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.
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.