Famine in Niger

While our mission is to bring safe water to rural villages in Niger, West Africa, we cannot ignore the most immediate problem: Niger is experiencing the worst hunger crisis in its history. And unlike the previous but not nearly as severe famine in 2005, this government is doing something about it. The following is excerpted from Rukmini Callimachi’s AP posting of 8/14/2010:

Niger is now facing the worst hunger crisis in its history, with almost half the country’s population in desperate need of food and up to one in six children suffering from acute malnutrition, aid officials say. Malek Triki, West Africa spokesman for the United Nations’ World Food Programme, said villagers in Niger are describing the situation as worse than in 2005, when aid organizations treated tens of thousands of children for malnutrition, and worse even than 1973, when thousands died.

National surveys conducted in May and June in the drought-stricken country on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert indicate that 16.7 percent of children under the age of 5 are acutely malnourished. That is well above the 15 percent threshold used by the U.N. to declare an emergency, according to the WFP.

The WFP estimates that 7.3 million people — almost half the country’s population — are in desperate need of food. In rural areas like Diffa, Triki says he spoke to numerous people who eat at most once a day. “A woman I spoke to basically said, ‘We’re in a constant state of fasting. If we eat lunch, we cannot eat dinner. If we eat dinner, we cannot eat lunch.’”

It’s unclear if people have begun to die of starvation, he said, and mortality figures are not available from either Niger’s government or the U.N. Aid workers, however, say that the high rate of malnutrition is obvious at the food distribution points. Many of the children “look stunted,” said Triki.

Niger’s government, now being run by a military council after a February coup ousted President Mamadou Tandja, had said it would provide more than 21,000 tons of food. In 2005, Tandja played down the food crisis, dismissing it as “false propaganda” used by the U.N., aid agencies and opposition parties for political and economic gain.

Niger has historically been susceptible to famine because the country is mostly not irrigated. The success of its agriculture is heavily dependent on rain and when the rains fail, so do the country’s crops. “This year was a double whammy,” said Christy Collins, the country director for U.S. charity Mercy Corps, which opened its Niger office at the height of the 2005 crisis.

In most years, even if the country’s primary crop failed, at least the secondary crops survived. This year there was so little rain that not only did the fields of millet not bloom, but the secondary greens used for animal fodder also failed.

A Day at the Sunland/Tijunga Watermelon Festival

A BIG thanks goes to Evan Sobel, Elizabeth Gervase and Jessica Hooks, who worked so hard in the heat and dust and blaring music of the Sunland/Tijunga Watermelon Festival on Saturday, August 14, 2010. We raised $375, and while that doesn’t sound like much, it was quite an accomplishment, given the demographics of the people who attended. We did make connections with several groups and churches that have funded projects in the developing world and we will follow up for speaking engagements. Elizabeth’s focus was to try to get some schools to take up our cause and she got a couple interested in doing that.

The majority of the people who attended were from the low end of the income scale and many who liked our cause were sad that they did not even have $10 to contribute for a set of bracelets. One woman, moved by what we’re doing, had $10 and her choice was to eat or give it to us. She thought about it for a few moments and I said, “Go eat…if you want to send us $10 later, you can do that.” Some gave us the few dollars they had. They could relate to people in need and wanted to help.

There was also a strong sense of community at the Fair. Everyone got free watermelon and a lot was consumed! Other vendors and reps of causes came by and were also interested in helping us as we were interested in their causes. The church booth next to us was selling a week’s worth of food for a family of four, valued at $75, for only $30 and people were signing up.

Spending time there put us in touch with the reality of what our country is going through. Evan said that he didn’t feel like we were in Los Angeles. There were a number of people who brought loved ones in wheelchairs, a lot of special needs people being taken out by their families. One woman, upon reading the insert in the necklace, started to cry. She had recently left a homeless shelter after suffering physical abuse from her husband and had just gotten her child back. She was working with her father selling jewelry and was proud that she has turned her life around. When she read the words that come with our necklace, tears welled up, turning to sobs. She could relate to words praising the strength and flexibility of women.

This day filled our spirits to see how generous people can be with so little.

The best way to end this is with “Blessings.” We were “blessed” by a lot of people for our work and that felt good.

Water and Sanitation is a Human Right

“General Assembly Declares Access To Clean Water And Sanitation Is A Human Right”

Excerpted from www.wateronline.org July 29, 2010

Safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights, the General Assembly declared recently, voicing deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water.

The 192-member Assembly also called on United Nations Member States and international organizations to offer funding, technology and other resources to help poorer countries scale up their efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone. The Assembly resolution received 122 votes in favour and zero votes against, while 41 countries abstained from voting.

The text of the resolution expresses deep concern that an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and a total of more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. Studies also indicate about 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year and 443 million school days are lost because of water- and sanitation-related diseases.

Today’s resolution also welcomes the UN Human Rights Council’s request that Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, report annually to the General Assembly as well.

Ms. de Albuquerque’s report will focus on the principal challenges to achieving the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation, as well as on progress towards the relevant Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs, a series of targets for reducing social and economic ills, all by 2015, includes the goals of halving the proportion of people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water and halving the number who do not have basic sanitation.

Water: It’s About Women

Many people don’t realize that water in the developing world is a women’s issue. Why do I mean by that? Women and girls are responsible for getting water for their families. They spend much of their waking hours walking miles to get water–water that can be deadly. Young women who have heard me talk about life in Niger say, “Why do they accept that?” “Why don’t they make the men do more?” These are questions that are not surprising, coming from activist, equal rights women who see injustice and want to right it. They find it hard to accept the fact that this is the tradition of these Muslim women, generations of women who don’t question their roles.

Are they angry, resentful? Absolutely! Do they have hope for a better life? Absolutely. They know that if is drilled in their village, their time is freed up, they can get a micro-loan and begin to earn money. It is a joy to see that happen and you can see and hear it on the 14 minute version of our video if you haven’t watched it yet. Like women everywhere, they take pride in having their own money to spend, relieved that they don’t have to ask their husbands for it. Our partner, World Vision, gives micro-loans only to women because they know that it is the women who pay back the loans.

The former Director of World Vision Niger, Hortense Palm, has said, “To educate girls is to educate the whole nation.” Women are the greatest hope of countries like Niger and with our wells, we bring them HOPE for their future.

A Concert & Cabaret “Blame It on the Movies!”

by Cathie Lippman, M.D

The evening was a huge success, with close to 100 people attending. Millicent Gappell’s piano concert, featuring classical music and the musicians who composed for Hollywood in the 1940′s, 50′s and 60′s, was brilliant. After a wine intermezzo and desserts under the stars, we were entertained by our divas in the Cabaret. Marion Ramsey, Patti B. and Lynda Levy serenaded us, accompanied by Ron Snyder on keyboard. We thank them for putting on fabulous show.

Best of all, this exciting evening raised over $12,000, enough to drill two wells. in Niger, West Africa. Our deep gratitude goes to Millicent Gappell who conceived of and made the evening possible. Special thanks to Allison Johnson, at the second piano, empressario, Chuck Marso, Event Planner, Carol Rosen, assisted by Joyce Fletcher, and photographer Peter Fletcher. The evening was topped off by Ben & Jerry’s ice cream sundaes, thanks to the very generous Jennifer Gedrick of Ben & Jerry’s Century City.

Some comments from our guests:

Congratulations! You must be very pleased with not only the outcome of this event, but also by all you have been able to accomplish in such a short time. Your vision and hard work are bringing your goals to fruition and helping thousands in Africa lead better lives in the future. I applaud your efforts and will support you in any way I can.

Maureen Winick

It was a great evening. Thank you for the privilege of contributing in such a delightful way.

Don’t Forget Good Sanitation & Proper Hygiene

“Bill Gates Rethinks His War On Polio”

Wall Street Journal, Friday, April 23, 2010

By Robert Guth

(Note: These are excerpts from an article that reinforces how important it is to include education on good sanitation and proper hygiene for the success of any major health program, including the eradication of a single disease like polio.)

Bill Gates walked into the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva—for a meeting in an underground chamber where global pandemics are managed—and was greeted by bad news. Polio was spreading across Africa, even after he gave $700 million to try to wipe out the disease. That outbreak raged last summer, and this week a new outbreak hit Tajikistan, which hadn’t seen polio for 19 years. The spread threatens one of the most ambitious health campaigns in the world, the effort to destroy the crippling disease once and for all. It also marks a setback for Microsoft Corp. co-founder’s new career as full-time philanthropist.

Next week, the organizations behind the polio fight, including WHO, Unicef, Rotary International and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plan to announce a major revamp of their strategy to address shortcomings exposed by the outbreaks.

Polio is a centerpiece of Mr. Gates’s charitable giving. Last year the billionaire traveled to Africa, one of the main battlegrounds against the disease, to confer with doctors, aid workers and a sultan to propel the polio-eradication effort.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat the last 12 months,” Bruce Aylward, a WHO official, told Mr. Gates in the meeting in the underground pandemic center last June. He described how the virus was rippling through countries believed to have stopped the disease.

Mr. Gates asked: “So, what do we do next?” That question goes to the heart of one of the most controversial debates in global health: Is humanity better served by waging wars on individual diseases, like polio? Or is it better to pursue a broader set of health goals simultaneously—improving hygiene, expanding immunizations, providing clean drinking water—that don’t eliminate any one disease, but might improve the overall health of people in developing countries?

The new plan integrates both approaches. It’s an acknowledgment, bred by last summer’s outbreak, that disease-specific wars can succeed only if they also strengthen the overall health system in poor countries. Big donors have long preferred fighting individual diseases, known as a “vertical” strategy. The goal is to repeat 1979′s victory over smallpox, the only disease ever to be eradicated. By contrast, the broader, “horizontal” strategy has less well-defined goals and might not move the needle of global health statistics for years.

Experts commissioned by the WHO landed in Angola, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria to evaluate the polio program. In Africa, a team found that once polio had been ended in some countries, weak health-care systems let it return. In northern India, bad sanitation, malnutrition and other intestinal issues are believed to hurt the oral polio vaccine’s effectiveness.

These findings…marked a turning point among the Gates Foundation and other backers of the polio fight in the debate over whether the strictly “vertical” polio strategy could succeed. In October, the Gates Foundation summoned backers of the program, including Unicef, CDC and Rotary, to its Seattle headquarters for a major rethink. If approved in May by member nations of the WHO, the new strategy will set ambitious goals for getting close to eradicating polio by the end of 2012. The plan bolsters the core “vertical” approach of polio program but also adds a “horizontal” strategy, including training for health workers on topics such as hygiene and sanitation.

World Vision Praised in the New York Times

“Learning From the Sin of Sodom”

by Nicolas Kristof

New York Tmes, February 28, 2010

For most of the last century, save-the-worlders were primarily Democrats and liberals. In contrast, many Republicans and religious conservatives denounced government aid programs, with Senator Jesse Helms calling them “money down a rat hole.”

Over the last decade, however, that divide has dissolved, in ways that many Americans haven’t noticed or appreciated. Evangelicals have become the new internationalists, pushing successfully for new American programs against AIDS and malaria, and doing superb work on issues from human trafficking in India to mass rape in Congo.

A pop quiz: What’s the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization?

It’s not Save the Children, and it’s not CARE — both terrific secular organizations. Rather, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian organization (with strong evangelical roots) whose budget has roughly tripled over the last decade.

World Vision now has 40,000 staff members in nearly 100 countries. That’s more staff members than CARE, Save the Children and the worldwide operations of the United States Agency for International Development — combined.

A growing number of conservative Christians are explicitly and self-critically acknowledging that to be “pro-life” must mean more than opposing abortion. The head of World Vision in the United States, Richard Stearns, begins his fascinating book, “The Hole in Our Gospel,” with an account of a visit a decade ago to Uganda, where he met a 13-year-old AIDS orphan who was raising his younger brothers by himself.

“What sickened me most was this question: where was the Church?” he writes. “Where were the followers of Jesus Christ in the midst of perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time? Surely the Church should have been caring for these ‘orphans and widows in their distress.’ (James 1:27). Shouldn’t the pulpits across America have flamed with exhortations to rush to the front lines of compassion?

“How have we missed it so tragically, when even rock stars and Hollywood actors seem to understand?”

Mr. Stearns argues that evangelicals were often so focused on sexual morality and a personal relationship with God that they ignored the needy. He writes laceratingly about “a Church that had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build schools, hospitals, and clinics.”

In one striking passage, Mr. Stearns quotes the prophet Ezekiel as saying that the great sin of the people of Sodom wasn’t so much that they were promiscuous or gay as that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49.)

Hmm. Imagine if sodomy laws could be used to punish the stingy, unconcerned rich!

The American view of evangelicals is still shaped by preening television blowhards and hypocrites who seem obsessed with gays and fetuses. One study cited in the book found that even among churchgoers ages 16 to 29, the descriptions most associated with Christianity were “antihomosexual,” “judgmental,” “too involved in politics,” and “hypocritical.”

Some conservative Christians reinforced the worst view of themselves by inspiring Ugandan homophobes who backed a bill that would punish gays with life imprisonment or execution. Ditto for the Vatican, whose hostility to condoms contributes to the AIDS epidemic. But there’s more to the picture: I’ve also seen many Catholic nuns and priests heroically caring for AIDS patients — even quietly handing out condoms.

One of the most inspiring figures I’ve met while covering Congo’s brutal civil war is a determined Polish nun in the terrifying hinterland, feeding orphans, standing up to drunken soldiers and comforting survivors — all in a war zone. I came back and decided: I want to grow up and become a Polish nun.

Some Americans assume that religious groups offer aid to entice converts. That’s incorrect. Today, groups like World Vision ban the use of aid to lure anyone into a religious conversation.

Some liberals are pushing to end the longtime practice (it’s a myth that this started with President George W. Bush) of channeling American aid through faith-based organizations. That change would be a catastrophe. In Haiti, more than half of food distributions go through religious groups like World Vision that have indispensable networks on the ground. We mustn’t make Haitians the casualties in our cultural wars.

A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.

If secular liberals can give up some of their snootiness, and if evangelicals can retire some of their sanctimony, then we all might succeed together in making greater progress against common enemies of humanity, like illiteracy, human trafficking and maternal mortality.

A Fundraising Party to Remember

On a balmy October evening, amid memorabilia of Walt Disney–the ultimate purveyor of happy stories–Wells Bring Hope’s fundraiser brought in enough money to create stories of happiness by saving lives in five villages in Niger, West Africa. Close to 200 guests raised over $35,000 from donations and a silent auction.

Held at the spacious, elegant home of Bernie Shine, guests were able to wander through one of the world’s largest collections of 1930s Disney memorabilia in a museum-like setting. Happy childhood memories were re-lived among this treasure of Disneyana, while raising funds to save children from the horror of diseases that occur from unsafe water.

Commenting on the event’s success, founder Barbara Goldberg said: “Our deepest thanks goes to Bernie Shine, who for the first time, opened his home to a fundraising event. Our gratitude goes to all of the artists and generous others who donated wonderful things for our silent auction, that brought in over $5,000.”

As of March 2010, Wells Bring Hope–in partnership with World Vision–has raised funds for the construction of 30 wells in Niger (pronounced knee zhere) selected because, according to the UN Development Index, it is THE poorest country in the world.

Since its inception, Wells Bring Hope has brought safe water to over 20,000 people. However, the villages receive more than the end to daily miles-long treks by women to get water and protection from water-borne diseases.

World Vision continues to work with a village for 15 years to:

* Educate villagers on proper hygiene and good sanitation to insure that latrines are used and the water is protected from contamination.
* Train villagers to administer and maintain the wells.
* Provide micro-financing and encouragement to women to start small businesses, knowing that they make the best micro-entrepreneurs.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) “No other humanitarian intervention produces a more dramatic effect on life than access to safe water and sanitation.”