How to Help the Young Super heroes in a Hut

by Hilary Howard
(New York Times)

A recent recipient of a new bike, courtesy of World Bicycle Relief.

A recent recipient of a new bike, courtesy of World Bicycle Relief.

In response to Nick Kristof's story Young superheroes in a hut featuring a family of orphans in Zimbabwe, over 100 readers wrote in asking what they could do to make a difference.

Many readers, for example, wanted to send a bicycle to the oldest brother to expedite his nine-mile trek to school.

But in many parts of rural Africa, it’s rarely as easy as sending a bike. For one thing, there’s usually no functioning (or trustworthy) postal system. For another, the bike could get stolen or sold for food, ultimately putting the oldest brother back at square one. And what if the bike got a flat tire or needed its brakes replaced?

Luckily, we not only heard from concerned readers last week; we also heard from on-the-ground organizations already making a difference. One of them, World Bicycle Relief, addresses the above issues…and more.

I’ll be profiling a few of these groups while Nick is in Sudan. So…readers, meet the organizations. And organizations…keep up the good work.

World Bicycle Relief

It all started with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

F.K. Day, who with his brother built SRAM, a successful global bicycle components company, felt a visceral urge to help when the tsunami killed over 200,000 people and devastated communities across Asia. But when he called relief organizations from his Chicago office to pitch his idea of distributing bicycles to the hard-hit communities, he said he got the stock answer of “No, No, just send money.”

So he boarded a plane and flew to Indonesia, which made all the difference. “When I went to local relief offices in person and proposed a large scale bicycle program,” he recalled, “they said (excitedly) ‘you can do this?’” Within a year, F.K., along with SRAM staff and World Vision working on the ground, had mobilized the design, production and delivery of bikes to 24,000 Sri Lankans.

After an NGO worker learned about what World Bicycle Relief had accomplished in Sri Lanka, he told F.K. that many parts of Africa were suffering from a metaphorical tsunami of extreme poverty and disease, convincing him to bring his program there. World Bicycle Relief began operations on the continent in 2006, and now has a presence in eight sub-Saharan African countries including Zambia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. To date, it has provided 60,000 sturdy, mechanic-supported bikes to people in need through existing healthcare, education and economic development programs.

The organization just completed distribution of 23,000 bikes to volunteer HIV/AIDS caregivers in Zambia (some of whom are pictured above), helping them to access remote villagers faster than their old mode of transportation: walking. “We also just started a 49,000 bike program only geared toward education,” F.K. said. The goal is to provide 49,000 bicycles to Zambian students, focusing on girls. “Without a bike, their walk can be up to 10 miles a day to and from school, which puts them at risk for harassment and rape,” explained Carol Gifford, a spokesperson for the organization.

But distributing bikes to communities is just part of World Bicycle Relief’s mission. The organization also trains one mechanic for every 50 bikes it provides, essentially setting this person up for a self-sustaining business that keeps the bikes up and running. “If we just did this, it would make a huge difference,” F.K. said.

In Africa, World Bicycle Relief is focusing on three areas for bicycle distribution and training: education (getting children and teachers to school), healthcare (helping providers get to out-of-reach villages) and economic development (partnering with micro-finance institutions). “If we can prove the efficacy in these three areas, we can prove the importance of bikes,” F.K. said. World Bicycle Relief tracks its programs and publishes results on its Web site.

Who knows: with a little luck, perhaps a certain family of superheroes will soon be included in those published results.

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Abel's Dream Comes True - Part 1
by: Nicholas D Kristof

Early this year I wrote a column from Zimbabwe that focused on five orphans who moved in together and survive alone in a hut.

The eldest, Abel, a scrawny and malnourished 17-year-old, would rise at 4 o?clock each morning and set off barefoot on a three-hour hike to high school. At nightfall, Abel would return to function as surrogate father: cajoling the younger orphans to finish their homework by firelight, comforting them when sick and spanking them when naughty.

When I asked Abel what he dreamed of, he said ?a bicycle? ? so that he could cut the six hours he spent walking to and from school and, thus, take better care of the younger orphans. Last week, Abel got his wish. A Chicago-based aid organization, World Bicycle Relief, distributed 200 bicycles to students in Abel?s area who need them to get to school. One went to Abel.

The initiative is a pilot. If it succeeds and finds financing, tens of thousands of other children in Zimbabwe could also get bicycles to help them attend school.

?I?m happy,? Abel told me shyly ? his voice beaming through the phone line ? when I spoke to him after he got his hands on his bicycle.

Before, he said, he wasn?t sure that he would pass high school graduation exams because he had no time to study. Now he is confident that he will pass.

The bicycle project is the brainchild of a Chicago businessman, Frederick K.W. Day, who read about Abel and decided to make him and his classmates a test of a large-scale bicycles-for-education program in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Day is a senior executive of the SRAM Corporation, the largest bicycle parts company in the United States. He formed World Bicycle Relief in 2005 in the belief that bicycles could help provide cheap transportation for students and health workers in poor countries.

At first, his plan was to ship used bicycles from the United States, but after visits to the field he decided that they would break down. ?When we got out there, it was clear that no bike made in the U.S. would survive in that environment,? he said.

After consulting with local people and looking at the spare parts available in remote areas, Mr. Day?s engineering staff designed a 55-pound one-speed bicycle that needed little pampering. One notorious problem with aid groups is that they introduce new technologies that can?t always be sustained; the developing world is full of expensive wells that don?t work because the pumps have broken and there is no one to repair them.

So World Bicycle Relief trains one mechanic ? equipped with basic spare parts and tools ? for every 50 bicycles distributed, thus nurturing small businesses as well. Abel was one of those trained as a mechanic this time.


Abel's Dream Comes True - Part 2
by: Nicholas D Kristof

In the world of aid, nothing goes quite as planned, and it?s far too early to know whether this program will succeed. World Bicycle Relief tried to get around potential problems by spending months recruiting village elders to oversee the program (it helps that the elders receive bicycles, which they get to keep after two years if they provide solid oversight). Elders will ensure that fathers and older brothers do not confiscate bicycles from girls on the grounds that females are too insignificant to merit something so valuable.

Parents sometimes try to save daughters the risk of walking several hours each way to school by lodging them in town. But the result is sometimes sexual extortion; if a girl wishes to continue her education by staying in cheap lodgings, the price is repeated rape. With bicycles, those girls will now be able to stay at home.

World Bicycle Relief has given out more than 70,000 bicycles so far, nearly 70 percent to women and girls. It expects to hand out 20,000 bicycles this year. And if all goes well, Abel may be the first of tens of thousands of Zimbabwean students to get a bike.

So, for Abel, this is something of a fairy-tale ending. But one of my challenges as a journalist is that many donors want to help any specific individual I write about, while few want to support countless others in the same position.

One obstacle is donor fatigue and weariness with African corruption and repeated aid failures. Those are legitimate concerns. But this column isn?t just a story about a boy and a bike. Rather, it?s an example of an aid intervention that puts a system in place, one that is sustainable and has local buy-in, in hopes of promoting education, jobs and a virtuous cycle out of poverty. It?s a reminder that there are ways to help people help themselves, and that problems can have solutions ? but we need to multiply them. Just ask Abel.


More about this Super Hero and his Bike
by: Nicholas D Kristof

The saga of getting a bike to Abel was actually more complicated than I had space to describe in my last column about him, and there are rather more players.

After the original column about Abel and Zimbabwe ran earlier this year, a number of people contacted me, wanting to help. One challenge was how to protect Abel and his ?family,? since the Zimbabwean government is not a fan of my work ? and since an inflow of benefits to him might also attract problems in the community. A second challenge was just how to get help to him, since he has no phone, is a minor, and doesn?t have identity documents. Some people wired money, but I?m not clear on what reached him.

One New York reader was able to send a friend to Victoria Falls, and then found Abel?s village a couple of hours away. The friend and an interpreter found Abel and bought him clothing and blankets, was deeply impressed with him, and I think is committed to trying to help him further.

A bicycle is of course only one element that is needed, and Catholic Relief Services (a great organization that works in Abel?s area) has helped provide Abel and the other orphans in his family with counseling and has helped pay their school fees for the time being.

Let me also reiterate the frustration that I alluded to in my column. If I write about a needy individual, that person gets help ? but others in the same position don?t. And there are lots of Abels out there. I found him by stopping at the local school, asking the teachers about orphans living alone, and then getting directions to his hut. Any time you?re in a country like Zimbabwe you can take a break from Victoria Falls and game parks and do the same thing. This has to be done in a sensitive way, but if you visit a country then interact with its people, not just its tourism sights!

Nicholas Kristof

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by: Anonymous

good post

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