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Little Sacrifices that Make Big Differences

July 15, 2008


One of the reasons that I enjoy reading New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof is that he is basically an optimist. He travels to some of the most devastated, war-torn, poverty-stricken places on earth and reports the terrible conditions he finds there; but he doesn’t write about doom and gloom. Rather, Kristof looks at the situation and asks, “What can be done to make the situation better?” In one of his more recent columns, he related the story of how a group of Sunday School children may end up having a great impact on the future of an African nation [“The Luckiest Girl,” 3 July 2008]. He begins:

“This year’s college graduates owe their success to many factors, from hectoring parents to cherished remedies for hangovers. But one of the most remarkable of the new graduates, Beatrice Biira, credits something utterly improbable: a goat … and it’s appropriate that the goat that changed her life was named Luck.”

So far we know that Beatrice Biira graduated from college and that a goat played an important role. As radio commentator Paul Harvey would say, “Now it’s time for the rest of the story.”

“The tale begins in the rolling hills of western Uganda, where Beatrice was born and raised. As a girl, she desperately yearned for an education, but it seemed hopeless: Her parents were peasants who couldn’t afford to send her to school. The years passed and Beatrice stayed home to help with the chores. She was on track to become one more illiterate African woman, another of the continent’s squandered human resources. In the meantime, in Niantic, Conn., the children of the Niantic Community Church wanted to donate money for a good cause. They decided to buy goats for African villagers through Heifer International, a venerable aid group based in Arkansas that helps impoverished farming families. … One of the goats bought by the Niantic church went to Beatrice’s parents and soon produced twins. When the kid goats were weaned, the children drank the goat’s milk for a nutritional boost and sold the surplus milk for extra money. The cash from the milk accumulated, and Beatrice’s parents decided that they could now afford to send their daughter to school. She was much older than the other first graders, but she was so overjoyed that she studied diligently and rose to be the best student in the school. An American visiting the school was impressed and wrote a children’s book, ‘Beatrice’s Goat,’ about how the gift of a goat had enabled a bright girl to go to school. The book was published in 2000 and became a children’s best seller.”

The tale is already a remarkable one and the Sunday School children in Niantic, CT, would have undoubtedly been delighted had the story ended there. But, as we know, Beatrice’s education did not stop with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

“There is now room for a more remarkable sequel. Beatrice was such an outstanding student that she won a scholarship, not only to Uganda’s best girls’ high school, but also to a prep school in Massachusetts and then to Connecticut College. A group of 20 donors to Heifer International — coordinated by a retired staff member named Rosalee Sinn, who fell in love with Beatrice when she saw her at age 10 — financed the girl’s living expenses.”

Beatrice has now graduated, as Luck (the goat) would have it. So what does the future hold for her? Kristof continues the story:

“Beatrice plans to earn a master’s degree at the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas and then return to Africa to work for an aid group. Beatrice dreams of working on projects to help women earn and manage money more effectively, partly because she has seen in her own village how cash is always controlled by men. Sometimes they spent it partying with buddies at a bar, rather than educating their children. Changing that culture won’t be easy, Beatrice says, but it can be done.”

Beatrice’s graduation was such a momentous event that, Kristof reports, “villagers in western Uganda recently held a special Mass and a feast to celebrate the first local person to earn a college degree in America.” That’s a great story, but Kristof is a realist and admits that humanitarian assistance doesn’t always produce such amazing outcomes. The biggest challenge that prevents better results from aid is corruption and, according to Beatrice, there is a lot of corruption in Uganda. That is why she considers herself the luckiest girl in the world — because everything fell in place to make her dreams a reality. Kristof writes about all of the things that could have gone wrong:

“Granted, foreign assistance doesn’t always work and is much harder than it looks. … A crooked local official might have distributed the goats by demanding that girls sleep with him in exchange. Or Beatrice’s goat might have died or been stolen. Or unpasteurized milk might have sickened or killed Beatrice. In short, millions of things could go wrong. But when there’s a good model in place, they often go right.”

I entirely agree with Kristof about the value of good models. Using best practices and internationally recognized standards is part of the philosophy behind Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach. Models, standards, and practices may have to be adjusted to fit local conditions, but if you don’t start with a good model, good things are unlikely to result — except by chance. Kristof concluded his column by encouraging people to get involved.

“When people ask how they can help in the fight against poverty, there are a thousand good answers, from sponsoring a child to supporting a grass-roots organization through globalgiving.com. (I’ve listed specific suggestions on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, and on facebook.com/kristof). The challenges of global poverty are vast and complex, far beyond anyone’s power to resolve, and buying a farm animal for a poor family won’t solve them. But Beatrice’s giddy happiness these days is still a reminder that each of us does have the power to make a difference — to transform a girl’s life with something as simple and cheap as a little goat.”

Kristof notes that a dairy goat in Heifer’s online gift catalog costs $120; a flock of chicks or ducklings costs just $20. In previous posts, I’ve talked about how you can help provide microloans to people around the world (see, for example, Financing the Poor). Kristof may be right that it is “far beyond anyone’s power to resolve” global poverty, but he is also correct that each of us can “make a difference.” Our efforts at charity may never be written up in the New York Times or even have much of an impact beyond the few lives we touch. That’s okay. To the person or family we touch, the impact can be enormous. Even if no one else ever knows what you did — you’ll know — and life will be better.

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