Excerpt: Enough To Go Around -- Searching for Hope in Afghanistan, Pakistan & Darfur
Things We Can Do -- An Addendum
If you're reading this book, there's a pretty good chance you're already doing your part to assist people in need or you're interested in finding a way to get involved. You may already be working in your own community or through your church, synagogue or mosque to help overcome poverty locally, to mentor a child, or to support those in need during a crisis. Perhaps you do what you can to make a difference with your ideas and the ways you inspire and motivate those around you. If you're already active, you probably contribute what you can to the not-for-profit groups who are working to meet the specific challenges that have moved you to action. It could be a contribution to public radio, a check to the Boys & Girls Club, support for a group committed to conservation of your favorite park or volunteer efforts on behalf of the Salvation Army. Maybe you regularly share your sandwich with someone near you who's hungry, or you work to create a partnership with a family who's trying to pull themselves up from poverty. In some ways, solving the challenges facing the developing world is as simple as that. It starts with being awake and understanding the power of your own spirit and drive to facilitate change. Denial isn't the answer.
So yes, it is sharing. It's sharing without thinking about it. But it's more than that. All too often we writers are great at articulating problems but we're lacking in our ability to toss out meaningful solutions. We can be good at satire or sarcasm because we often lack hope ourselves. Cynicism comes with the turf. It's a price we've paid for our curiosity and the number of times we've been burned in the process of extending ourselves. But my own experience after visiting challenging spots from Morocco to Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) is that we cannot lose hope. Though we were taught differently, it really is ok to go back into the fire. Walking on hot coals without getting burned feet is a matter of belief, belief in whatever makes you tick, belief in your God, belief in your self, belief in your ability to impact the world in a positive way. Too many Americans and Europeans have been born into privilege to allow helping others to be someone else's challenge. It is our challenge. Even the middle class upbringing I had in the 60s offered an array of resources that still do not exist in nearly half the world. We had indoor plumbing with tap water that was clean, abundant and virtually free. We had a school nurse (not to mention a school) and doctors and dentists who helped us maintain health standards unheard of in places like Haiti, Niger or Liberia. We had three meals a day, every day.
Of course, I could be dead wrong here - and if this book finds an audience then someone will likely try to prove that point. But whether it's the lessons of my personal experience, or my faith in the power of goodness, I'll take the risk. Here are a few simple things I believe can help turn hope into action:
1. Avoid the same mistakes twice.
Too few of today's global leaders study enough history or current events to chart a better or more progressive course in foreign policy. Some have no experience at all beyond their own borders. Many of the challenges facing virtually all developing world nations stem from the rule of their former colonial power. Often, the rise from colonialism into independence is marked by compromises made without regard for large segments of the population. It's true in Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kenya, but it's also true in Haiti, Zimbabwe, Iran, Iraq, Congo and elsewhere. In some cases, it gets harder not easier to right old wrongs, especially without admitting or apologizing for them. In that sense, we all bear the burden of our past.
2. Empower girls and women.
There are many ways to do this and many not-for-profit organizations from both the West and the global South are doing just that. It could be micro credit programs or education around reproductive health. It could be as simple as ensuring that girls are allowed the same educational resources and access as boys. It could be working to end child slavery or creating meaningful alternatives to prostitution. Our work in Pakistan and the related fundraisers for Relief International helped the organization create micro-credit programs allowing women who'd lost their livestock during the earthquake to purchase cows. Why? Because it's been proven time and again that women, when empowered, do a fantastic job at managing resources that sustain themselves and their families. This idea was first introduced to me during site visits with Abraham Bongassi for Save the Children. Among their programs in southern Ethiopia, they had partnered with villagers and were teaching women how to churn butter. It's a nomadic region that relies significantly on dairy resources. Why butter? Because butter lasts longer than milk and is easier to transport to market without spoiling. But it went beyond that. Once the butter was sold, Save the Children was teaching the same women to open a bank account. Women (not men) were building equity in their own future and the future of their children.
3. Support initiatives to provide and manage clean water.
There may be no more significant issue in the 21st century than those surrounding the use and availability of water. In some places such as Kabkabiyah in Darfur, underground water is abundant. In fact, water is abundant in many parts of Africa. But accessing that resource requires teaching skills and purchasing the hardware for building and maintaining local wells and irrigation systems. It's also important to partner with local communities in the design and building process so the resource and management continue to thrive long after the NGO has departed. Beyond that, it's important to find ways to clean water in a fast, cost effective way. Clean water will help reduce dysentery, a significant killer of children throughout the developing world. Maintaining water as a resource will also help in eradicating malaria.
4. Support organizations that practice sustainability.
It doesn't help to create aid scenarios that fail to empower local initiatives that can't exist on their own. When initiatives fail to involve the community and its leaders there's a risk of NGOs becoming another model of colonialism. Instead, it's important to support strategies that engage the local stakeholders and create a lasting impact that can be managed locally. There are many NGOs working worldwide who understand that giving means more than a handout. Whether it's Save the Children's midwife program in Mazer-e-Sharif or Relief International's well building and irrigation program in Kabkabiyah, humanitarian relief efforts that are successful employ local staff who can manage programs and teach those around them to how to manage long after the NGO is gone. The global financial commitment, from foundations, individuals, institutions and governments is essential in facilitating the building of infrastructure and capacity.
Schools and educational resources are also essential to community development and sustainability. But that means more than just building schools. It also means working to provide access to real educational content. Libraries and books are as important as the buildings in which they're used. In that regard, Relief International is supporting library initiatives in both Pakistan (PakistanLibraries.org) and Afghanistan (AfghanistanLibraries.org).
5. Help facilitate awareness and consensus.
It's not enough that you may be aware. It's important that you make others aware too. Blogging, public speaking, urging your teacher or professor, rabbi, mullah or pastor to create lesson plans around a potential topic such as Darfur or Afghanistan - all of these are ways to help get the word out. As for consensus, the more individuals are moved to action that invites their government to work with other governments, their church to work with other churches, their community to work with other communities, the more likely the path toward stopping genocide or restoring basic human rights and dignity will come to pass. The opportunity to facilitate awareness has been greatly enhanced by the Internet. There is, at present, no better means of international communication than what the Internet provides.
6. Host aid workers, students or scholars who are experts at specific problems and have a story to tell.
You can do this for events at your home, church, mosque or synagogue, or rent a meeting room at the downtown YWCA. If you can get friends to show up for a Tupperware party or to work the latest pyramid scheme for cosmetics or hair care products, maybe you can open a bottle of wine and have fifteen pals over to listen to people who've helped distribute mosquito nets in rural Tanzania or provided medical relief after an earthquake in Guatemala. It could be a relative who rescued homeless dogs after Hurricane Katrina or a student who spent the summer helping build homes in Chiapas. Make it fun and ask them to articulate their own call to action. Their experience will not only inform you, it may inspire you and the people you invite to become more actively involved.
7. Work to overcome fear and stereotypes.
As a kid in Iowa, I still remember doing the "duck and cover" drill every couple of weeks in our grade school classroom. We'd hear a bell, then dive under our desks to avoid the make believe fallout and debris from a make believe nuclear attack. The bad guys? Russians. Just ask Miss Decker, the 30-something June Cleaver look-a-like who supervised our "duck and cover" drills. As unlikely as it might have been for the Russians to drop an A-bomb on the Lincoln Park Elementary School I learned to live in fear of just that. Russians became the bad guys in my dreams. Russians, I was taught, were without feelings, without regret, without hope. They didn't believe in freedom or family and they never had time for fun. Does any of that make sense 45 years later? No. The myth was not the full truth, it was a story designed to support a government policy. But those fabrications didn't end with the Cold War.
The use of fear to control people has a long history and, no doubt, a future as well. The people who wanted to use fear after 9/11 succeeded in replacing the old dark enemy with a new one. Both terrorists and our own government worked to perpetuate fear - albeit for different reasons - but it really is time to get over it. Whether it's billions for the latest in weapons design or legislators hell bent on locking down the borders with wire fences and surveillance cameras, the costs of escalating fear are simply too high. The world may have its share of evil, I've seen it firsthand in places like Darfur. But the world is overflowing with people who are fundamentally good, decent, generous and caring. They do not all look or act the same. They do not all have the same history or the same economic status. We may not understand the meaning of their last name. They may not all practice the religion in which we find comfort. What I do know is this - it is impossible to experience the good in people or their spirit of hope when fear pushes us into hiding.
These are just a handful of solutions and the likelihood is that more will come to mind as soon as I turn off the computer. Readers and experts with far more experience than I have will, I hope, complement this short list of things we can do with a broader agenda filled with effective ideas that can reach the people they know. We can all contribute, and we should. There really is enough to go around.