. You can’t help but contract the fever. You’ve got no choice but to join the ravers as they swell up the streets bursting like the banks of a river in a flood of fun set to rhythm. This is a Joy that cannot be conjured. This is life force. This is the heart full and spilling over with gratitude. The choice is yours ...
It’s Lent I’ve always had issues with. I gave it up ... self-denial is where I come a cropper. My idea of discipline is simple — hard work — but of course that’s another indulgence.
Then comes the dying and the living that is Easter.
It’s a transcendent moment for me — a rebirth I always seem to need. Never more so than a few years ago, when my father died. I recall the embarrassment and relief of hot tears as I knelt in a chapel in a village in France and repented my prodigal nature — repented for fighting my father for so many years and wasting so many opportunities to know him better. I remember the feeling of “a peace that passes understanding” as a load lifted. Of all the Christian festivals, it is the Easter parade that demands the most faith — pushing you past reverence for creation, through bewilderment at the idea of a virgin birth, and into the far-fetched and far-reaching idea that death is not the end. The cross as crossroads. Whatever your religious or nonreligious views, the chance to begin again is a compelling idea.
Last Sunday, the choirmaster was jumping out of his skin ... stormy then still, playful then tender, on the most upright of pianos and melodies. He sang his invocations in a beautiful oaken tenor with a freckle-faced boy at his side playing conga and tambourine as if it was a full drum kit. The parish sang to the rafters songs of praise to a God that apparently surrendered His voice to ours.
I come to lowly church halls and lofty cathedrals for what purpose? I search the Scriptures to what end? To check my head? My heart? No, my soul. For me these meditations are like a plumb line dropped by a master builder — to see if the walls are straight or crooked. I check my emotional life with music, my intellectual life with writing, but religion is where I soul-search.
The preacher said, “What good does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Hearing this, every one of the pilgrims gathered in the room asked, “Is it me, Lord?” In America, in Europe, people are asking, “Is it us?”
Well, yes. It is us.
Carnival is over. Commerce has been overheating markets and climates ... the sooty skies of the industrial revolution have changed scale and location, but now melt ice caps and make the seas boil in the time of technological revolution. Capitalism is on trial; globalization is, once again, in the dock. We used to say that all we wanted for the rest of the world was what we had for ourselves. Then we found out that if every living soul on the planet had a fridge and a house and an S.U.V., we would choke on our own exhaust.
Lent is upon us whether we asked for it or not. And with it, we hope, comes a chance at redemption. But redemption is not just a spiritual term, it’s an economic concept. At the turn of the millennium, the debt cancellation campaign, inspired by the Jewish concept of Jubilee, aimed to give the poorest countries a fresh start. Thirty-four million more children in Africa are now in school in large part because their governments used money freed up by debt relief. This redemption was not an end to economic slavery, but it was a more hopeful beginning for many. And to the many, not the lucky few, is surely where any soul-searching must lead us.
A few weeks ago I was in Washington when news arrived of proposed cuts to the president’s aid budget. People said that it was going to be hard to fulfill promises to those who live in dire circumstances such a long way away when there is so much hardship in the United States. And there is.
But I read recently that Americans are taking up public service in greater numbers because they are short on money to give. And, following a successful bipartisan Senate vote, word is that Congress will restore the money that had been cut from the aid budget — a refusal to abandon those who would pay such a high price for a crisis not of their making. In the roughest of times, people show who they are.
So much of the discussion today is about value, not values. Aid well spent can be an example of both, values and value for money. Providing AIDS medication to just under four million people, putting in place modest measures to improve maternal health, eradicating killer pests like malaria and rotoviruses — all these provide a leg up on the climb to self-sufficiency, all these can help us make friends in a world quick to enmity. It’s not alms, it’s investment. It’s not charity, it’s justice.
Strangely, as we file out of the small stone church into the cruel sun, I think of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, whose now combined fortune is dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty. Agnostics both, I believe. I think of Nelson Mandela, who has spent his life upholding the rights of others. A spiritual man — no doubt. Religious? I’m told he would not describe himself that way.
Not all soul music comes from the church.
Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE, is a contributing columnist for The Times.
May 10, 2009
The Killer No One Suspects
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
On this Mother’s Day, let’s not only reach for flowers and dinners but also think of how we might make motherhood itself a bit happier.
One answer would be to confront the disease that kills more children than any other around the world. Quick, what do you think that might be? Hint: It’s not diarrheal disease (the No. 2 killer), malaria, measles or AIDS.
A further hint: It was threatening to kill an 18-month-old boy, Ousseynou Thiam, in a hospital in Dakar, Senegal. He lay on his back, his chest heaving, struggling frantically for breath, as his mother, Khady Thiam, hovered over him, her eyes ablaze with fear.
“He’s very seriously ill, for he’s not getting oxygen,” said the doctor, Boubacar Camara. “It’s too soon to tell what will happen. He may live. Or he may die.”
I’m taking a University of South Carolina sophomore, Paul Bowers, with me on my third “win-a-trip” journey through Africa, and watching a child at the edge of death marked a somber first leg of our trip. But traveling with a student gives me an excuse to step back and focus on immense challenges that we in journalism neglect because they’re not new enough to be “news.”
One of these is pneumonia, the ailment that was threatening to destroy not only Khady’s Mother’s Day but also her child’s chance of living even one more day. Pneumonia gets very little attention from donors or the public health community, yet it kills more than two million children a year, according to Unicef and the World Health Organization.
To put it another way, if you spend five minutes reading this column, at least 19 kids will die of pneumonia in that time. That’s more than will die of AIDS, malaria and measles combined.
Yet pneumonia goes ignored. It is the orphan of global health, attracting negligible investment.
To their great credit, advocates working against AIDS and malaria have goaded Western governments into spending significant sums on prevention and treatment. The result is that an AIDS diagnosis is no longer an immediate death sentence, and malaria infection rates are tumbling in some countries.
Meanwhile, pneumonia keeps on killing, while barely registering on the public consciousness. On Friday, the biggest pneumonia-related cause on Facebook (PS — Pneumonia Sucks) had 785 members — while the top five health-related causes had a combined 14.1 million.
But pneumonia is finally beginning to get traction. Last month, a group of health advocates including Save the Children announced that the first World Pneumonia Day will be Nov. 2, backed by an informative new Web site, worldpneumoniaday.org. At the same time, Hedge Funds vs. Malaria, an advocacy and fund-raising group, changed its name to Hedge Funds vs. Malaria and Pneumonia.
This incipient campaign against pneumonia could make a huge difference in Africa and Asia, because this is a cheap and simple way to save children’s lives.
On the second stop of our win-a-trip journey, Paul and I visited the impoverished former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, farther down the coast of West Africa. A 2-year-old boy named Paulino Biague arrived half-dead in the National Hospital suffering from convulsions; he turned out to have both malaria and pneumonia.
“If he hadn’t come in, he would have died,” said the doctor, Alfredo Manuel Biague. “And if he lived in a village in the countryside, he would have died.”
The hospital in Guinea-Bissau is dark and bleak, with women in labor crowded two to a bed, with electricity periodically failing and plunging the buildings into darkness. Yet doctors were able to put Paulino on anti-malarials and antibiotics immediately, and within a day he was out of danger.
A course of antibiotics used to treat pneumonia can cost only 27 cents.
Many Americans doubt whether foreign aid is effective, and it’s true that helping people is harder than it looks. Yet health programs have a particularly strong record (as do education and business-related initiatives like microfinance). One result of health campaigns is that the number of children dying by their fifth birthday has been cut in half since 1960, from 20 million annually to less than 10 million.
Children with AIDS and malaria already have advocates, so anyone looking for a cause should grab pneumonia and run with it. Think of it not as a grim and depressing initiative, but as potentially a happy turnaround opportunity, for these kids’ lives can be so breathtakingly easy to save.
In Dakar, doctors put an oxygen mask on little Ousseynou, to help him breathe, and gave him antibiotics. Already, doctors tell me via e-mail that he’s much improved and will almost certainly pull through — making this the most joyous Mother’s Day imaginable for Khady.
Staff photo by Daniel Ho
The End to Global Poverty Foundation organized a barbecue yesterday at the Loblaws on Mavis and Dundas in support of the relief effort for recent earthquake victims in Italy. Pasquale Montalbano volunteered as burger chef. EMAIL PRINT REPORT TYPO
By: John Bkila
May 10, 2009 03:20 PM - Almost 40 years ago, 17-year-old Rahim Mawani's mother was one of the 80,000 South Asians expelled from Uganda, and Italy was one of the few countries that took them in.
Affected by the earthquake that devastated Italy in April, Mawani and his nine-year-old brother Amyn felt the urge to host a charity barbecue in Mississauga yesterday to support the country that helped their relatives in the 1970s.
The earthquake killed more than 150 people and injured thousands more in the Italian city of L'Aquila, about 120 km northeast of Rome.
"We wanted to remember how the Italian people helped out our community," said Rahim, a Grade 12 student from Father Michael Goetz Secondary School.
Taking place at the Loblaws Superstore at Mavis Rd. and Dundas St. W., the charity event was sponsored by the grocery chain, which donated all the food and drinks for the day.
Organizers hoped to raise $10,000 from donations and food, T-shirt, wristband, and button sales.
All proceeds will go toward helping the earthquake victims through End To Global Poverty, a new organization founded by Rahim and Amyn.
The foundation's mission is to influence parliaments around the world to institute a World Fasting Day as a way to recognize those living in poverty and work toward ending the global issue, said senior administrator Nairisha Batada, 16, and a Grade 11 student at Rick Hansen Secondary.
The Mawani brothers got the idea for the foundation after years of taking part in The World Partnership Walk, Canada's largest annual event dedicated to increasing awareness and raising funds to fight global poverty.
"After raising $13,000 for that cause we decided to create our own organizaton," said Mawani. "That's what I want to do with my life, help others."
Amyn said he was happy to have co-founded such a great cause.
"I'd really like to see an end to global poverty," said the Grade 4 Ellengale Public School student.
The barbecue event had 30 to 40 youth volunteers from grades 4-12 from Ellengale Public School and Father Michael Goetz, Rick Hansen and St. Marcellinus Secondary Schools.
"I originally had gathered just 20 volunteers and then they told their friends, so it exploded from there," said Mawani.
Currently the End To Global Poverty foundation is made up of 10 people from Mississauga and the GTA.
One of my favourite films this year was the Oscarwinning movie Slumdog Millionaire. It's the rags-to-riches story of an orphan boy who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, and wins the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Jamal, the unlikely hero, is investigated for cheating. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, with Jamal explaining how an uneducated slumdog knows the answer to each question. Each answer is related to a traumatic experience from his unthinkable childhood.
The film, which quickly establishes a mood of fantasy, has its critics for making light of the sombre subject of human trafficking. But by dressing up the desperation of the slums with the cloak of romantic fantasy, the British and Indian directors brilliantly reached a mainstream audience. They served viewers the unpalatable images of real-life children, filmed running around in real Indian slums, by giving the audience a digestible out, through fairy tale and humour.
The issue of human trafficking is still so shameful, and such a taboo topic, even its brief treatment in Slumdog was considered radical. Protesters accused the film of stereotyping poverty in India and exploiting the child actors, who still find themselves living in Mumbai's slums, where nothing has changed. The father of one child actor has even been accused of trying to sell his daughter for profit.
In raising the sensitive subject of human trafficking, Slumdog spread awareness about this insidious crime beyond where any documentary could ever reach.
Now, through a series of bizarre coincidences, I find myself headed to India to spend my holidays connecting with real-life survivors; women and children who have been rescued from prostitution, child begging rings, exploitative marriages, sex slavery and bonded servitude. I'm one of 10 volunteers chosen from around the world (the only Canadian), who will escort 20 survivors of human trafficking on a 30-day bicycle trip, to 60 villages.
We will cycle 600 kilometres through southern India, discovering a different culture every 60 kilometres. We will stop at a Tibetan settlement of monks, and visit the Dalit caste, also known as the Untouchables. We will learn from each other, and expose ourselves to the various kinds of suffering in the world.
"We believe that womanhood and childhood are sacred," says Christina Lagdameo, the project coordinator for Odanadi Seva Trust, a British organization in Mysore that rescues and rehabilitates victims. "Human flesh is not a commodity. Every woman and child deserves a voice."
At each remote stop, these brave women will talk about their experiences as victims of human trafficking, so that others may avoid the traps set forth by those who prey on India's most vulnerable citizens. They will share their stories through song, dance and drama, warning of the devastating consequences the flesh trade has on individuals, families and the whole community.
Ultimately, they will expose their vulnerabilities and own suffering, learning to overcome their fears and to understand again that not all men are bad.
"There will be emotional, physical and psychological challenges," says Lagdameo, an American who quit her job at the White House in 2007 and has been with Odanadi ever since.
Odanadi, which means soulmate in the Kannada language, executes risky raids on brothels and runs a shelter, orphanage and school in Mysore. It also offers a number of counselling and rehab programs, and has introduced a novel education program for the children of the prostituted. The organization is well connected in India, with widespread support among the police, courts and politicians.
It even has support in Canada, with B. C. Senator Mobina Jaffer sponsoring the ride. She herself hoped to attend, but the 30-day campaign conflicts with her schedule in the Senate.
Through Odanadi, hundreds of victims have been rescued in the 20 years since it pioneered its program. Their work, however, represents a tiny fragment of the vast scale of human trafficking.
According to India's Ministry of Women and Child Development, there are three million prostitutes in the country, of whom 40 per cent are minors. Nearly 70 per cent are lured into the sex trade with the promise of a good job. Others are tricked into it by marriage proposals from husbands who then pimp their child brides.
The issue certainly reaches Canada. Our country has been identified as a source, destination and transit country for trafficking victims, according to Jaffer's website. "The RCMP conservatively estimates that between 800 to 1,200 people are victims of human trafficking each year."
It could be as high as 16,000, she says.
Much good work is being done around the world to eradicate human trafficking. However, Odanadi still sees far too many suicides. "The trauma they've endured, it's just very deep," says Lagdameo.
"The shame takes years for them to overcome. I can't say if they ever fully heal."
To follow my slumdogging in India, log on to my blog at calgaryherald.com.
May 14, 2009
What a Little Vitamin A Could Do
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
I’m bouncing across West Africa in the back of a Land Cruiser with the winner of my “win-a-trip” contest, Paul Bowers, a student at the University of South Carolina, talking about wonky ways to tackle global poverty — such as vitamin A capsules.
Americans pretty much take vitamin A for granted, but many of the world’s poorest people lack it. And as a result, it is estimated that more than half-a-million children die or go blind each year. There’s a simple fix: vitamin A capsules that cost about 2 cents each.
I had planned this “win-a-trip” journey in part to introduce Paul to the problem of blindness as an element of global poverty. When I first visited West Africa myself as a backpacking law student, I was staggered and depressed by the blind beggars who circled me with outstretched palms.
So there we were, Paul and I, “enjoying” a 50-cent-per-person “breakfast” at a “restaurant” here in the town of Koundara in northern Guinea when we first came face to face with blindness on this trip.
A man named Amadou Bailo shuffled toward us, holding one end of a stick as his daughter held the other and walked ahead of him. In wealthy countries, the blind have seeing-eye dogs; in poor countries, the blind have seeing-eye children. The girl, Mariama, who thought she might be about 9 years old, has never been able to attend school because she spends her days guiding her father. Her older brother was the father’s guide before that, so he never went to school either.
“His blindness has kept two of his children from going to school,” noted Shawn Baker of Helen Keller International, an aid group that works on vision and nutrition issues. Mr. Baker met us, after we had crossed over from neighboring Guinea-Bissau, at such a sleepy border post that we had to wake up a border guard.
Mr. Bailo had lost his sight from an excruciating affliction called river blindness, which is caused by baby worms that infest the body and destroy the optic nerve. River blindness was once endemic in much of West Africa and seemed almost hopeless. Yet today, in one of the great triumphs of humanitarian workers, it is under control and perhaps close to being conquered.
Credit goes to former President Jimmy Carter for helping to lead the fight against the disease, to a number of aid groups and to Merck, which donated the medicines to kill the baby worms. Mr. Bailo will never recover his vision, but these days, virtually no one in West Africa is going blind from the disease.
Americans sometimes don’t want to help poor countries because of doubts about whether aid works. There are legitimate doubts about the effectiveness of many aid efforts, but there also are extraordinary triumphs that don’t get attention — such as the war on blindness.
Which leads us back to vitamin A.
In the major Sierra Leone city of Bo, which is about a three-day drive from Koundara, we visited the Paul School for the Blind, an audacious private institution that struggles to educate blind children in one of the world’s poorest countries. Some of its students were congenitally blind — and one girl had plastic melted into her eyes by rebel soldiers — but 80 percent of the students had lost their sight for reasons related to vitamin A deficiency.
According to the United Nations, half of the children in many African countries are deficient in vitamin A (which comes from liver, mangos, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and dark, green leafy vegetables), and a disease like measles will quickly deplete their supply further and trigger blindness. The upshot is that vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of child blindness in the world today.
Health wonks have found that vitamin A supplements reduce not only blindness, but also death from diarrhea and other diseases. A review by Unicef and Helen Keller International reports that in areas such as West Africa where many children lack the vitamin, child mortality drops by approximately 23 percent after vitamin A capsules are distributed to children.
“Addressing vitamin A deficiency may be the most cost-effective intervention you can implement,” said Mr. Baker of Helen Keller International.
Now there’s a big push already under way to distribute vitamin A capsules twice a year to all children at risk, by such organizations as Unicef, Helen Keller International and the Micronutrient Initiative of Canada. By one estimate, this could lead to 600,000 children’s lives saved each year in Africa — and, in the future, many fewer blind beggars being led by their children or grandchildren.
By now, Paul has bumped over so many potholed dirt roads with me that he probably wishes he had come in second in my contest. But it’s a special pleasure when our journey shows us not only the immense challenges that Africa faces, but also the immense progress that is being made.
May 17, 2009
This Mom Didn’t Have to Die
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
BO, Sierra Leone
On this trip through West Africa with my “win-a-trip” contest winner, I was reminded of one of the grimmest risks to human life here. Despite threats from warlords and exotic disease, it’s something even deadlier: motherhood.
One of the most dangerous things an African woman can do is become pregnant. So, along with the winner of my contest for college students, Paul Bowers, I have been visiting the forlorn hospitals here in West Africa. According to the World Health Organization, Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality in the world, and in several African countries, 1 woman in 10 ends up dying in childbirth.
It’s pretty clear that if men were dying at these rates, the United Nations Security Council would be holding urgent consultations, and a country such as this would appoint a minister of paternal mortality. Yet half-a-million women die annually from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth without attracting much interest because the victims are typically among the most voiceless people in the world: impoverished, rural, uneducated and female.
Take Mariama, a 21-year-old pregnant woman with a 3-year-old child living in a village here in southern Sierra Leone. Mariama started bleeding one afternoon before we arrived, but her family had no money and was reluctant to seek medical care. When she was already half-dead, she was finally taken into the government hospital in Bo.
She was off-the-charts anemic, but there was no blood available for a transfusion. In that situation, the woman’s relatives are checked to see if they are of the same type and can give, but Mariama was accompanied only by her mother, who was too fragile to donate blood.
The only obstetrician, serving an area with two million people, was away, so nurses suggested that in the absence of a transfusion, Mariama receive a plasma expander for her blood. But that would have cost $4, and Mariama and her mother had no money at all.
So Mariama continued to hemorrhage right there in the maternity ward. At 1 a.m. the next morning, she died.
“We did our best to save her,” said Regina Horton, a nurse-midwife at the hospital. “But we had no blood.”
I’ve seen women dying like this in many countries — on the first win-a-trip journey in 2006, a student and I watched a mother of three dying in front of us in Cameroon — and it’s not only shattering but also infuriating. It’s no mystery how to save the lives of pregnant women; what’s lacking is the will and resources.
Indeed, Sierra Leone is now making progress with the help of the United Nations Population Fund, which is renovating hospital wards, providing free medicines and trying to ensure that poor women don’t die because they can’t pay $100 for a Caesarian section. The Bush administration cut off all American funds for the U.N. Population Fund, hobbling it, but this year President Obama has moved to restore the money. Other organizations that are focused on this issue include the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, CARE and Averting Maternal Death and Disability.
A bill introduced in Congress in March — the Newborn, Child, and Mother Survival Act — would establish American leadership in this area. But it has attracted pathetically little attention.
If the lives of women like Mariama were a priority, there would be many simple ways to keep them alive. For example, they could routinely be given anti-malarials and deworming medicine during pregnancy to flush out parasites. They should also receive daily iron tablets to overcome anemia, and a bed net. All this would cost just a few dollars and would leave pregnant women far less likely to die of hemorrhages.
Caesarian sections are necessary for perhaps 1 in 10 births worldwide, but village women put their trust in traditional birth attendants (partly because the attendants also perform genital cutting on girls, creating a bond). Doctors and nurses often are harsh and contemptuous toward uneducated women so that patients stay away until it is too late. If doctors and nurses had as good a bedside manner as the birth attendants, hospitals would be better used and lives saved.
Still, one sees the — limited — progress in Mabinti Kamara, who is 25 and went into labor in her village. When an arm came out, it was apparent that the fetus was sideways, so the birth attendant pushed hard on Mabinti’s abdomen to complete the process.
On Mabinti’s fourth day of labor, she was finally taken to a hospital in the city of Makeni, where a surgeon found that she had a ruptured uterus. The surgeon removed the dead fetus and repaired the uterus. Mabinti then lay on her bed in pain, disconsolate at losing her child. Still, the maternity ward was filled with women like her. Just a few years ago, they all would have died. They are reminders that women can be saved in childbirth — but only if their lives become a priority.
May 21, 2009
After Wars, Mass Rapes Persist
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Traditionally, an international issue was “serious” only if it was arcane and, preferably, incomprehensible. To be respected in foreign policy, it helped to smoke a pipe, spout theories about ballistic missiles, and frequently employ the word “hegemony.”
Now pipes are passé, three of the last four secretaries of state have been women, and a new foreign policy agenda is emerging around issues like poverty, genocide, climate change and a topic that until recently was hushed up — sexual violence.
In modern times, we’ve seen mass rape as an element of warfare in Congo, Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia — but the lesson here in Liberia in West Africa is that even when the fighting ends, the rape continues. And that brings us to Jackie, a lovely 7-year-old with tight braids and watchful eyes.
Jackie is too young to remember the 14-year civil war in Liberia, from 1989 to 2003, when as many as three-fourths of women were raped. Jackie’s world is one of a bustling, recovering Liberia with a free press and democratically elected leaders.
Yet somehow mass rape survived the end of the war; it has been easier to get men to relinquish their guns than their sense of sexual entitlement. So the security guard at Jackie’s school, a man in his 50s, took the little girl to the beach where, she said, he stripped her and raped her. Finally, he ran off as she lay bleeding and sobbing on the sand.
“I couldn’t walk well, so they took me to hospital,” Jackie told me. It was worse than that: She was hemorrhaging, and the hospital couldn’t stop it. So Jackie was rushed in critical condition to Monrovia’s largest hospital, where she spent weeks recovering.
Jackie is now in a shelter for survivors of sexual violence — and what staggered me is that so many of the girls are pre-teens. A 3-year-old survivor has just moved out, but Jackie jumps rope with girls aged 8 to 11.
Of course, children are raped everywhere, but what is happening in Liberia is different. The war seems to have shattered norms and trained some men to think that when they want sex, they need simply to overpower a girl. Or at school, girls sometimes find that to get good grades, they must have sex with their teachers.
“Rape is a scar that the war left behind,” said Dixon Jlateh, an officer in the national police unit dealing with sexual violence. “Sexual violence is a direct product of the war.”
The evidence is overwhelming that the best way to deal with rape — whether in Darfur or Liberia, or even in the United States — is to demystify it, dismantle the taboos, and address it directly. That is happening.
The United Nations Security Council held a formal session last year on sexual violence, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued its arrest warrant for Sudan’s president in part because of mass rapes. Senators Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold chaired subcommittee hearings on rape just this month, focused on Congo and Sudan, where the brutality is particularly appalling. But the lesson of Liberia is equally sad: that even when wars end, mass rape continues by inertia.
In Liberia, sexual predation during the civil war was “normal.” One major survey found that 75 percent of women had been raped — mostly gang-raped, with many suffering internal injuries.
The incidence of rape has dropped since then but is still numbingly high. An International Rescue Committee survey in 2007 found that about 12 percent of girls aged 17 and under acknowledged having been sexually abused in some way in the previous 18 months.
Then there is the age of the victims. Of the 275 new sexual violence cases treated between January and April by Doctors Without Borders in Liberia, 28 percent involve children aged 4 or younger, and 33 percent involve children aged 5 through 12.
“The rape of little children is common,” said Oretha Brooks, a social worker at the excellent Duport Road Clinic in Monrovia. “It happens on a daily basis.” She introduced me to Wynnie, a 9-year-old girl in her waiting room who had been raped twice.
Yet there are signs of progress. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected a president in Africa, has sent strong signals that rape is intolerable. Aid groups like the Carter Center are working to promote the rule of law and punish the rapists, recognizing that economic development will be elusive as long as women and girls are prey.
Maybe the greatest reassurance came from Jackie, the resilient 7-year-old. She appeared to have overcome the stigma of rape, for she explained that she wanted to grow up to build shelters for abused girls, adding, “I want to be president for Liberia.”
May 24, 2009
The Hidden Hunger
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The most heartbreaking thing about starving children is their equanimity.
They don’t cry. They don’t smile. They don’t move. They don’t show a flicker of fear, pain or interest. Tiny, wizened zombies, they shut down all nonessential operations to employ every last calorie to stay alive.
We in the West misunderstand starvation — especially the increasing hunger caused by the global economic crisis — and so along with Paul Bowers, the student winner of my “win-a-trip” contest, I’ve been traveling across five countries in West Africa, meeting the malnourished.
At the extreme, they were like Maximiano Camara, a 15-month-old boy here in Bissau, who was so emaciated that he risked failure of major organs. His ribs protruded, his eyes were glassy, his skin was stretched taut over tiny bones.
(Doctors try to help but are overwhelmed: One was showing me Maximiano when a nurse rushed in from another room carrying a baby who had stopped breathing. The doctor paused, revived that child on the next bed, handed her back to the nurse, and then calmly resumed his discussion of Maximiano.)
Even if Maximiano survives, hunger may leave him physically stunted. Or poor nutrition may have already withered the development of his brain.
It’s impossible to know if Maximiano was starving because of the economic crisis or because of chronic malnutrition here, but the hardships in the developing world have been exacerbated by elevated food prices and declining remittances from workers abroad.
The World Bank has estimated that United Nations goals for overcoming global poverty have been set back seven years by the global crisis. It calculates that increased malnutrition last year may have caused an additional 44 million children to suffer permanent physical or mental impairment.
Yet one of the great Western misconceptions is that severe malnutrition is simply about not getting enough to eat. Often it’s about not getting the right micronutrients — iron, zinc, vitamin A, iodine — and one of the most cost-effective ways outsiders can combat poverty is to fight this “hidden hunger.”
Malnutrition is not a glamorous field, and so it’s routinely neglected by everybody — donor governments, poor countries and, yes, journalists. But malnutrition is implicated in one-third to one-half of all child deaths each year; the immediate cause may be diarrhea, but lurking behind it is a deficiency of zinc.
“That image of a starving child in a famine doesn’t represent the magnitude of the problem,” notes Shawn Baker of Helen Keller International, a New York-based aid group working in this area. “For every child who is like that, you have 10 who are somewhat malnourished and many more who are deficient in micronutrients.
“Lack of iron is the most widespread nutrition deficiency in the world, and yet you can’t really see it,” he added.
In my column last Sunday, I wrote about women dying in childbirth. One reason so many die of hemorrhages is that 42 percent of pregnant women worldwide have anemia, according to the World Health Organization. And here in Guinea-Bissau, 83 percent of youngsters under age 5 suffer from iron deficiency.
An American or European typically has a hemoglobin, or Hb, level of 13, while anemic women and children in Africa are sometimes at 5 or below.
“In Europe, we get worried when Hb drops to 9, and then we consider a transfusion,” said Dr. Annette Kröber, a German working at a Doctors Without Borders clinic for malnourished children in Sierra Leone. “Here, when we get Hb up to 6, we’re very happy.”
The general rise in food prices (in part because of American use of corn for ethanol) is leading to more micronutrient deficiencies. One study found that a 50 percent rise in food prices in poor countries leads to a 30 percent drop in iron intake.
One solution is to distribute supplements to vulnerable people, or to fortify foods with micronutrients. A panel of prominent economists produced the “Copenhagen Consensus” on which forms of aid are most cost-effective, and it ranked micronutrient supplements as No. 1 (malaria prevention was No. 12, sanitation No. 20, and microfinance No. 22).
Americans typically get micronutrients from fortified foods, and the same strategy is possible in Africa. Helen Keller International is helping Guinea’s leading flour mill fortify its products with iron, folic acid and vitamin B (zinc is coming soon). We visited the mill, and managers said that the fortification costs virtually nothing — a tiny fraction of a penny per loaf of bread — yet it will reduce anemia, maternal mortality and cognitive impairments around the country.
None of this is glamorous, but it’s hugely needed — and truly a bargain.
May 24, 2009
Death in Birth
Where Life’s Start Is a Deadly Risk
By DENISE GRADY
BEREGA, Tanzania — The young woman had already been in labor for two days by the time she reached the hospital here. Now two lives were at risk, and there was no choice but to operate and take the baby right away.
It was just before dawn, and the operating room, powered by a rumbling generator, was the only spot of light in this village of mud huts and maize fields. A mask with a frayed cord was fastened over the woman’s face. Moments later the cloying smell of ether filled the room, and then Emmanuel Makanza picked up his instruments and made the first cut for a Caesarean section.
Mr. Makanza is not a doctor, a fact that illustrates both the desperation and the creativity of Tanzanians fighting to reduce the number of deaths and injuries among pregnant women and infants.
Pregnancy and childbirth kill more than 536,000 women a year, more than half of them in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
Most of the deaths are preventable, with basic obstetrical care. Tanzania, with roughly 13,000 deaths annually, has neither the best nor the worst record in Africa. Although it is politically stable, it is also one of the world’s poorest countries, suffering from almost every problem that contributes to high maternal death rates — shortages of doctors, nurses, drugs, equipment, roads and transportation.
There is no single solution for a problem with so many facets, and hospital officials in Berega are trying many things at once. The 120-bed hospital here — a typical rural hospital in a largely rural nation — is a case study in the efforts being made around Africa to reduce deaths in childbirth.
June 2, 2009
The Deadly Toll of Abortion by Amateurs
By DENISE GRADY
BEREGA, Tanzania — A handwritten ledger at the hospital tells a grim story. For the month of January, 17 of the 31 minor surgical procedures here were done to repair the results of “incomplete abortions.” A few may have been miscarriages, but most were botched operations by untrained, clumsy hands.
Abortion is illegal in Tanzania (except to save the mother’s life or health), so women and girls turn to amateurs, who may dose them with herbs or other concoctions, pummel their bellies or insert objects vaginally. Infections, bleeding and punctures of the uterus or bowel can result, and can be fatal. Doctors treating women after these bungled attempts sometimes have no choice but to remove the uterus.
Pregnancy and childbirth are among the greatest dangers that women face in Africa, which has the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality — at least 100 times those in developed countries. Abortion accounts for a significant part of the death toll.
Maternal mortality is high in Tanzania: for every 100,000 births, 950 women die. In the United States, the figure is 11, and it is even lower in other developed countries. But Tanzania’s record is neither the best nor the worst in Africa. Many other countries have similar statistics; quite a few do better and a handful do markedly worse.
Eighty percent of Tanzanians live in rural areas, and the hospital in Berega — miles from paved roads and electric poles — is a typical rural hospital, struggling to deal with the same problems faced by hospitals and clinics in much of the country. Abortion is a constant worry.
Worldwide, there are 19 million unsafe abortions a year, and they kill 70,000 women (accounting for 13 percent of maternal deaths), mostly in poor countries like Tanzania where abortion is illegal, according to the World Health Organization. More than two million women a year suffer serious complications. According to Unicef, unsafe abortions cause 4 percent of deaths among pregnant women in Africa, 6 percent in Asia and 12 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Reliable figures on abortion in Tanzania are hard to come by, but the World Health Organization reports that its region, Eastern Africa, has the world’s second-highest rate of unsafe abortions (only South America is higher). And Africa as a whole has the highest proportion of teenagers — 25 percent — among women having unsafe abortions.
The 120-bed hospital in Berega depends on solar panels and a generator, which is run for only a few hours a day. Short on staff members, supplies and even water, the hospital puts a lot of its scarce resources into cleaning up after failed abortions.
The medical director, Dr. Paschal Mdoe, 30, said many patients who had had the unsafe abortions were 16 to 20 years old, and four months pregnant. He said there was a steady stream of cases, much as he had seen in hospitals in other parts of the country.
“It’s the same everywhere,” he said.
On a Friday in January, 6 of 20 patients in the women’s ward were recovering from attempted abortions. One, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, lay in bed moaning and writhing. She had been treated at the hospital a week earlier for an incomplete abortion and now was back, bleeding and in severe pain. She was taken to the operating room once again and anesthetized, and Emmanuel Makanza, who had treated her the first time, discovered that he had failed to remove all the membranes formed during the pregnancy. Once again, he scraped the inside of her womb with a curet, a metal instrument. It was a vigorous, bloody procedure. This time, he said, it was complete.
Mr. Makanza is an assistant medical officer, not a fully trained physician. Assistant medical officers have education similar to that of physician assistants in the United States, but with additional training in surgery. They are Tanzania’s solution to a severe shortage of doctors, and they perform many basic operations, like Caesareans and appendectomies. The hospital in Berega has two.
Abortions in Berega come in seasonal waves — March and April, August and September — in sync with planting and harvests, when a lot of socializing goes on, Dr. Mdoe said. He said rumor had it that many abortions were done by a man in Gairo, a town west of Berega. In some cases, he said, the abortionist only started the procedure, knowing that doctors would have to finish the job.
Dr. Mdoe said he suspected that some of the other illegal abortionists were hospital workers with delusions of surgical skill.
“They just poke, poke, poke,” he said. “And then the woman has to come here.” Sometimes the doctors find fragments of sticks left inside the uterus, an invitation to sepsis.
In the past some hospitals threatened to withhold care until a woman identified the abortionist (performing abortions can bring a 14-year prison term), but that practice was abandoned in favor of simply providing postabortal treatment. Still, women do not want to discuss what happened or even admit that they had anything other than a miscarriage, because in theory they can be prosecuted for having abortions. The law calls for seven years in prison for the woman. So doctors generally do not ask questions.
“They are supposed to be arrested,” Dr. Mdoe said. “Our work as physicians is just to help and make sure they get healed.”
He went on, “We as medical personnel think abortion should be legal so a qualified person can do it and you can have safe abortion.” There are no plans in Tanzania to change the law.
The steady stream of cases reflects widespread ignorance about contraception. Young people in the region do not seem to know much or care much about birth control or safe sex, Dr. Mdoe said.
In most countries the rates of abortion, whether legal or illegal — and abortion-related deaths — tend to decrease when the use of birth control increases. But only about a quarter of Tanzanians use contraception. In South Africa, the rate of contraception use is 60 percent, and in Kenya 39 percent. Both have lower rates of maternal mortality than does Tanzania. South Africa also allows abortion on request.
But in other African nations like Sierra Leone and Nigeria, abortion is not available on request, and the figures on contraceptive use are even lower than Tanzania’s and maternal mortality is higher. Nonprofit groups are working with the Tanzanian government to provide family planning, but the country is vast, and the widely distributed rural populations makes many people extremely hard to reach.
Geography is not the only obstacle. An assistant medical officer, Telesphory Kaneno, said: “Talking about sexuality and the sex organs is still a taboo in our community. For a woman, if it is known that she is taking contraceptives, there is a fear of being called promiscuous.”
In interviews, some young women from the area who had given birth as teenagers said they had not used birth control because they did not know about it or thought it was unsafe: they had heard that condoms were unsanitary and that birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptives could cause cancer.
Mr. Kaneno said the doctors were trying to dispel those taboos and convince women that it was a good thing to be able to choose whether and when to get pregnant.
July 9, 2009
Would You Let This Girl Drown?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
It’s the Group of 8 summit in Italy, and world leaders are strolling along when they spot a girl floundering in a pond, crying out and then dipping beneath the surface.
There are no cameras around. The leaders could safely rescue the girl, but they would get drenched and risk damaging their $600 shoes. A rescue would also delay the group’s discussion of Very Important Issues.
In that situation, I’m convinced, the presidents and prime ministers would leap into the water to save the girl. So would you or I.
(The difference is that the G-8 leaders would then hold a televised press conference to spotlight their compassion, perhaps canceling their session on humanitarian aid to do so.)
This raises an interesting question: If the G-8 leaders are so willing to save one child, why are they collectively so far behind in meeting humanitarian aid pledges to save other children?
A few countries, including Canada and the United States, will meet the aid targets for 2010 that they set in 2005. But France is falling short, and Italy — the host of the G-8 summit this year — is disastrously far behind.
In a thoughtful book published this year, “The Life You Can Save,” Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University offers the pond example and explores why we’re so willing to try to assist a stranger before us, while so unwilling to donate to try to save strangers from malaria half a world away.
One of the reasons, I believe, is that humanitarians are abjectly ineffective at selling their causes. Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups. Do-gooders also have a penchant for exaggeration, so that the public often has more trust in the effectiveness of toothpaste than of humanitarian aid.
There’s growing evidence that jumping up and down about millions of lives at stake can even be counterproductive. A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life.
“The more who die, the less we care.” That’s the apt title of a forthcoming essay by Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who has pioneered this field of research.
Yet it’s not just, as the saying goes, that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. More depressing, appeals to our rationality actually seem to impede empathy.
For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.
Perhaps this is because, as some research suggests, people give in large part to feel good inside. That works best when you write a check and the problem is solved. If instead you’re reminded of larger problems that you can never solve, the feel-good rewards diminish.
Another factor is personal responsibility: How many people share it? Professor Singer notes that in one experiment, students filled out a market research study while a young woman went behind a curtain and then appeared to climb on a chair to get something — and fell down. She then moaned and cried out that her ankle was injured.
When the person filling out the form was alone, he or she helped 70 percent of the time. But when another person was in the room, also filling out the survey and not responding, then only 7 percent tried to help.
In the case of fighting poverty, there are billions of other bystanders to erode a personal sense of responsibility. Moreover, humanitarian appeals emphasize the scale of the challenges — 25,000 children will die today! — in ways that are as likely to numb us as to galvanize us.
I also wonder if our unremitting focus on suffering and unmet needs stirs up a cloud of negative feelings that incline people to avert their eyes and hurry by. Maybe we should emphasize the many humanitarian successes, such as the falling child mortality rates since 1990 — which mean that 400 children’s lives are saved every hour, around the clock.
There are no easy answers here, but if a toothpaste company had these miserable results in its messaging, it would go back to the drawing board. That’s what bleeding hearts need to do as well.
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