On Sunday morning, as part of the Tikkun Olam Breakfast at Adath Israel Synagogue, I attended a much-anticipated presentation by the President of American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger. I knew of Ms. Messinger’s work when she was Manhattan Borough President (1990-1998) and when she lost the mayoral race to the incumbent candidate Rudy Giuliani in 1997. The next year, she shifted professional gears and became the President and CEO of the AJWS and brought it into philantropic maturity and prominence. Now in its 25th year, AJWS funds local grass-roots development projects around the world. In 2005, the New York-based Forward named Ms. Messinger to the top of its annual “Forward 50” list of the most influential American Jews (and re-named to the 2009 list– placing four out of the last five years!).
Why is a Jewish organization involved in development work amongst non-Jews? It provides a visible, positive presence for Jews in areas of the world that are not familiar with Jews (and its difficult relations with its Christian and Muslim brethren). And, unlike the disaster relief agencies, AJWS stays for the long-haul, soliciting input from the local people on their needs and wishes for a better future. They work with the local leaders, in particular the women, in choosing which projects to implement.
What is the biggest obstacle to world development? According to Ms. Messinger, it’s the American government’s policy of shipping surplus food overseas! This “free food” is often siphoned off and sold below market prices, undercutting the local farmers who know which crops grow well in their terrain and which foods are tolerated by their people. Knowing of Ms. Messinger’s liberal political views, I sought a response from my Republican, evangelical Christian brother who commented thus: “The Acton Institute, a conservative think tank, also does much work in developing countries and is particularly concerned about free market solutions to problems. Interestingly, they have come to the same conclusion about American policy. Regarding a particular African country, their research came back that African producers said repeatedly that they’d wish Americans would stop sending them our old clothes. With such a supply keeping prices artificially low, indigenous African producers and businessmen never get the chance to create enterprises and get their country self-sufficient. The work at the Acton Institute is intended to help these businesses get off the ground and our own country’s “charity” is keeping them from getting them there.”
The morning session also included presentations by Pesach Stadlin, a local boy who’s now a staffer with AJWS, and Monica Oguttu who spoke about the series of development projects she’d initiated in rural Kenya. Pesach cited statistics that 1 out of 6 people in this world go to bed hungry. Instead of the term “developing world” or “the Third World” (passé by now), he prefers the term “two-thirds of the world” because it gives a better scope of the hunger problem.
Ms. Oguttu spoke about the PHD of the developing world: poverty, hunger, and disease. She was a midwife in the capital city of Nairobi when she became aware of the shortages of health care available to the rural women and she formed what became a network of 350 health professionals. Once she was apprised of the shortages of hospital beds– total strangers had to share a bed– she developed home-based care kits and bicycles. Then, she was alerted to the problem of starving patients trying to tolerate strong medicines on an empty stomach, so she identified local cereals—soya, millet, amaranth– that could be milled into a nutritious flour mixture. Most recently, she tacked the problem of adolescent girls who stayed out of school during their menstrual periods due to the lack of feminine sanitary supplies. Her female brainstorming team came up with a local product—reusable sanitary towels—that they’re now marketing for profit.
Another important word about disaster relief: they do not need our surplus food, old shoes or clothes! The essential need is for money that could be used to purchase local products, which usually are available. Quoting then U.S. Secretary of State General Colin Powell who was in Sri Lanka in January of 2005: the highest point in that country was a mountain of donated blankets—for a country that does not experience cold weather at all!
A final quote from the “best advocate for change in Africa,” Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2: “Where you live in the world should not determine whether you live in the world.”