10 Nov / A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
A fatally injured 9-year-old girl, a third-grade boy labelled by teachers as “‘mentally retarded,’” a restless doctor burnt out from overwork in refugee camps, are saving the world. Rachel Beckwith didn’t survive a highway collision, but her ninth birthday wish to raise $300 to build a faraway well eventually became $1,265,823 which provided 37,000 people she never got to meet with clean water. Lester Strong, deemed “unteachable” as a child, began his latest career at 60 as chief executive of Experience Corps which pairs 1,7000 55+-year-old mentors with 30,000 kindergarten to third-grade aged children across the country. Dr. Gary Slutkin, after multiple career incarnations, founded Cure Violence to combat a non-medical infectious disease – gang violence – and has developed a model that could reduce homicides by 70% in U.S. cities and beyond, including brutal hot-spots Iraq and Colombia.
Each started out ordinary people facing difficult situations, but their actions created extraordinary results. They’re certainly not alone, as Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn continue to document the resonating stories of common folk affecting uncommon change that began in their mega-bestselling Half the Sky. Their model here is similar: compile the facts (they’re journalists, after all), humanize the numbers with real people, then provide an action item with gratification enough to inspire you to do more. This time, they also offer scientific evidence that actually proves how sharing, giving, doing, will make each of us healthier, happier people. “‘The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people.’”
Helping, as Kristof and WuDunn show over and over again, does not need to deplete your bank account or take over your life. You can deworm a child in Africa or Asia for just 50 cents a year, or finance a chlorine dispenser to clean water for a mere $1.98 via Evidence Action. A former American ski bum’s $30 loan to a promising Haitian student for her medical school application led him to use his savings to fund her education; she’s now a doctor, and her ski bum enabler ended up founding HELP: Haitian Education and Leadership Program which now supports 150+ students in university. Just $250 from a Californian athlete born with club foot gave an African toddler also born with club foot the possibility to live a normal life [Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi, Mia Hamm – with the highest international soccer goal score in the history of the sport, Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, were all born with club foot!].
Charity, the authors impart, is not the goal: empowerment by creating opportunities is. They argue for the need for transparency, not only in how projects and organizations are run, but in learning from mistakes large and small. They commend Engineers Without Borders for starting the website, AdmittingFailure.com, “in which aid workers tell stories about what they did wrong.” At the Poverty Action Lab, MIT professor and MacArthur “genius” Esther Duflo works to actually measure the efficacy of anti-poverty initiatives: deworming children with two-cent tablets works; “clean cookstoves” – with a planned $70 million investment – were an “utter failure.” At GiveWell, founded by two young hedge fund analysts “making more money than they needed,” charitable impact gets scrutinized and evaluated so donors can figure out how to get “the biggest bang for the philanthropic buck.”
From head starts that weren’t to marshmallows as “a marvelous predictor of success in life,” from troubled American teens to Nigerian girls getting out of one the world’s largest slums, from donuts to brownies to yogurt to water, from “healing through helping,” the stories here are inspiring lessons, start-small testimonials, dream-big manifestos, and, most importantly, get-going how-tos. Yes, even failure is an option, and it’s even better as a lesson learned. Never underestimate the power of your two cents: what you thought was just a ‘drop in the bucket’? “That’s how buckets get filled, that’s how lives are changed, and that’s how opportunity is created.” Your next steps? Read, learn, DO.