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A boy walks in a city park amidst fallen leaves on a sunny autumn day in Stavropol, Russia
A family looks out to the sea shortly after sunset in Kovalam, Kerala state, India. Kovalam, a popular tourist beach town on the Arabian Sea.
“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.
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 at Harvard, 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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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 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 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.”
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.”
“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 Universoty 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.”
Kopila Valley Home and School:
Sustainable Health Enterprises:
One Day’s Wages