December 6, 2009
Aid Gives Alternative to African Orphanages
By CELIA W. DUGGER
MCHINJI DISTRICT, Malawi — The Home of Hope orphanage provides Chikodano Lupanga, 15, with three nutritious meals a day, new school uniforms, sensible black shoes and a decent education.
Her orphaned cousin Jean, 11, who balked at entering the orphanage and lives with her grown sister, has no shoes, raggedy clothes and an often-empty belly. Repeating third grade for the third time, Jean said she bitterly regretted that she did not grow up in the orphanage where Madonna adopted a boy. Had she stayed, she whispered, “I would have learned to read.”
In a country as desperately poor as Malawi, children placed in institutions are often seen as the lucky ones. But even as orphanages have sprung up across Africa with donations from Western churches and charities, the families who care for the vast majority of the continent’s orphans have gotten no help at all, household surveys show.
Researchers now say a far better way to assist these bereft children is with simple allocations of cash — $4 to $20 a month in an experimental program under way here in Malawi — given directly to the destitute extended families who take them in. That program could provide grants to eight families looking after some two dozen children for the $1,500 a year it costs to sponsor one child at the Home of Hope, estimated Candace M. Miller, a Boston University professor and a lead researcher in the project.
Experts and child advocates maintain that orphanages are expensive and often harm children’s development by separating them from their families. Most of the children living in institutions around the world have a surviving parent or close relative, and they most commonly entered orphanages because of poverty, according to new reports by Unicef and Save the Children.
“Because there’s money in orphanages, people are creating them and getting children in them,” said Dr. Biziwick Mwale, executive director of Malawi’s National AIDS Commission.
The Home of Hope’s founder, the Rev. Thomson Chipeta, 80, said children needed the orphanage because their families were so poor. “If the children can be given the privilege of a home like this one, it’s much better,” he said.
Madonna’s charity, Raising Malawi, pays for most of Home of Hope’s operating budget and also supports community centers where orphans who remain with their families can go for food and services, said the charity’s executive director, Philippe van den Bossche. He said orphanages were not the best solution but were needed when families could not or would not care for children.
In Madonna’s video on AIDS orphans in Malawi, “I Am Because We Are,” she says she was drawn to the country when she was told such children “were everywhere, living on the streets, sleeping under bridges, hiding in abandoned buildings, being abducted, kidnapped, raped.”
But across Africa, demographic data shows that even the poorest extended families usually take in children whose parents have died. And while AIDS has worsened the orphan crisis in Africa, the United Nations recently estimated that of 55.3 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who have lost at least one parent, AIDS accounted for 14.7 million of them.
The Joint Learning Initiative on Children and H.I.V./AIDS, which brought together dozens of international experts to review hundreds of studies, this year strongly endorsed programs that give the poorest families modest financial support, including cash transfer programs like Malawi’s.
More than a billion dollars in foreign aid has been spent over the past five years for orphans and vulnerable children, but some major donors cannot break down how their contributions were spent. Researchers say donors need to weed out ineffective, misconceived programs, scrutinizing those that are managed by international nongovernmental organizations or governments but reliant on volunteers in villages to do the work.
“An enormous amount of money is going into these efforts with very little return,” said Linda Richter, who runs the children’s programs at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council.
Here in Malawi, hundreds of community groups have won small grants to start small labor-intensive businesses and are expected to donate all the profits to orphans. Pauline Peters, a Harvard University anthropologist, and Susan Watkins, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who have independently done years of field work in Malawian villages, say orphans have received few benefits from the millions spent.
“The donors have fantasies of the way things work — that you can mobilize villagers to care for children who aren’t theirs without paying them to do it,” Professor Watkins said.
In Kandikiti, where Jean Lupanga’s family lives, a group of 20 villagers won a $4,000 grant last year to start a pig farm to help orphans. The group bought nine pure-bred hogs, built them a residence nicer than those of most people and posted volunteers to guard it round the clock. They also bought 10 bicycles, vaccines for the pigs and paid their members to attend training sessions.
More than a year later, they have not sold a single one of the white, floppy-eared, European-bred pigs. In a village where scruffy local pigs trot freely among the huts, the group’s leader fell silent when asked who could afford such expensive pork.
“We’ve never done this before,” said Selina Sakala, 47, chairwoman of Mmasomuyere Orphan Care.
Malawi’s cash transfer experiment, financed by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and supported by Unicef, directly helps destitute families who care for many children or have no able-bodied adult to earn a living. Children whose families got the grants were healthier, better fed and clothed and more likely to be in school than children in families that got none, according to a randomized community trial conducted by Boston University and the University of Malawi and paid for by Unicef and the United States government.
Professor Miller said the program had yielded “fabulous benefits” but cautioned that the country needed better safeguards to prevent corruption and fraud in the future.
Throngs of Malawians gathered one recent day under shade trees to collect the cash. Many grandparents had walked miles on bare feet as cracked and parched as the earth. Officials in plastic chairs checked photo identity cards. Recipients unable to read or write left an inky thumb print, then twisted the precious bills into the hem of a skirt or tucked them in a pocket.
Families who have been collecting the grants for a year or two say they have made a difference. Velenasi Jackson spends the $20 she gets each month on staple foods and clothes for the 10 orphaned grandchildren who share her two-room mud hut in the village of Nyoka. They no longer go whole days with nothing to eat, she said.
“A gift is never too small,” she said.
Here in the Mchinji District, the Home of Hope looks after 653 children, from infants to teenagers. Its founder, Mr. Chipeta, leaning on a hand-carved wooden staff, gestured to each building on a tour of the grounds and proudly named the donor who paid for it. Among them were churches and individuals from the United States, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, South Korea and Germany.
In a letter Mr. Chipeta gives visitors, he says the home needs their prayers, love and support — with the phrase “See Our Budget” in parentheses.
Chikodano Lupanga has lived at the home since she was 6. Her house mother, Enelesi Chiduka, 59, said she was responsible for looking after 80 girls, making sure they showered twice a day, attended daily prayer sessions and did their chores.
Quiet and serious, Chikodano said her family could never have afforded to send her to high school or to give her a diet that included chicken and fish. “I have lots of friends, and the other needs not met at home are met here — school fees, clothes, shoes,” she said.
Nine years ago, Chikodano’s cousin Alice, now 31, took her and Jean to the Home of Hope. Chikodano went quietly, but Jean, only 2 or 3 years old and deeply attached to her big sister Alice, sobbed inconsolably and remained with Alice. The family has recently started getting the monthly cash grant, but it is too soon for it to have made much impact.
Jean, a shy, expressive girl with a heart-shaped face, lives the arduous life common to poor rural children across Africa. She fetches water, pounds maize and cooks over smoky fires. At last glance, she was scrubbing Alice’s little boy with soapy well water sloshed from a plastic bucket.
Investing in Early Childhood Development (ECD)
Posted on 21/04/2009
Worldwide 200 million children under five years of age are not achieving their development potential due to poverty, poor health and nutrition, and lack of stimulation and learning opportunities[i]. The vast majority of these children are from disadvantaged households and communities in low-income countries.
Early childhood lays critical foundations for a person’s entire life – a finding demonstrated not only by the latest advanced research in neuroscience and genetics but by nutrition and child development studies and programme evaluation data, including data from AKDN’s own programmes. Investments in Early Childhood Development (ECD) offer outstanding returns – both in human and financial terms. Numerous studies have demonstrated the improvements in education, health, social development and economic growth indicators attributable to ECD. World Bank economists[ii] conclude that, “well targeted ECD programmes cost less and produce more dramatic and lasting results than education investments at any other level”. ECD programmes help reduce the social and economic disparities and gender inequalities that divide societies and perpetuate poverty and are preferable to costly remedial action.
What are Early Childhood Development programmes?
Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes are concerned with ensuring young children have a good start in life. They address health, nutrition and protection from harm. They offer opportunities for enjoyable learning and promote a sense of identity and self-worth. They enable students to communicate effectively and get along with others.
ECD programmes are about influencing people and influencing the contexts in which children are growing up so that the overall development of children is supported. Social, cultural, economic, geographical and political contexts are key. Within the lives of young children, “contexts” translates into the different environments which impact on them, including families, communities, health services, ECD centres, schools, district bodies and national policy. ECD programmes are about influencing these factors and addressing issues which undermine children's development.
ECD programmes are defined internationally as being concerned with children from before birth to the age of eight years. A wide range of initiatives fall under the ECD umbrella – from working with families to changing systems which marginalize, neglect or exclude some children. They are about a range of supports for families, communities and institutions that strengthen the ability to care for and nurture children.
Early Childhood Development programmes are therefore concerned with:
Interactions within the family:Parenting/ caregiving programmes (within maternal and child health, nutrition, or education initiatives) emphasize parents and other family caregivers as the first and most important carers and teachers of children;
ECD centres: Structured programmes aim to provide a safe and secure environment, warm and responsive caregivers, and stimulating learning activities for children. These may be formal or informal centres/spaces in the community, homes, local schools or work sites;
Community planning and mobilisation: Community-level initiatives work to create enabling and safe environments for young children and promote access to food, healthcare, ECD provision, safe water, adequate sanitation, etc.;
Influencing community-based health service provision, disease prevention and health promotion: ECD initiatives in health care promote services that are supportive of the continuum of maternal and child health, nutrition, and overall development (including pre- and post-natal care, immunisation, growth monitoring, mental health, etc.);
Influencing the early years of primary education: These initiatives work with government and non-government primary schools to promote the implementation of child-centred, active-learning methods in early primary grades and support a smooth transition for children as they enter school from home or ECD programme;
Resource and training institutions: Diverse institutions and programmes provide leadership and capacity-building to community/government programmes. They also conduct research, influence policy and provide networking opportunities;
Research: Specific studies, in addition to regular monitoring, enable analyses of the inputs, processes, outcomes and wider impact of different interventions;
Advocacy: Local and macro-level initiatives work towards systemic change by promoting ECD at the government level through efforts such as advocating for specific policies and budget allocations;
Public awareness: Initiatives at many different levels (community to national) use media, well-known figures, study findings etc. to highlight the importance of attention to the early years.
As the bullet points above suggest, early childhood programmes are concerned with many players and all aspects of children’s development.
Keys to Early Childhood Development and Poverty Reduction
Mother and Child Health: A key to healthy early childhood development is a continuum of care for mothers, neonates, infants and young children at a time when they are all particularly vulnerable to a range of risks. In the very early years, health care and a healthy environment play pivotal roles in child survival and development and build the basis for a healthy adult life. Mothers and children need the continuum of care from pre-pregnancy through pregnancy and childbirth and through to the early days and years of life. Safe and healthy environments, including good quality housing, clean water and adequate sanitation facilities, safe neighbourhoods, and protection against violence, are all essential. Good nutrition begins in utero and depends on adequately nourished mothers. The initiation of early and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is as important as ensuring access to healthy diets for infants and young children. These measures can be assured by improving food security and changing prevailing knowledge, attitudes and practice.
Child Development and Well-being: The psycho-social aspects of development also have profound significance, both for individual success, quality of life, and long-term social change. This is particularly important in many of the countries where AKDN works – impoverished areas where people’s child-rearing practices are often dictated by the demands of daily survival. In these situations, people naturally focus on keeping children fed, enhancing their physical skills and teaching social responsibility. They tend to underestimate the significance of their key role in supporting children’s broader learning, language development and sense of themselves.
However, research and practice shows that parenting programmes can help build children’s knowledge, skills and, equally important, confidence and sense of agency. The value of centre-based ECD programmes has also been demonstrated across multiple contexts. These programmes provide an expanded range of experience for young children, helping them develop skills and form attitudes that will enable them to make good use of learning opportunities both within and beyond formal education. ECD programmes emphasise the development of children’s ability to interact effectively with their world. They support the development of confident, life-long learners who are more likely to gain the skills needed to break out of the cycle of poverty and become active, healthy members of society.
A programme for young children, therefore, can be seen as an entry point for responding effectively to many of the factors underlying poverty. The direct benefits for children’s healthy physical, social, emotional and academic development are an important and well-known part of this. In addition, safe and stimulating childcare frees up caregivers to work. Parenting/caregiving programmes can be very effective in giving families an increased sense of control over their lives while providing them with information and building a sense of agency to act on their own behalf and on behalf of their children.
ECD Initiatives in the Aga Khan Development Network
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has been supporting ECD initiatives for several decades. Earlier AKDN agencies and institutions were amongst the few international bodies which recognized the critical long-term impact of ECD for both individuals and society.
The different parts of the network work in ECD in a variety of ways reflecting each agency or institution’s own particular mandate. However, they are all guided by the principle that ECD interventions should be appropriate to the cultural context, affordable for families, based on sound and current evidence on child development, genuinely involve families and communities, and be sustainable over the longer-term.
The Aga Khan Education Services (AKES) supports pre-primary classes within AKES primary schools in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, independent nursery schools in East Africa, and community-based day care centres in rural Gujarat in India. More recently, a new Early Learning Centre established in Dubai is set to begin operations in 2009. Additional planning is underway to significantly expand access to ECD in the coming years in Central Asia, Pakistan and India.
The Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS), which works in eight countries in Central and South Asia, East Africa and the Middle-East, focuses particularly on mothers and children under five years of age. Programmes include safe motherhood, child survival and health promotion and disease prevention education activities at the community level. Community-based health care is linked with health service delivery units – from basic health centres up to full-fledged hospitals. Many of these initiatives are undertaken in partnership with the Health Programme of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), including, for example, the support to maternal and child health programmes in Afghanistan and Syria.
The AKF Education Programme established its early childhood work in the early 1980s, starting in Kenya, India and Portugal. For many years, the East African Madrasa Early Childhood Programme was AKF’s flagship ECD initiative in Kenya, Tantania and Uganda. However, the ECD portfolio has expanded significantly both within countries and into 12 additional countries, often through partnerships with other AKDN institutions and initiatives.
Through these activities, AKF has piloted and established a range of ECD programme models, including centre-based pre-schools, outreach pre-schools that are linked to central centres, transition programmes with the lower grades of primary schools, a growing cluster of parenting/ caregiving initiatives to strengthen families’ supports for their children, and a few day care models (home-based, centre-based and work-based). An additional area of work has been to establish new ECD training and resource centres -- or strengthen existing ones -- in order to help catalyse and drive ECD programming demand and quality (e.g., Madrasa Resource Centres (MRCs) in East Africa, the Teachers’ Resource Centre in Pakistan, and the planned ECD centres in Lisbon and Cairo).
AKF also responds to, and often creates, opportunities for policy dialogue and influence as countries start to formulate ECD policies and plans (e.g., in Kenya, Zanzibar, Uganda, Syria and Kyrgyzstan). In recent years, AKF has also been collaborating with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to establish ECD programmes in Cairo (Egypt), and Delhi (India). These efforts are jointly supported by the AKTC Historic Cities Programme and AKF.
ECD initiatives at the Aga Khan University (AKU) in Pakistan and East Africa are more recent additions, but they are critically important to AKDN’s efforts in the area of ECD. This work is led by the two Institutes of Educational Development (IED), the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health (DPCH), and the Human Development Programme (HDP). Specialized courses (certificate and/or diploma-level) for ECD teachers and professionals offered through the IEDs in East Africa and Pakistan and through HDP are beginning to meet some of the human resource development needs for ECD in these regions.
In addition, new research in ECD is being under-taken at AKU in Pakistan, providing critically needed evidence on best practices in ECD. One example is the project, being conducted by the DPCH, which will compare the impact of different interventions (standard M/CH support, M/CH plus child development, and M/CH plus enhanced nutrition supplements) to mothers through the Lady Health Workers in rural Sindh. The study examines the relative (and combined) effects of these interventions on mother and child outcomes, and will follow children up until eight years of age. The potential for the IEDs, HDP, and DPCH to serve as leading resource institutions in their countries (and regions) is considerable. There is a growing need for such hubs for the development of professionals and leaders in the field and where multi-disciplinary research can be undertaken. Such research might include further exploration of the basic science of child development, the testing of hypotheses regarding key factors contributing to child outcomes, as well as rigorous assessments of programme impact.
The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) is also looking to do more to meet the ECD needs of young children whose parents work for the various AKFED-related companies in Africa. In Kenya, the Frigoken and Alltex companies together serve around 60 children aged six months to three years for mothers working in the factories. Assessments are planned for additional companies in West Africa in 2009 in order to ascertain the needs and opportunities for linked ECD services. The Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM) is also about to pilot some new financial products which will directly benefit young children and their mothers.
AKDN ECD Programme Data
AKDN agencies are beginning to consolidate programme data to understand the array and nature of current investments in ECD and to assess gaps and opportunities. Global coverage data for ECD programmes led or supported by AKDN in 2008 follows:
Education Data: (Education-focused, with health and hygiene elements)
2008 ECD activities EXCLUDING
work at lower Primary ECD efforts INCLUDING work with primary grades 1-3
# children 128,199 402,602
# ECD centres/ classes 2,487 5,060
# parents in parenting/ caregiving programmes
# teachers/ ECD workers 4,059 12,834
# communities/districts 1,982 / 190 3,632 / 210
Beyond the basic coverage statistics, AKDN agencies and programmes are increasingly concerned with core education outcome indicators including school enrolment, retention, and achievement. For example, in Uganda, a study led by the Madrasa Regional Researcher found the repetition rate in Grade 1 for children who had participated in an ECD programme was 3.5 percent -- less than half that for those who had not (7.3 percent). In a regional MRC study (Uganda, Kenya, Zanzibar), preschool experience was significantly associated with higher cognitive ability. In Pakistan, AKDN supports a project working to improve access to and the quality of pre-primary and early primary classes in 287 government and community schools. The government’s national figure for drop-out in Grade 1 stands at 23 percent, while for schools supported by this programme, the figure is only 1.5 percent. In both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, children from AKDN-supported pre-schools (including home-based pre-schools) are out-performing children who have not been to pre-school when they go to primary school. Beyond the numbers, parents and teachers in all of the very diverse contexts in which these programmes operate strongly endorse their importance. More studies tracking children through school, and combining both quantitative and qualitative data, are needed.
2008 Health Activities
# children < 5 targeted in community/primary programmes 375,800
# women targeted in community/ primary programmes 627,600
# Community Health Workers 2,215
# Basic health centres (AKHS/ gov. / others) 211
# Comprehensive Health Centres (AKHS/ gov./ others) 48
# Hospitals (AKU/ AKHS/ others) 9
# communities / districts 2,108 / 107
Other core health outcome indicators being tracked within AKDN programmes include rates for infant and child mortality, immunization, skilled attendant delivery (also ante- and post-natal visits), and stunting, as well as percentages of households with safe water and adequate sanitation. There are significant differences between and within regions, countries and districts. Health programme achievements include, for example, increased immunization coverage (e.g., from 62 percent to 98 percent in the programme area of the Community-Led Child Survival programme in Maharashtra, India), increased use of impregnated bed-nets for under-fives and pregnant women (e.g., from 7 percent to 47 percent in the health programme area in Mozambique), and increased use of ante-natal and institutional delivery services across programmes. Monitoring and research studies are critical to demonstrate the outcomes of health programme interventions and their interaction with education-focussed interventions.
AKDN agencies are working to strengthen resource institutions, build local capacity for the sustainability and local appropriateness of ECD programmes, and contribute to the growing field of ECD research and knowledge in their different locations. Moreover, staff involved in ECD across AKDN agencies and institutions are building complementarity and convergence across the different initiatives. The sheer size and dynamism of the different agencies’ and institutions’ programmes makes this complex but it is vital given the potential synergies. Partnerships with others (including a range of academic institutions) involved in the field of ECD) will continue and be further expanded to ensure maximum impact.
In 2009 inventories of services, programmes and resource institutions across and beyond AKDN will be completed. These together with a number of detailed situation analyses will be used to improve planning, address gaps and reach many more young children and their families in areas where AKDN operates. The aim is to improve the reach, quality and effectiveness of ECD programmes across sectors.
For more information, please see:
AKDN education pages
Aga Khan Foundation
Jailoo Kindergarten Programme: More information and Video on BBC World Challenge Site
Madrasa Early Childhood Development Programme: 25th Anniversary Brochure; Video & Podcast
December 17, 2009
His Gift Changes Lives
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Here’s a story for the holiday season. A 30-year-old former refugee is putting together a most extraordinary Christmas present — the first high school his community has ever had.
Valentino Deng, 30, is the central figure in the masterful 2006 best seller, “What Is the What,” by Dave Eggers. The book records Valentino’s life after the Sudanese civil war strikes his remote town in South Sudan. His friends were shot around him. He lost contact with his family, and he became one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. Fleeing government soldiers, dodging land mines, eating leaves and animal carcasses, Valentino saw boys around him carried off and devoured by lions.
At one point, Valentino and other refugees were attacked by soldiers beside a crocodile-infested river. He swam to safety through water bloodied as some swimmers were shot and others were snatched by crocodiles.
Valentino learned to read and write at makeshift schools in refugee camps by writing letters in the dust with his finger. Improbably, he turned out to be a brilliant student with a cheerful, upbeat personality. And in 2001, the United States accepted him as a refugee.
Valentino had earned the right to take it easy for the next 600 years; instead, he sets an astonishing example of resilience, compassion and charity. He and Eggers channel every penny made from “What Is the What” to a new foundation dedicated to building a high school in his hometown in Sudan.
That’s what I find so inspiring about Valentino. For a quarter-century, world leaders have averted their eyes from horrors in Sudan — first the north-south civil war that killed two million people (more than died in all the wars in America’s history), then the genocide in Darfur and now the growing risk of another civil war. In that vacuum, moral leadership has come instead from university students and refugees like Valentino.
Now Valentino’s school is beginning to operate in the town of Marial Bai — a modern high school serving students from thousands of square miles. It had a soft opening earlier this year with 100 students, and he is hoping to increase to 450 students in the coming months — but that means dizzying challenges.
“I want to enroll more than 50 percent girls,” Valentino said. “But to do that, I have to house them, because families will not allow a girl to go far away to school without a place to stay.
“For now, I’ve enrolled 14 girls,” he added. “But they go home, and then they have to take care of siblings, collect firewood, fetch water. So I’m worried about how much they can learn.” In addition, a high school girl can fetch a huge bride price — about 100 cows — and Valentino thinks the best way to avoid early marriage and give the girls a chance to study is for them to live in a dormitory on the school grounds.
Decades of civil war have left South Sudan one of the poorest places on Earth, where a woman is more likely to die in childbirth than to be literate. In recent years, only about 500 girls have graduated annually from elementary school in South Sudan — out of a total population of eight million.
Valentino’s every step has been Herculean. Building supplies had to be trucked in from Uganda through a jungle where a brutal militia called the Lord’s Resistance Army murders, rapes and loots. There is no electricity or running water in Marial Bai, so the high school’s computers will have to run on solar power. When a microscope arrived the other day, a science teacher was overcome. He had never actually touched one.
The school has a certain American ethos. Valentino is requiring students to engage in service activities, such as building huts for displaced people. “We focus on leadership,” he explained.
Eight high school teachers from the United States, Canada and New Zealand traveled at their own expense to Valentino’s school last summer to train teachers and work with students. They raved to me about how eager the students are to learn; some students burst into tears when the volunteers had to leave.
“What he’s accomplished in his hometown is astounding,” Eggers said. “A 14-structure educational complex built from scratch in one year. It boggles the mind.
“He’s succeeded where countless NGOs stumble, mainly because he knows the local business climate and can negotiate reasonable local prices for materials,” he added, referring to nongovernmental organizations.
Valentino is still fund-raising and looking for volunteer teachers. He needs $15,000 to finish a dormitory for girls, and much more to dig wells and operate the school for the first three years. (More information about the school is at www.valentinoachakdeng.org.) But he’s relentless.
“I’m the lucky one,” Valentino told me. “I must be the one who will make a difference.”
December 31, 2009
Sparking a Savings Revolution
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
There’s an old saying about poverty: Give me a fish, and I’ll eat for a day. Give me a fishing rod, and I’ll eat for a lifetime.
There are many variations in that theme. In Somalia, I heard a darker version: If I buy food, I’ll eat for a day. If I buy a gun, I’ll eat every day.
But these days, there’s evidence that one of the most effective tools to fight global poverty may be neither a fishing rod nor a gun, but a savings accounts. What we need is a savings revolution.
Right now, the world’s poor almost never have access to a bank account. Cash sits around and gets spent — and, frankly, often spent badly.
“We used to buy a three-liter bottle of Coke every day,” recalled Socorro Machado, a 49-year-old homemaker in a village here in northwestern Nicaragua. That was a bit less than a gallon, and the cost of $1.75 consumed a large share of the family’s budget.
Then Catholic Relief Services, an aid organization, arrived in the village with a new program to promote savings. It provided a wooden box with a padlock and organized savings groups of about 20 people who meet once or twice a month, typically bringing 50 cents or $1 to deposit in the box.
Some of the money is lent out to start a small business, but the greatest benefit of these programs seems to be that they provide a spur to save.
“Now we buy a bottle of Coke just once a week, and we put the money in savings,” Ms. Machado said. She saves about $5 a month in her own name and another $5 a month in her son’s name and has plans to buy a computer for him eventually.
Some people in the development world argue that microlending has been oversold, and there has been a bit of a backlash against it lately — including a “no pago” movement here in Nicaragua. This “don’t pay” effort has been orchestrated by the leftist government of President Daniel Ortega.
I don’t agree with the criticisms of microloans, for I’ve seen how tiny loans can truly transform people’s lives by giving them the means to start small businesses. Even so, there’s evidence that the most powerful element of microfinance is microsavings, not microloans.
One of the ugly secrets of global poverty is that a good deal of suffering is caused not only by low incomes but also by bad spending decisions. Research suggests that the world’s poorest families (typically the men in those families) spend about 20 percent of their incomes on a combination of alcohol, cigarettes, prostitution, soft drinks and extravagant festivals.
In one village here in Nicaragua where children were having to drop out of elementary school because they couldn’t afford notebooks, a midwife, Andrea Machado Garcia, estimated to me that if a man earned $150 working in the mountains as a day laborer during the coffee harvest, he might spend $50 on alcohol and women and bring back $100 to support his family.
One challenge is that those men don’t have a good, secure way to save money, and neither do poor people generally. It just sits around, itching to be spent. It’s also vulnerable to theft, covetous family members and demands for loans from relatives.
In West Africa, money collectors called susus operate informal banks but charge an annualized rate of 40 percent on deposits. Yes, you read that right. You pay a 40 percent interest rate on your savings!
In Kenya, two economists conducted an experiment by paying the fees to open bank accounts for small peddlers. They found that the peddlers who took up the accounts, especially women, enjoyed remarkable gains. Within six months, they were investing 40 percent more in their businesses, typically by buying more goods to be resold.
Many aid groups including CARE and Oxfam now offer savings programs in some form, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is studying how best to promote financial services for the poor. A Web site, www.matchsavings.org, lets donors match a poor person’s savings to increase the incentive to build a savings habit.
So it’s time for a global microsavings movement. Poor countries should ease the regulations (such as requirements for banking licenses) that make it hard for nonprofits to operate microsavings programs.
Hugh Aprile, a Catholic Relief Services official here, noted that savings schemes are very cheap to start because no capital is used to provide loans. “It’s people using their own money,” he said, “to build far more than they ever thought they could.”
Maybe it’s hard for us to believe considering how much animus there is toward fat-cat bankers in the United States, but the world’s poor might benefit hugely from the ability to bank their money safely.
January 17, 2010
Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Want to be happier in 2010? Then try this simple experiment, inspired by recent scholarship in psychology and neurology. Which person would you rather be:
Richard is an ambitious 36-year-old white commodities trader in Florida. He’s healthy and drop-dead handsome, lives alone in a house with a pool, and has worked his way through a series of gorgeous women. Richard’s job is stressful, but he spent Christmas in Tahiti. Unencumbered, he also has time to indulge such passions as reading (right now he’s finishing a book called “Half the Sky”), marathon running and writing poetry. In the last few days, he has been composing an elegy about the Haiti earthquake.
Lorna is a 64-year-old black woman in Boston. She’s overweight and unattractive, even after a recent nose job. Lorna is on regular dialysis, but that doesn’t impede her active social life or babysitting her grandchildren. A retired school assistant, she is close to her 67-year-old husband and is much respected in her church for directing the music committee and the semiannual blood drive. Lorna believes in tithing (giving 10 percent of her income to charity or the church) and in the last few days has organized a church drive to raise $10,000 for earthquake relief in Haiti.
I adapted those examples from ones that Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, develops in his fascinating book, “The Happiness Hypothesis.” His point is that while most of us might prefer to trade places with Richard, Lorna is probably happier.
Men are no happier than women, and people in sunny areas no happier than people in chillier climates. The evidence on health is complex, but even chronic health problems (like those requiring dialysis) may have surprisingly little long-term effect on happiness, because we adjust to them. Beautiful people aren’t happier than ugly people, although cosmetic surgery does seem to leave patients feeling brighter. Whites are happier than blacks, but only very slightly. And young people are actually a bit less happy than older folks, at least up to age 65.
Lorna has a few advantages over Richard. She has less stress and is respected by her peers — factors that make us feel good. Happiness is tied to volunteering and to giving blood, and people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without. A solid marriage is linked to happiness, as is participation in social networks. And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.
“Human beings are in some ways like bees,” Professor Haidt said. “We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.”
Happiness is, of course, a complex concept and difficult to measure, and John Stuart Mill had a point when he suggested: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
But in any case, nobility can lead to happiness. Professor Haidt notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.
I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction.
Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.
The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.
“The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people,” says Brian Mullaney, co-founder of Smile Train, which helps tens of thousands of children each year who are born with cleft lips and cleft palates. Mr. Mullaney was a successful advertising executive, driving a Porsche and taking dates to the Four Seasons, when he felt something was missing and began volunteering for good causes. He ended up leaving the business world to help kids smile again — and all that makes him smile, too.
So at a time of vast needs, from Haiti to our own cities, here’s a nice opportunity for symbiosis: so many afflicted people, and so much benefit to us if we try to help them. Let’s remember that while charity has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record of helping ourselves. Helping others may be as primal a human pleasure as food or sex.
January 24, 2010
What Could You Live Without?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
It all began with a stop at a red light.
Kevin Salwen, a writer and entrepreneur in Atlanta, was driving his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, back from a sleepover in 2006. While waiting at a traffic light, they saw a black Mercedes coupe on one side and a homeless man begging for food on the other.
“Dad, if that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal,” Hannah protested. The light changed and they drove on, but Hannah was too young to be reasonable. She pestered her parents about inequity, insisting that she wanted to do something.
“What do you want to do?” her mom responded. “Sell our house?”
Warning! Never suggest a grand gesture to an idealistic teenager. Hannah seized upon the idea of selling the luxurious family home and donating half the proceeds to charity, while using the other half to buy a more modest replacement home.
Eventually, that’s what the family did. The project — crazy, impetuous and utterly inspiring — is chronicled in a book by father and daughter scheduled to be published next month: “The Power of Half.” It’s a book that, frankly, I’d be nervous about leaving around where my own teenage kids might find it. An impressionable child reads this, and the next thing you know your whole family is out on the street.
At a time of enormous needs in Haiti and elsewhere, when so many Americans are trying to help Haitians by sending everything from text messages to shoes, the Salwens offer an example of a family that came together to make a difference — for themselves as much as the people they were trying to help. In a column a week ago, I described neurological evidence from brain scans that altruism lights up parts of the brain normally associated with more primal gratifications such as food and sex. The Salwens’ experience confirms the selfish pleasures of selflessness.
Mr. Salwen and his wife, Joan, had always assumed that their kids would be better off in a bigger house. But after they downsized, there was much less space to retreat to, so the family members spent more time around each other. A smaller house unexpectedly turned out to be a more family-friendly house.
“We essentially traded stuff for togetherness and connectedness,” Mr. Salwen told me, adding, “I can’t figure out why everybody wouldn’t want that deal.”
One reason for that togetherness was the complex process of deciding how to spend the money. The Salwens researched causes and charities, finally settling on the Hunger Project, a New York City-based international development organization that has a good record of tackling global poverty.
The Salwens pledged $800,000 to sponsor health, microfinancing, food and other programs for about 40 villages in Ghana. They traveled to Ghana with a Hunger Project executive, John Coonrod, who is an inspiration in his own right. Over the years, he and his wife donated so much back from their modest aid-worker salaries that they were among the top Hunger Project donors in New York.
The Salwens’ initiative hasn’t gone entirely smoothly. Hannah promptly won over her parents, but her younger brother, Joe, was (reassuringly) a red-blooded American boy to whom it wasn’t intuitively obvious that life would improve by moving into a smaller house and giving money to poor people. Outvoted and outmaneuvered, Joe gamely went along.
The Salwens also are troubled that some people are reacting negatively to their project, seeing them as sanctimonious showoffs. Or that people are protesting giving to Ghana when there are so many needy Americans.
Still, they have inspired some converts. The people who sold the Salwens their new home were so impressed that they committed $100,000 to the project. And one of Hannah’s closest friends, Blaise, pledged half of her baby-sitting savings to an environmental charity.
In writing the book, the Salwens say, the aim wasn’t actually to get people to sell their houses. They realize that few people are quite that nutty. Rather, the aim was to encourage people to step off the treadmill of accumulation, to define themselves by what they give as well as by what they possess.
“No one expects anyone to sell a house,” said Hannah, now a high school junior who hopes to become a nurse. “That’s kind of a ridiculous thing to do. For us, the house was just something we could live without. It was too big for us. Everyone has too much of something, whether it’s time, talent or treasure. Everyone does have their own half, you just have to find it.”
As for Kevin Salwen, he’s delighted by what has unfolded since that encounter at the red light.
“This is the most self-interested thing we have ever done,” he said. “I’m thrilled that we can help others. I’m blown away by how much it has helped us.”
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.
February 4, 2010
From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Five years ago, Lisa Shannon watched “Oprah” and learned about the savage, forgotten war here in eastern Congo, played out in massacres and mass rape. That show transformed Lisa’s life, costing her a good business, a beloved fiancé, and a comfortable home in Portland, Ore. — but giving her a chance to save lives in Congo.
I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here. It was night, there was no electricity, and a tropical rainstorm was turning the shantytown into a field of mud and streams. Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.
Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.
As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”
So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked.
That’s where Lisa enters the story. After seeing the Oprah show on the Congo war, Lisa began to read more about it, learning that it is the most lethal conflict since World War II. More than five million had already died as of the last peer-reviewed mortality estimate in 2007.
Everybody told her that the atrocities continued because nobody cared. Lisa, who is now 34, was appalled and decided to show that she cared. She asked friends to sponsor her for a solo 30-mile fund-raising run for Congolese women.
That led her to establish Run for Congo Women, which has held fund-raising runs in 10 American states and three foreign countries. The money goes to support sponsorships of Congolese women through a group called Women for Women International.
But in her passion, Lisa neglected the stock photo business that she and her fiancé ran together. Finally, he signaled to her that she had to choose — and she chose Congo.
One of the Congolese women (“sisters”) whom Lisa sponsored with her fund-raising was Generose. Lisa’s letters and monthly checks of $27 began arriving just in time.
“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.
Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification. She noted that many impoverished Congolese families have taken in orphans. “They’ve lost everything,” she said, “but they take children in when they can’t even feed their own properly. I’ve been so inspired by them. I’ve tried to restructure my life to emulate them.”
It’s true. While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords — amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.
So Lisa is right that Generose and so many others here are awe-inspiring. Lisa tells her story in a moving book, “A Thousand Sisters,” that is set to be published in April. Congo is now her obsession, and she is volunteering full time on the cause as she lives off the declining royalties from her old stock photos.
She earns psychic pay when she sees a woman here who named her daughter Lisa. After we visited Congolese Lisa, I asked American Lisa about the toll of her Congo obsession — the lost business, man and home they had shared.
“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” she mused. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”
Maybe that’s why I gravitate toward Lisa’s story. In a land where so many “responsible” leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference. Along with an unbelievable cast of plucky Congolese survivors such as Generose, she evokes hope.
On this visit to Congo, Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women right here in Bukavu, for Feb. 28, with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them at www.runforCongowomen.org. And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.
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.
February 28, 2010
Learning From the Sin of Sodom
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
For most of the last century, save-the-worlders were primarily Democrats and liberals. In contrast, many Republicans and religious conservatives denounced government aid programs, with Senator Jesse Helms calling them “money down a rat hole.”
Over the last decade, however, that divide has dissolved, in ways that many Americans haven’t noticed or appreciated. Evangelicals have become the new internationalists, pushing successfully for new American programs against AIDS and malaria, and doing superb work on issues from human trafficking in India to mass rape in Congo.
A pop quiz: What’s the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization?
It’s not Save the Children, and it’s not CARE — both terrific secular organizations. Rather, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian organization (with strong evangelical roots) whose budget has roughly tripled over the last decade.
World Vision now has 40,000 staff members in nearly 100 countries. That’s more staff members than CARE, Save the Children and the worldwide operations of the United States Agency for International Development — combined.
A growing number of conservative Christians are explicitly and self-critically acknowledging that to be “pro-life” must mean more than opposing abortion. The head of World Vision in the United States, Richard Stearns, begins his fascinating book, “The Hole in Our Gospel,” with an account of a visit a decade ago to Uganda, where he met a 13-year-old AIDS orphan who was raising his younger brothers by himself.
“What sickened me most was this question: where was the Church?” he writes. “Where were the followers of Jesus Christ in the midst of perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time? Surely the Church should have been caring for these ‘orphans and widows in their distress.’ (James 1:27). Shouldn’t the pulpits across America have flamed with exhortations to rush to the front lines of compassion?
“How have we missed it so tragically, when even rock stars and Hollywood actors seem to understand?”
Mr. Stearns argues that evangelicals were often so focused on sexual morality and a personal relationship with God that they ignored the needy. He writes laceratingly about “a Church that had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build schools, hospitals, and clinics.”
In one striking passage, Mr. Stearns quotes the prophet Ezekiel as saying that the great sin of the people of Sodom wasn’t so much that they were promiscuous or gay as that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49.)
Hmm. Imagine if sodomy laws could be used to punish the stingy, unconcerned rich!
The American view of evangelicals is still shaped by preening television blowhards and hypocrites who seem obsessed with gays and fetuses. One study cited in the book found that even among churchgoers ages 16 to 29, the descriptions most associated with Christianity were “antihomosexual,” “judgmental,” “too involved in politics,” and “hypocritical.”
Some conservative Christians reinforced the worst view of themselves by inspiring Ugandan homophobes who backed a bill that would punish gays with life imprisonment or execution. Ditto for the Vatican, whose hostility to condoms contributes to the AIDS epidemic. But there’s more to the picture: I’ve also seen many Catholic nuns and priests heroically caring for AIDS patients — even quietly handing out condoms.
One of the most inspiring figures I’ve met while covering Congo’s brutal civil war is a determined Polish nun in the terrifying hinterland, feeding orphans, standing up to drunken soldiers and comforting survivors — all in a war zone. I came back and decided: I want to grow up and become a Polish nun.
Some Americans assume that religious groups offer aid to entice converts. That’s incorrect. Today, groups like World Vision ban the use of aid to lure anyone into a religious conversation.
Some liberals are pushing to end the longtime practice (it’s a myth that this started with President George W. Bush) of channeling American aid through faith-based organizations. That change would be a catastrophe. In Haiti, more than half of food distributions go through religious groups like World Vision that have indispensible networks on the ground. We mustn’t make Haitians the casualties in our cultural wars.
A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.
If secular liberals can give up some of their snootiness, and if evangelicals can retire some of their sanctimony, then we all might succeed together in making greater progress against common enemies of humanity, like illiteracy, human trafficking and maternal mortality.
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.
March 14, 2010
Partying to Change the World
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Maybe the most common question I get from readers is: What can I do?
They’ve read about malaria, or mass rape, or AIDS orphans, and they want to make a difference. Should they call the White House? Write a check? Howl in hopeless despair?
There’s never a perfect answer, but here’s one ingenious approach: Throw a party!
Let’s back up. In 2004, a Colorado woman named Torkin Wakefield, a Peace Corps veteran with a lifetime of experience in aid work, was temporarily living in Uganda. Her daughter, Devin Hibbard, then just out of graduate school, came to visit, and they strolled together through a slum in Kampala, the capital.
They stumbled upon a woman named Millie Akena making jewelry beads out of trash paper outside her mud-walled home. They bought a few necklaces from Millie, for about 75 cents each.
Over the next few days, mother and daughter received many compliments on the necklaces — especially when they explained where the beads came from. Jewelry from garbage!
Hmm. A gleam in their eyes, Torkin and Devin returned to the slum, asked Millie to gather her friends and bought up more than 225 necklaces.
American friends loved the beads. So Torkin and Devin, with their friend Ginny Jordan, formed BeadforLife. It’s a nonprofit seeking to promote entrepreneurship through an international jewelry manufacturing operation.
They returned to Uganda to work with the women on improving jewelry designs and assuring quality. To cut costs, they asked friends traveling back to the United States to smuggle bags of necklaces in their suitcases.
Then they began marketing the jewelry through bead parties in the United States — a bit like Tupperware parties. Typically, one woman invites her friends, and they come to her home to buy necklaces, bracelets and earrings for between $5 and $30. Last year alone, Torkin says, there were 3,000 of these parties, attended by about 100,000 people.
“It’s not a handout; we’re totally opposed to that,” said Devin, who is now based in Uganda for the project. “This is a symbol for us of women really working hard.”
BeadforLife recruits women who are earning $1 a day or less, and who seem particularly hard-working and entrepreneurial. Once enrolled, they get training in how to cut strips of scrap paper, roll them tightly, glue them and seal them — and, presto, a beautiful bead.
The beads are not painted, and their color comes from the paper itself (with writing sometimes faintly visible). Magazine ads and aid group brochures are prized for their rich colors. Torkin remembers wincing when she saw women making beads from brochures explaining how mothers can prevent AIDS transmission to their babies. “I just hope that someone had looked at them before they were cut up,” she said.
Bead makers earn about $200 per month, half of which is deposited in brand-new savings accounts (one huge problem for the world’s poor is that they lack a safe way to save). The women are also encouraged to trade their beads to the program for antimalarial bed nets, condoms, deworming medicine and family planning supplies.
The centerpiece of the 18-month BeadforLife program is training bead makers to start small businesses. They get coaching in business management, and some learn trades like making jam or raising chickens.
The bead makers get about $600 to open their own shops or start some other small business, and after a year and a half they graduate and new bead makers are enrolled. The aim is not to create lifelong jewelry manufacturers, but to turn women into bustling entrepreneurs.
These days, Torkin and Devin are no longer smuggling their merchandise (it turned out that the necklaces weren’t subject to American duty, they say, so subterfuge was unnecessary). Their biggest challenge is how to manage $4 million in annual jewelry sales so that it makes the most difference.
BeadforLife reflects several fascinating trends in the battle against global poverty. One is the increasing interest in using businesses and entrepreneurship to create jobs and a more sustainable economic liftoff. A second is a focus on women, because of evidence that they are more likely than men to invest business profits in their children’s education and health. A third is the growing attempt to engage American supporters by asking them to do something other than just writing checks.
Increasingly, Torkin and Devin have also been using the bead parties to try to educate the jewelry buyers about Africa. To go with the beads, they’ve developed a curriculum on global poverty for American schools. They’ve also been taking Americans to Africa to see the work firsthand.
“At first, we thought BeadforLife was just for Ugandans,” Torkin said. “Then we realized that a lot of this was about helping Americans get involved.”
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 13, 2010
Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
In recent years, the idea of giving small loans to poor people became the darling of the development world, hailed as the long elusive formula to propel even the most destitute into better lives.
Actors like Natalie Portman and Michael Douglas lent their boldface names to the cause. Muhammad Yunus, the economist who pioneered the practice by lending small amounts to basket weavers in Bangladesh, won a Nobel Peace Prize for it in 2006. The idea even got its very own United Nations year in 2005.
But the phenomenon has grown so popular that some of its biggest proponents are now wringing their hands over the direction it has taken. Drawn by the prospect of hefty profits from even the smallest of loans, a raft of banks and financial institutions now dominate the field, with some charging interest rates of 100 percent or more.
“We created microcredit to fight the loan sharks; we didn’t create microcredit to encourage new loan sharks,” Mr. Yunus recently said at a gathering of financial officials at the United Nations. “Microcredit should be seen as an opportunity to help people get out of poverty in a business way, but not as an opportunity to make money out of poor people.”
The fracas over preserving the field’s saintly aura centers on the question of how much interest and profit is acceptable, and what constitutes exploitation. The noisy interest rate fight has even attracted Congressional scrutiny, with the House Financial Services Committee holding hearings this year focused in part on whether some microcredit institutions are scamming the poor.
Rates vary widely across the globe, but the ones that draw the most concern tend to occur in countries like Nigeria and Mexico, where the demand for small loans from a large population cannot be met by existing lenders.
April 18, 2010
A Church Mary Can Love
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
I heard a joke the other day about a pious soul who dies, goes to heaven, and gains an audience with the Virgin Mary. The visitor asks Mary why, for all her blessings, she always appears in paintings as a bit sad, a bit wistful: Is everything O.K.?
Mary reassures her visitor: “Oh, everything’s great. No problems. It’s just ... it’s just that we had always wanted a daughter.”
That story comes to mind as the Vatican wrestles with the consequences of a patriarchal premodern mind-set: scandal, cover-up and the clumsiest self-defense since Watergate. That’s what happens with old boys’ clubs.
It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.
The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. The Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic text from the third century, declares of Mary Magdalene: “She is the one the Savior loved more than all the disciples.” Likewise, the Gospel of Mary (from the early second century) suggests that Jesus entrusted Mary Magdalene to instruct the disciples on his religious teachings.
St. Paul refers in Romans 16 to a first-century woman named Junia as prominent among the early apostles, and to a woman named Phoebe who served as a deacon. The Apostle Junia became a Christian before St. Paul did (chauvinist translators have sometimes rendered her name masculine, with no scholarly basis).
Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.
The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.
The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.
That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.
But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.
Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.
This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.
This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.
So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.
It’s high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime — even divine — side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile.
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.
May 2, 2010
Who Can Mock This Church?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Maybe the Catholic Church should be turned upside down.
Jesus wasn’t known for pontificating from palaces, covering up scandals, or issuing Paleolithic edicts on social issues. Does anyone think he would have protected clergymen who raped children?
Yet if the top of the church has strayed from its roots, much of its base is still deeply inspiring. I came here to impoverished southern Sudan to write about Sudanese problems, not the Catholic Church’s. Yet once again, I am awed that so many of the selfless people serving the world’s neediest are lowly nuns and priests — notable not for the grandeur of their vestments but for the grandness of their compassion.
As I’ve noted before, there seem to be two Catholic Churches, the old boys’ club of the Vatican and the grass-roots network of humble priests, nuns and laity in places like Sudan. The Vatican certainly supports many charitable efforts, and some bishops and cardinals are exemplary, but overwhelmingly it’s at the grass roots that I find the great soul of the Catholic Church.
The Vatican believes that this newspaper and other news organizations have been unfair and overzealous in excavating the church’s cover-ups of child rape. I see the opposite. No organization has done more to elevate the moral stature of the Catholic Church in the United States than The Boston Globe. Its groundbreaking 2002 coverage of abuse by priests led to reforms and by most accounts a significant reduction in abuse. Catholic kids are safer today not because of the cardinals’ leadership, but because of The Boston Globe’s.
Yet the church leaders are right about one thing: there is often a liberal and secular snobbishness toward the church as a whole — and that is unfair.
It may be easy at a New York cocktail party to sniff derisively at a church whose apex is male chauvinist, homophobic and so out of touch that it bars the use of condoms even to curb AIDS. But what about Father Michael Barton, a Catholic priest from Indianapolis? I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of statewide examinations.
Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. “It’s very normal to have malaria,” he said. “Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal.”
Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest.
Anybody scorn him? Anybody think he’s a self-righteous hypocrite?
On the contrary, he would make a great pope.
In the city of Juba, I met Cathy Arata, a nun from New Jersey who spent years working with battered women in Appalachia. Then she moved to El Salvador during the brutal civil war there, putting her life on the line to protect peasants. Two years ago, she came here on behalf of a terrific Catholic project called Solidarity With Southern Sudan.
Sister Cathy and the others in the project have trained 600 schoolteachers. They are fighting hunger not with handouts but with help for villagers to improve agricultural techniques. They are also establishing a school for health workers, with a special focus on midwifery to reduce deaths in childbirth.
At the hospital attached to that school, the surgeon is a nun from Italy. The other doctor is a 72-year-old nun from Rhode Island. Nuns rock.
Sister Cathy would like to see more decentralization in the church, a greater role for women, and more emphasis on public service. She says she worries sometimes that if Jesus returned he would say, “Oh, they got it all wrong!”
She would make a great pope, too.
There are so many more like them. There’s Father Mario Falconi, an Italian priest who refused to leave Rwanda during the genocide and bravely saved 3,000 people from being massacred. There’s Father Mario Benedetti, a 72-year-old Italian priest based in Congo who fled with his congregation when their town was attacked by a brutal militia. Now Father Mario lives side by side with his Congolese congregants in the squalor of a refugee camp in southern Sudan, struggling to get schooling for their children.
It’s because of brave souls like these that I honor the Catholic Church. I understand why many Americans disdain a church whose leaders are linked to cover-ups and antediluvian stances on women, gays and condoms — but the Catholic Church is far larger than the Vatican.
And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos videos and follow me on Twitter.
May 9, 2010
Celebrate: Save a Mother
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Happy Mother’s Day! And let me be clear: I’m in favor of flowers, lavish brunches, and every other token of gratitude for mothers and other goddesses.
Let me also add that your mom — yes, I’m speaking to you — is particularly deserving. (As is mine, as is my wife. And my mother-in-law!)
And because so many people feel that way, some $14 billion will be spent in the United States for Mother’s Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes $2.9 billion in meals, $2.5 billion in jewelry and $1.9 billion in flowers.
To put that sum in context, it’s enough to pay for a primary school education for all 60 million girls around the world who aren’t attending school. That would pretty much end female illiteracy.
These numbers are fuzzy and uncertain, but it appears that there would be enough money left over for programs to reduce deaths in childbirth by about three-quarters, saving perhaps 260,000 women’s lives a year.
There would probably even be enough remaining to treat tens of thousands of young women suffering from one of the most terrible things that can happen to a person, a childbirth injury called an obstetric fistula. Fistulas leave women incontinent and dribbling wastes, turning them into pariahs — and the injuries are usually fixable with a $450 operation.
So let’s celebrate Mother’s Day with all the flowers and brunches we can muster: no reason to feel guilty about a dollop of hedonism to compensate for 365 days of maternal toil. But let’s also think about moving the apostrophe so that it becomes not just Mother’s Day, honoring a single mother, but Mothers’ Day — an occasion to try to help other mothers around the globe as well.
Oddly, for a culture that celebrates motherhood, we’ve never been particularly interested in maternal health. The United States ranks 41st in the world in maternal mortality, according to an Amnesty International report, or 37th according to a major new study in the medical journal The Lancet, using different data sources.
Using either set of statistics, an American woman is at least twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as a woman in much of Europe.
A friend of mine in New York, a young woman who minds her health and has even worked on maternal health issues, nearly joined the data set last month. She had an ectopic pregnancy that she was unaware of until her fallopian tube ruptured and she almost died.
Maternal mortality is far more common in Africa and Asia. In the West African country of Niger, a woman has about a one-in-seven lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy complications. Women there often aren’t supposed to go to a doctor if the husband hasn’t granted express permission — so if he’s 100 miles away when she has labor complications, she may just die at home.
On the 50th anniversary of the pill, it’s also worth noting that birth control is an excellent way to reduce deaths in childbirth. If there were half as many pregnancies in poor countries, there would be half as many maternal deaths.
It’s certainly not inevitable that women die in childbirth, and some poor countries — like Sri Lanka — have done a remarkable job curbing maternal mortality. But in many places, women’s lives are not a priority.
There’s no silver bullet to end maternal mortality, but we know steps that have made a big difference in some countries. Bipartisan legislation to be introduced this year by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut aims to have the United States build on these proven methods to tackle obstetric fistulas and maternal health globally.
Just the money that Americans will spend on Mother’s Day greeting cards for today — about $670 million — would save the lives of many thousands of women. Many organizations do wonderful work in this area, from the giants like CARE and Save the Children to the tiny Edna Maternity Hospital in Somaliland. Women Deliver and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood do important advocacy work. And the Fistula Foundation and Worldwide Fistula Fund help women who have obstetric fistulas. (Details are on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground.)
So if one way to mark Mothers’ Day is to buy flowers for that special mom, another is to make this a safer planet for moms in general. And since we men are going to be focused on the flowers, maybe mothers themselves can work on making motherhood less lethal.
I had a letter the other day from a woman in Connecticut, Eva Hausman, who was so appalled when she learned about obstetric fistulas that she e-mailed her friends and asked them to contribute at least $20. To date she has raised $9,000 for the Fistula Foundation.
“Most of the contributions were accompanied by thank-you notes,” she told me. When people thank you for allowing them to donate — that’s truly a heartwarming cause, and a beautiful way to celebrate Mothers’ Day.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos videos and follow me on Twitter.
May 19, 2010
Poverty and the Pill
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Earthquakes are more dramatic. Tsunamis make better television. AIDS is more visceral.
But here’s a far more widespread challenge, one that’s also more fixable: the unavailability of birth control in many poor countries. I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey across a chunk of Central Africa with a 19-year-old university student, Mitch Smith. He won the right to bounce over impossible roads in the region where it’s easy to see firsthand how breakneck population growth is linked to poverty, instability and conflict.
In almost every village we stop in, we chat with families whose huts overflow with small children — whom the parents can’t always afford to educate, feed or protect from disease.
Here in Kinshasa, we met Emilie Lunda, 25, who had nearly died during childbirth a few days earlier. Doctors saved her life, but her baby died. And she is still recuperating in a hospital and doesn’t know how she will pay the bill.
“I didn’t want to get pregnant,” Emilie told us here in the Congolese capital. “I was afraid of getting pregnant.” But she had never heard of birth control.
In rural parts of Congo Republic, the other Congo to the north, we found that even when people had heard of contraception, they often regarded it as unaffordable.
Most appalling, all the clinics and hospitals we visited in Congo Republic said that they would sell contraceptives only to women who brought their husbands in with them to prove that the husband accepted birth control.
Condoms are somewhat easier to obtain, but many men resist them. More broadly, many men seem to feel that more children are a proud sign of more virility.
So the pill, 50 years old this month in the United States, has yet to reach parts of Africa. And condoms and other forms of birth control and AIDS prevention are still far too difficult to obtain in some areas.
America’s widely respected Guttmacher Institute, which conducts research on reproductive health, says that 215 million women around the world are sexually active and don’t want to become pregnant — but are not using modern forms of contraception.
Making contraception available to all these women worldwide would cost less than $4 billion, Guttmacher said in an important study published last year. That’s about what the United States is spending every two weeks on our military force in Afghanistan.
What’s more, each dollar spent on contraception would actually reduce total medical spending by $1.40 by reducing sums spent on unplanned births and abortions, the study said.
If contraception were broadly available in poor countries, the report said, more than 50 million unwanted pregnancies could be averted annually. One result would be 25 million fewer abortions per year. Another would be saving the lives of as many as 150,000 women who now die annually in childbirth.
Family planning has stalled since the 1980s. Republican administrations cut off all American financing for the United Nations Population Fund, the main international agency supporting family-planning programs. Paradoxically, conservative hostility to some family-planning programs almost certainly resulted in more abortions.
The Obama administration has restored that financing, and it should make a priority of broader access to contraception (and to girls’ education, which may be the most effective contraceptive of all).
In fairness, family planning is harder than it looks. Many impoverished men and women, especially those without education, want babies more than contraceptives. As Mitch and I drove through villages, we asked many women how many babies they would ideally have. Most said five or six, and a few said 10.
Parents want many children partly because they expect some to die. So mosquito nets, vaccinations and other steps to reduce child mortality also help to create an environment where family planning is more readily accepted.
In short, what’s needed is a comprehensive approach to assisting men and women alike with family planning — not just a contraceptive dispensary.
Romerchinelle Mietala, a 17-year-old girl in Mindouli, Congo Republic, has one baby and told us that she doesn’t really want another child for now. But she had never heard of contraceptives and, when we explained, was ambivalent. She worried about her status in the village if she didn’t get pregnant again reasonably soon.
“If a woman doesn’t have a baby every two or three years, people will say she’s sterile,” she said.
Another woman in Mindouli, Christine Kanda, said that she is ready to stop now after eight children — two of which have died. But she doesn’t know if her husband will accompany her to the clinic to sign off, and she doesn’t know how she would pay the $1 a month that the hospital charges.
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