Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

Nov 01, 2010 Published under Global, KIND Snacks, Kinded, Leadership, Philanthropy

A recent New York Times Magazine cover article promoted many self starters working to fill voids in the developing world who embody the old slogan “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” By quoting stories of D.I.Y. volunteerism (as in, Do It Yourself), Nicholas Kristof makes it clear that a passionate and determined individual holds tremendous power.  Although Kristof reveals that many of the self starters who set out to do good, run into many obstacles along the way, and although he the large possibility of failure in tackling the world’s largest problems, the reason this article is so inspiring is because it presents the possibilities that exist for those with a open heart and creative mind.  This article is really worth a read; the philosophy that one person can change the world through KINDNESS, is exactly what we believe in here at KIND.


Spotted by Daniel Lubetzky, redacted by Adeena Schlussel

The New York Times

D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution


Like so many highly trained young women these days, Elizabeth Scharpf has choices. She could be working in a Manhattan office tower with her Harvard Business School classmates, soaring through the ranks as a banker or business executive and aspiring to become a senator or a C.E.O. someday.

After all, there’s no question that women around the world enjoy opportunities that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago. Yet the women exerting the greatest pressure for change often aren’t the presidents and tycoons but those toiling further down the pyramid, driven by a passion to create a better world. And in particular, a better world for women.

That’s Scharpf’s choice. Now 33, Scharpf was interning in the summer of 2005 for the World Bank in Mozambique, helping local entrepreneurs, when she encountered a business impediment that she had never heard of. It was unmentionable, and thus unmentioned. It was menstruation.

A female boss griped to Scharpf about absenteeism caused by women reluctant to come to work during their menstrual periods. “It was because pads were too expensive,” Scharpf recalls. “I was trying to figure out why I had never heard of this before. This was causing productivity rates to go down.”

Scharpf began asking around, and everybody told her — in whispers — that, yes, of course menstruation was keeping women and girls from jobs. Back atHarvard, where she was pursuing joint degrees at the business school and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, she began asking friends from Bangladesh, Nicaragua and other countries if they were aware of this problem. Of course, they said. “This spoke to me,” Scharpf recalled. “Hasn’t every girl or woman experienced the inconvenience, the disadvantage and the embarrassment in her life, when her period strikes at the ‘wrong’ time? I think half the world can relate to that. What really struck me was that this was a global issue that seemingly had significant costs. From back-of-the-envelope calculations, it had huge costs. And it could have a simple solution.” She paused and smiled tightly. “I was a little naïve there.”

Scharpf is a mild-mannered policy wonk, but the more she thought about it, the more indignant she became. Girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford sanitary pads? Women couldn’t go to work for lack of pads? And all this was taboo to discuss? Scharpf began to scheme.

And so Scharpf joined a revolution, so far unnamed because it is just beginning. It’s all about what might be called Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid, because it starts with the proposition that it’s not only presidents and United Nations officials who chip away at global challenges. Passionate individuals with great ideas can do the same, especially in the age of the Internet and social media.

I became interested in such figures while writing a book with my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, about educating and empowering women as a solution to many of the world’s problems. We ran into extraordinary men, like Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank, who pioneered microfinance in Bangladesh. Or Bill Drayton, an American who is a godfather of entrepreneurs working for social change and who now runs a group called Ashoka to support them. Or Greg Mortenson, whose struggles to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan are chronicled in “Three Cups of Tea.” But it struck us that women in particular were finding creative ways to help the world’s most vulnerable people, many of them also women.

As a college sophomore, Jennifer Staple founded Unite for Sight, which has now provided eye care to more than one million people around the world. Kyle Zimmer, a corporate lawyer who tutored inner-city school children on the side, went on to create First Book, which over nearly 20 years has delivered more than 70 million books to book-deprived children in the United States and Canada. One of the world’s largest grass-roots organizations is India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA. It was founded in 1972 by a lawyer named Ela Bhatt, who helped people living on the margins — textile workers and later peasants and small vendors, among others — by organizing them so that they could improve their health, start businesses and even bank among themselves.

Are these young idealists unsophisticated about what it takes to change the world? Yes, often. At first, they don’t always appreciate the importance of listening to local people and bringing them into the management of projects, and they usually overestimate the odds of success. They also sometimes think it will be romantic to tackle social problems, a view that may fade when they’ve caught malaria.

After college at Notre Dame and before grad school at Harvard, Scharpf worked for three years in global pharmeceuticals and biotech. As soon as she finished her graduate programs at Harvard, she began harnessing her contacts to design a company that would manufacture inexpensive sanitary pads for Africa and Asia, to be distributed by women themselves on a franchise system. Soon Scharpf was in Rwanda, where schoolgirls told her they routinely stayed home during their periods to avoid the risk of humiliation, with one explaining: “What if I get called to go to the blackboard and I have a stain on the back of my skirt?” Scharpf found that the cheapest pads commercially available cost $1.10 for a pack of 10. In rural villages, women and girls used rags or sometimes bark or mud instead.

Commercial pads turned out to be expensive to manufacture largely because the raw materials were pricey, so Scharpf started from scratch. She recruited a team of like-minded wonks, and they consulted villagers, agriculture experts and professors of textile engineering. What is there that is really absorbent, widely available and cheap? The team came up with five finalists: cassava leaves, banana leaves, banana-tree trunk fibers, foam mattresses, textile scraps. “We brought a blender to Rwanda and started blending things, boiling leaves from potato and cassava, things like that,” Scharpf said. “We would drop Coke on it to measure absorbency.” That was when they had their eureka moment. “We saw, hey, those banana fibers really slurp up the Coke!”

Scharpf accepted a $60,000 grant from Echoing Green, an organization that works like a venture-capital fund to finance people with great ideas. Later she won a social-entrepreneurship fellowship from Harvard Business School, and now her team has engineered a new sanitary pad that she hopes can transform life for women and girls in the developing world. It looks like a regular pad but is made chiefly out of banana-tree fibers, so it is sustainable and for the most part biodegradable. Best of all, it’s cheap: a pack of 10 should retail for 75 cents or less.

Scharpf’s organization, Sustainable Health Enterprises (or SHE), will begin manufacturing pads early next year in a tiny factory in Rwanda. It will be a pilot project, producing some 1,200 pads per hour, but once the kinks are worked out she hopes to have women in other countries franchise the system so that it spreads around the world. SHE has also taken on advocacy, calling on the Rwandan government to lift an 18 percent sales tax on feminine hygiene products so that they become more affordable. Awakened to the issue, the Rwandan Parliament recently appropriated $35,000 to pay for sanitary pads for impoverished girls who otherwise might miss school — a small sum, but an acknowledgment that the problem is important and real. Some Rwandan women Scharpf has interviewed say that the attention has made a difference in their homes: their husbands are now more willing to allow them to spend money on pads.

Will banana-fiber sanitary pads succeed? No one knows. It is entirely possible that Scharpf will find that even if manufacturing goes smoothly — a huge “if” — there is simply not much of a market for sanitary pads in poor countries. Families may consider a 60- or 70-cent pack just as unaffordable as a $1.10 pack. Or suppose for a moment that everything goes perfectly, and pad franchises spread and families buy packets of pads for girls who are now missing school because of difficulties managing menstruation. Will those girls now stay in school? We can’t be sure of that either.

One study in Nepal found that while girls appreciated help with hygiene, they weren’t significantly more likely to attend school as a result. Menstrual cramps were more of an impediment than a lack of pads. And so aspirinlike medicines may need to be part of the solution as well. Research in Malawi by the Population Council suggests that bicycles would keep more kids in school than sanitary pads would. On the other hand, a study in Ghana suggests that supplying pads to rural girls there might reduce girls’ absenteeism significantly.

In short, it’s complicated. Scharpf is engaged in a noble experiment — but entrepreneurs fail sometimes. And anybody wrestling with poverty at home or abroad learns that good intentions and hard work aren’t enough. Helping people is hard.

It’s also clear that sanitary pads won’t save the world. In the best case, Sustainable Health Enterprises will spread and make it easier for girls to go to school and women to work — but it will be only an incremental improvement. In the real world, that’s usually how progress arrives (with screams of vexation along the way).

Fortunately, one factor buttressing D.I.Y. foreign aid is that altruism is contagious. In 2005, Lisa Shannon and her live-in boyfriend ran a stock photography business in Portland, Ore. But she was feeling a nagging emptiness, and then she happened to watch an “Oprah” show about women suffering from war and rape in eastern Congo. The episode featured Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American who started an organization called Women for Women International to help such survivors in places like Congo. Shannon was dazzled by Salbi and decided to pitch in herself by cajoling friends to sponsor her for a 30-mile run to raise money for women in Congo.

That first run was exhilarating, and left Shannon with the warm, fuzzy and novel feeling that she was really doing some good in the world. After sponsoring several Congolese women and reading their letters, she founded an organization called Run for Congo Women that held fund-raising runs across America and around the world. Eventually, she made a trip to Congo and had a joyous meeting with her new “family.” She was bowled over when one of the women she sponsored introduced her baby girl: the mother named the baby “Lisa,” after Shannon. She poured her soul into the cause, but her fiancé grumbled as their business floundered. Finally he told her she had to choose: him or the Congolese women.

So in the end Shannon lost her business and her fiancé. She is struggling with no income, because she pays herself no salary and passes on all the money she raises to Women for Women International. Devoting yourself to helping others may seem wonderfully glamorous — until you’re single, jobless and alone on a Saturday night. Shannon has taken in five roommates to share her house, and she saves pennies everywhere she can, but at some point she will become a pauper unless she finds a way of supporting herself.

I caught up with Shannon earlier this year in Congo. She took me to see the Congolese Lisa, and also to visit the hut of the Congolese woman she’s closest to, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old former nurse. Namburho is a stocky, self-assured woman who led us down a mud path, using a crutch to replace her missing right leg. An extremist Hutu militia invaded Namburho’s home a few years ago, killed her husband, raped her and then hacked off her leg with a knife. Then the soldiers cooked the flesh from her leg and forced her children at gunpoint to eat it. When her beloved oldest son refused, they shot him in front of her.

Shannon paid $1,500 to buy this home for Namburho so she would have somewhere to live after she returned from a stay in the hospital. “I believe God sent Lisa to rescue me from my misery,” Namburho told me, as Shannon squirmed in embarrassment.

This year Shannon organized one of her runs right there in Congo. Shannon ran alongside Namburho, who limped along with her crutch. “She said that if she could run on only one leg, then people would see that anybody could do this,” Shannon said, adding: “That was probably the best day of my life. It was fantastic. It’s one thing to support women rebuilding their lives, and another to see them emerge as leaders. We raised about $50,000, and these are women earning maybe $20 a month, and they raised money for other Congolese women.”

Shannon has expanded her mandate this year, engaging in advocacy work to try to stop the rapes and killings in the first place. There are no simple solutions to the ongoing crisis in Congo, but Shannon has concentrated on embarrassing electronics makers, because they use parts that may contain minerals like tantalum from the area. Warlords sell these “conflict minerals,” and the idea is that if you can interrupt those supply chains, the warlords will find killing less profitable and may be more willing to negotiate.

By one estimate, auditing supply lines to assure an absence of conflict minerals could cost as little as a penny per finished cellphone, laptop or electronic camera. So early this year Shannon and other activists showed up at Intel’s offices near her Oregon home with 45,000 pennies, representing the 45,000 people whose deaths can be attributed to the fighting in Congo each month, according to a mortality study by the International Rescue Committee. “We said we’d be more than happy to pay a penny per product if that‘ll save lives,” Shannon said. “Nobody at Intel would talk with us. They just sent a security person out. They wouldn’t accept the pennies.”

So Shannon jumped in her car with her mother, and they drove 11 hours down to Silicon Valley to the headquarters of Intel. There they made a similar pitch, and also visited Apple and Hewlett-Packard. Finally they dropped in on an Apple conference, and then an Apple Store opening in Washington. This was all quite uncomfortable for Shannon, who until then had been around like-minded activists who thought she was wonderful; now she was engaging in confrontational behavior and encountering people who thought she was naïve, immature and boorish. One man told her to put down a sign with the word “rape,” because he found it offensive — and all Shannon could think was that it should be even more offensive that so many Congolese women are raped.

In the end, Shannon’s work — along with that of many, many other activists — seemed to make a difference. Some electronics companies became more aggressive about scrubbing supply chains of tainted minerals. Most important, Congress addressed the issue in this year’s financial-reform law, which requires companies to disclose whether they use minerals from Congo or an adjoining country, and if they do use them, to reveal how the minerals were acquired. It’s a step forward, and Shannon hopes that the result will be fewer Congolese enduring rapes and massacres.

It’s striking that the most innovative activists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most resources, or the best tools. If that were true, a team at the World Bank would have addressed the menstruation problem long ago, and G20 countries would be leading the effort to prevent Congolese warlords from monetizing their minerals. Rather, what often happens is that those best positioned to take action look the other way, and then the initiative is taken by the Scharpfs and Shannons of the world, who are fueled by some combustible mix of indignation and vision.

Maggie Doyne epitomizes this truth, for she began her philanthropic work as an 19-year-old financed by her baby-sitting savings. Yet she has somehow figured out how to run a sophisticated aid project in a remote area of Nepal.

Doyne grew up in New Jersey and excelled in high school — top grades, editor of the yearbook, three-sport varsity athlete — but felt burned out and unready to go to college when she graduated in 2005. So she took a “gap year” after high-school graduation and ended up in northern India, working with needy children. It was an impoverished area, yet Nepali refugees were pouring in and sleeping on the bare ground, fleeing civil war in their country. Doyne couldn’t imagine what kind of conditions would be so bad that people would flee to where she was. So when the Maoist insurgency in Nepal calmed, she boarded a crammed public bus with a Nepali teenage girl to visit the girl’s hometown. They got off, 48 hours and several bus breakdowns later, at the end of the bus line. Then Doyne and her friend hiked for another three days to the girl’s home in the heartland of the Maoist insurgency.

It was a gorgeous Himalayan village, with a river running through it. But it was also ravaged by the war. Temples had been burned down, and the girl’s home had been converted into a rebel camp. Most children couldn’t afford school. In the cities, she had seen them working with hammers, breaking rocks into gravel to sell.

“The first little girl I met was Hema,” Doyne remembers. Then 6 or 7 years old (few children know their precise age), Hema spent her time breaking rocks and scavenging garbage and had no chance to go to school. But she was radiant and adorable and always greeted Doyne in Nepali with a warm, “Good morning, Sister!”

“Maybe I saw a piece of myself in her,” said Doyne, who decided to take Hema under her wing and pay for her education: “I knew I couldn’t do anything about a million orphans, but what if I started with this girl?” So she took Hema to school and paid $7 for the girl’s school fees and another $8 for a uniform so that she could enter kindergarten.

“It became addictive,” Doyne said. “I said, if I can help one girl, why not 5? Why not 10? And along with scholarships, they needed the most basic things: food, shelter, clothing.” Doyne found a ramshackle telephone “booth” — actually, a mud hut — where she could place an international call and telephoned her parents with a strange and urgent request: Can you wire me the money in my savings account? Doyne’s parents were concerned about the choices she was making and the delay in going to college, but it was her money — $5,000 made baby-sitting while in high school — and they could hear the passion in her voice over a crackly line.

“It was like being hit by a stun gun,” recalled Maggie’s mother, Nancy Doyne, a real estate agent. “But there’s no stopping that child.” Nancy Doyne worried about her daughter and had trouble sleeping when she thought of the perils of rural Nepal — but she also knew: “I had to cut my string to that child and let her fly.” So the parents sent Maggie the money, and she bought land and began working with villagers to build a shelter for orphans.

Doyne returned to New Jersey and began to take odd jobs and proselytize for her shelter. People in her hometown thought that she was nuts, but in a benign way — and they wrote checks. After a few months, when Doyne had raised $25,000, she moved back to Nepal to oversee construction of the shelter, called the Kopila Valley Children’s Home.

The first resident was a girl named Nisha, a 7- or 8-year-old whose parents had died and who had been sold to be a domestic servant. Nisha turned out to be a prodigy and quickly picked up English. In Nisha’s first year of school, she skipped three grade levels. Nisha would scavenge old textbooks and read them on her own, then come to Doyne with questions. And while Doyne herself now speaks fluent Nepali, American volunteers who work with her often use Nisha as their interpreter. Less than three years after Doyne took her in, Nisha is a poised sixth grader with immense promise.

The children’s home was soon overflowing with orphans, and Doyne was desperate for money to expand it. At that moment she received a call from CosmoGirl magazine. Now, Doyne never wears so much as lipstick in Nepal. If there’s enough water, she showers — and if there isn’t, she splashes water on her face, brushes her teeth, puts her hair in a ponytail and is ready for another day. Sometimes she misses dating, but she has no boyfriend and has put her romantic life completely aside. “My main concern beauty-wise,” she says, “is trying to keep the lice out of my hair.”

But now CosmoGirl was on the phone, telling her that she had won a $20,000 prize for her work, financed by Maybelline. Doyne could now pay to add second and third floors to her shelter and bring in more homeless orphans. “It gets even better!” the woman on the phone went on excitedly. “We’re going to whisk you away to New York for a Maybelline makeover!”

Once Doyne expanded the children’s home (and had her makeover, gaining false eyelashes and blond highlights— all very briefly), she began to focus on education. Last year, she won a $100,000 grand prize in a contest run by www.DoSomething.org, and that money provided the wherewithal to start a new school that she had long dreamed of. An Australian architect who met Doyne on Facebook flew to Nepal to design the buildings, and the project began taking shape. The school now has classes from kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as a library, a cafeteria and an outdoor auditorium. The plan is to expand it one year at a time until it is a high school as well.

Having become in effect a principal who never went to college, Doyne was passionate that the school would be academically outstanding. She recruited teachers who would forswear corporal punishment and encourage creativity rather than rote learning. The entire region has taken heed of Doyne’s school project, with officials pleading for their children’s admission. Some upper-caste parents were aghast that low-caste mothers would be preparing meals for upper-caste children, but they bit their lips and were silent in the hope that their children could attend. A one-hour enrollment session seeking just 40 children was swamped by 500 kids pleading for admission.

The school opened with 220 students and will soon expand to 300. The plan is to offer health care and dental care as well, starting with deworming the children — because their load of intestinal worms leaves them anemic. A $300 donation covers a child’s educational costs for a year at the school, including health and dental care. Doyne is also working on a vocational element, training kids to raise livestock for a living, to repair bicycles or to develop other skills that will give them steady incomes. The school is coed, but the girls who attend are particularly important to Doyne, for two reasons. One is that uneducated girls are particularly at risk of exploitation. The other is that there’s considerable evidence that educating girls is one of the best investments available in the developing world, because it leads to lower birth rates and a more skilled and productive labor force.

As for her own needs, Doyne is blasé. When she had an infected tooth in a remote village far from any doctor, and her face swelled up so that she couldn’t even see, a local man obligingly took a chisel and pliers and pulled the tooth — without any painkiller. Regarding education, Doyne is thinking about earning a college degree by correspondence someday (my hunch is that she’ll have an honorary doctorate before she has a B.A.). Listening to her chatter about her shelter and school, describing her hopes to replicate her model in other countries, it’s easy to forget something quite extraordinary: she’s still only 23.

It’s fair to object that activists like Doyne are accomplishing results that, however noble, are minuscule. Something like 101 million children aren’t attending primary school around the world, so 220 kids in Doyne’s school constitute the teensiest drop in the bucket. The larger problem can be solved only if governments make education a top priority (which they haven’t), just as ending the wars in Congo may require the concerted action of states. Well-meaning individuals like Doyne help at the edges but don’t fundamentally change the nature of the challenge; indeed, charitable construction of schools and hospitals may sometimes free up governments in poor countries to use their money to buy weapons instead.

All that is true — but it’s equally true that if you happen to be that drop in the bucket, Doyne is transforming your life. And afterward, you may become an education advocate as well, transforming other people’s lives. As Doyne herself puts it, “If your own children were born orphans in Nepal, you wouldn’t wait for the U.N or the government to do something about it while they were hungry and cold and breaking rocks by the side of a riverbed.”

Of course, not everyone is ready to move off to Nepal and exchange bar-hopping for lice-minimization. Many people want to connect to a cause larger than themselves, but they are busy and juggling priorities, have limited time and don’t know quite what to do. There’s a market failure there: so many people who would like to help, and so many people who would benefit from that help, but there’s a shortage of channels to connect them. (On my blog,nytimes.com/ontheground, I’ve listed some practical ideas for how to help as well as contact information for organizations working at the grass roots — including those mentioned in this article.)

The challenge is to cultivate an ideology of altruism, to spread a culture of social engagement — and then to figure out what people can do at a practical level. Peter Singer, a Princeton University professor, is the philosopher of this effort, and it has a thousand foot soldiers. In Seattle, for example, a couple named Eugene and Minhee Cho are encouraging middle-class Americans to think of themselves as philanthropists, every bit as much as Bill Gates is. Eugene is a minister and Minhee a stay-at-home mom who looks after their three children but recently returned to grad school. They were moved by the suffering they’d seen around the world, but they weren’t well off and didn’t know what they could do to make a difference. Then Eugene happened to take a trip to Burma, visited a school and saw how tiny sums could keep children in class. “That kind of wrecked my life,” Eugene says, laughing.

After the trip, they resolved that for one year they would donate all their earnings — Eugene’s salary of $68,000 — to Burmese education and other charities to show that you don’t have to be a zillionaire to be generous. Later, they founded One Day’s Wages, which asks people to donate a single day’s pay — 0.4 percent of annual income — to various causes and organizations that they have vetted and put on their Web site. Forsaking a year’s salary was a romantic idea when the Chos conceived it, but life without paychecks turned out to be brutal, even humiliating. They exhausted their life’s savings, and Eugene sold his beloved car. With several months to go, they had to sublet their home and become homeless — taking their children and moving onto friends’ couches. “That was the most painful decision I’ve had to make as a father,” Eugene says.

The One Day’s Wages campaign has proved more practicable. In the past year, the Chos have raised more than $400,000, all of which will be forwarded to the organizations they work with. About 60 percent of the donors have been women or girls, they think, the youngest being a 6-year-old who gave up her birthday presents and started a birthday campaign on the onedayswages.org Web site. “The aim is to inspire the everyday person,” Eugene says, summing up the rise of do-it-yourself foreign aid. “We’re trying to communicate that you don’t have to be a rock star or a millionaire to make a difference.”

Nicholas D. Kristof is a New York Times Op-Ed columnist. He is the author, with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”

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