Much of our day to day is spent taking care of what’s within reach. We take care of our work, our families, our neighbors and friends, our communities, and hopefully ourselves. But care often extends beyond our inner circle to those in our global community who are struggling as well as for the environment. If you’d like to turn that care into tangible community support, consider these 7 ways to make a difference.
Tip #114: Volunteer in a Crisis
Disasters often bring out the best of community support. I experienced this first-hand myself after the tsunami in Thailand—thankfully as a supporter. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 swept away entire villages in Khao Lak: houses, fishing boats, family businesses, shrimp farms, livestock, vegetable gardens, and people. Those who survived faced the seemingly insurmountable work of rebuilding their lives, but they didn’t have to do it alone. Volunteers from across Thailand and across the globe poured in to help the communities of Khao Lak. They first identified bodies, recovered possessions, and cleared rubble. And then they constructed new homes, schools, and livelihoods. The following summer, I went to lend a hand with the Tsunami Volunteer Center (TVC), a Thai-led nonprofit that played a crucial role in coordinating international volunteer efforts in Khao Lak.
The volunteers who worked through TVC did much to restore normalcy in the regiom. Those affected where able to move from dismal temporary shelters to newly built homes at a greatly accelerated pace. They also received alternative vocational training to support themselves until the fishing industry could be restored. I must note that potential for negative impact exists when volunteers are under-qualified or culturally insensitive, when the sponsoring organization lacks the capacity to manage them, and when the communities have inadequate control, all of which I observed in Khao Lak. But on the balance, the outpouring of community support was literally life-changing. For those on the receiving end and the supporters.
Tip #115 Donate to Disaster Relief
It may not be logistically feasible to volunteer in situ after a disaster. Maybe you can’t get there yourself, or maybe the affected locality can’t accommodate such an influx of people. In that case, donate money, whatever you can comfortably afford. I donate through Global Giving, which works with vetted local nonprofit organizations around the world to provide funding, tools, and training. When disaster strikes, Global Giving quickly connects with partners and sets up a campaign to funnel resources where they’re needed most.
Now some people think it’s better to donate stuff than money in an emergency – clothing, food, medical supplies, tents, and so on. But the reality is that in an emergency, dealing with unsolicited stuff creates logistical problems and more work. There are questions of sorting, storage, fair distribution, and so on. Again, it’s better to donate money to a vetted local organization that can then purchase exactly what they need for the best community support. I know it can feel a bit like the easy way out to just “throw money” at a problem. But donating money to disaster relief is often the most good we can do.
Tip #116: Consider Microcredit
When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, my favorite work was helping women’s groups to set up Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) and microenterprises. ROSCAs are voluntary alternative banking cooperatives that are purposely informal and local. They are often dominated by women in developing countries as a way to provide self-help to each other. Microcredit is an effective poverty alleviation strategy employed by international development agencies. Without credit, people living a subsistence lifestyle often lack capital to buy seeds or other agricultural inputs or to launch businesses that would give more income and thus more financial security. The most well knownt is the Grameen Bank, founded in Bangladesh by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunnis.
At the time I was working in Thailand, the Thai government prohibited microfinance organizations from setting up shop. They reasoned that the government already provided monies to village funds for community support projects. But like elsewhere in the developing world, women and had difficulty accessing these funds. Organizing ROSCAs allowed women access to not only capital but also training, which was similarly unavailable to them as women.
The important point here is how vital social networks are to effective microcredit. For ROSCAs, members pool their money into a common fund and each take a turn withdrawing a lump sum. For this to operate fairly, everyone must contribute to the fund and repay loans according to the group’s rules. Research on microcredit worldwide indicates a much lower default rate on loan repayment than for traditional bank loans largely due to the social consequences of defaulting to one’s peers. To see microcredit in action, check out Kiva. Kiva crowdfunds loans to unlock capital for 1.7 billion people in underserved communities to build a financially inclusive world.
Tip #117: Invest in Girls’ Education
One of the most effective ways to provide community support globally is to invest in girls’ education. As of last year, UNESCO estimates that 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are not in school, 15 million of whom will likely never enter a classroom. This is a travesty not only for the girls themselves, but for their communities and the world. Development experts categorically agree that supporting girls’ education results in the highest return on investments. According to the World Bank, every year of secondary school adds 18 percent to a girl’s earning potential. Thus, increasing women’s participation in the labor market (now nearly 27 percent lower than men) could add billions to the global economy. Research also shows that better-educated girls and women tend to be healthier, marry later, have fewer children, and provide better care for them. Sounds like a brilliant investment to me.
Tip #118: Give Cash Aid to Women
The World Economic Forum reports that women typically reinvest a whopping 90 percent of their income on basic needs like food, healthcare, and schooling for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, women in developing countries often don’t have much income.
Even development aid is typically distributed to the men in a family. This practice is based on the neoclassical economic assumption of a male head-of-household. Mainstream economic theory says that this male head-of-household is a Benevolent Patriarch who makes altruistic decisions that uniformly benefit the joint family unit. So we give the aid money to men who possess the decision-making power, and the benefits trickle down to the rest of the family. Sounds good, right?
Well, you might guess that this is not how it works in reality. Feminist economists have pointed out that often these assumptions are flat out wrong and actually hinder development. Empirical evidence shows that the gender of the aid recipient/distributor does affect distribution outcomes. Importantly, women allocate greater proportions of their incomes to everyday subsistence than men do. And mother-controlled unearned income has a greater impact on family health than father-controlled income. (For those interested, statistically significant factors in this study were protein intake, fertility, child survival, and weight for height regressions.) Moreover, gender bias is evident in differential allocations for boys and girls (men give more to boys).
To make a long story short, if we give cash aid to women, this results in far more family and community support for higher returns on our investments.
Tip #119: Support Women’s Movements
If giving cash aid to women is a good idea, an even better one is supporting women’s movements that are striving to create change in their communities and throughout the world. A brilliant example is Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement (GBM).
The Green Belt Movement formed in 1977 to help rural Kenyan women who were feeling the effects of environmental degradation. Picture dried up streams and increasingly scarce food, firewood, and fodder. As a fix, the movement encouraged the women to “work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token” for their work. That provided a short-term solution to their subsistence problem and a growth of community support.
For the long term, the Green Belt Movement conducted seminars in civic and environmental education. These encouraged participants to understand how they were “sabotaging their lives by not working for the common good” and empowered them to fight collectively against land owners, big businesses, and political leaders who did not have their best interests at heart. Thanks to the education the movement provided, what started as a women’s support network to increase food security grew into a global movement for social and environmental justice.
This is definitely something worth investing in.
Tip #120: Prepare Women for Leadership
So much of what I’ve talked about in this post has to do with preparing women for leadership. The education is a vital foundation. Then women are poised to lead in the economic sphere, especially if they have support, including but not limited to access to finances and training. Women-led enterprises lift up not only the women and their families, but whole communities. Supporting women in civic leadership, like the Green Belt Movement, takes this community support to the next level.
Finally, we need to prepare women for political leadership. With more women in government, we’ll see more legislation that helps women. Like when women finally made it to Members of Parliament in Thailand, they were able to overturn a law that allowed men to have a second wife. But that’s not all. Governments that demonstrate greater gender equality also produce more pro- social and pro-environmental legislation. This applies to low-income and high-income countries alike. Once again, supporting women is the best bet for elevating our common good.
…we’re starting a whole new dimension of wellbeing: material. This might just be my favorite. And we’ll spend the whole month talking about one of my favorite subjects: sufficiency. I hope you’ll enjoy it, too! See you then!