In a special edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine Sunday, Nicholas Kristof posed the question: “Why wait for governments or established charities to assist rape victims, orphans or impoverished women when you can start an NGO in your basement and do it yourself?” At the heart of his piece on “do-it-yourself foreign aid” are three women and a family who embarked on personal fundraising ventures on behalf of different causes. Their devotion ranges from foregoing college and moving to Nepal to support education projects (and having her daily beautify regimen be de-lousing) to donating an entire year’s earnings to charities to show that you don’ t have to have millions to be generous.
Kristof’s examples, while inspirational, invigorating and adventurous, make it seem like the only way to really help is by forging your own path (making mistakes and not necessarily having a larger impact along the way). All of the examples he shares (except one which is still in development) are changing lives—which of course make a difference to those being helped—but as Kristof points out, they are drops in the bucket. A do-it-yourself project might be able to help 220 kids in one small area, but around the world there are 101 million children who are not attending primary school, a big challenge. Someone might be able to give sanitary pads to a several hundred school girls so they don’t miss class every month, but will she be able to address broader reproductive health needs for the 200 million women who want—but lack access to—contraceptives?
I know what it’s like to see a global problem and feel helpless to do something. I understand the desire to jump up and ship off to another country to take up a cause. I have felt that way since I first studied abroad in Kenya eight years ago and was floored by the conversations I had with mothers who had suffered multiple miscarriages due to lack of reproductive health care. I wanted to leave college and move to Kenya; I was depressed when I returned to the States and felt rudderless and powerless to do anything to help the women I had met.
Moved by their own experiences abroad, about a dozen friends or so who have embarked on various journeys—whether building their own schools in Sierra Leone or joining the Peace Corps in Namibia or trekking off to Asia to teach English or monitoring elections in Sudan—each driven by a desire to overcome the challenges he or she has seen; each willing to endure sickness, deprivation, little pay and long periods away from friends and family to make a difference in the world.
We need the public and the personal
What Kristof only briefly touches upon, but that is shown throughout the Sunday Magazine, is that change around the world takes every kind of commitment. It takes those whom he highlights, willing to give up everything and move to remote regions, it takes those like Melinda Gates (who is featured in another piece) willing to invest millions of dollars, it takes those like the community organizers who combated foot binding in China and the community organizers in Africa who have combated female genital cutting, it takes people who dedicate their lives to working in governments or nonprofits, it takes people like the Care2 community who advocate and push for change, and it takes people who can only give $5 or maybe $25 willing to forego a few lattes for the week.
Kristof wrote, “Not everyone is ready to devote their lives to social change in the developing world, but there are individuals and organizations that are already doing the work, and can do so much more with the help of concerned people in the US.”
Plenty each of us can do
So if you were inspired by the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, get involved! Sign a petition on Care2 , jump on Facebook and tell your friends about your favorite charity, or make a choice to change the lives of women by giving a small gift of your own (one example at www.pathfind.org/MakeAChoice).
Whatever we each do, collectively, we’ll have an impact. And that’s what will truly change the world.
Pathfinder International: Accepting a loan repayment (as the honorary visiting guest) on behalf of a women's lending group in Tanzania. The lender was thrilled to have repaid her loan and see her business flourishing.