[Note: at the suggestion of Joyce Norden, I am including links for those who would like more information or wish to donate to some of these initiatives.]
Shabbat shalom, on this the Shabbat of Shabbatot, the holiest moments of our year.
In today’s haftarah, Isaiah takes us to task for performing atonement rituals while the poor suffer. “Is it not the sharing of your bread with those who starve, the bringing of the wretched poor into your house, or clothing someone you see who is naked?” which is the point?
On Yom Kippur, we pray for compassion, realizing that even though we have good deeds to commend us, we have all fallen short. We pray to do better, and to make it through the closing gates of compassion. We pray for sustenance, mazel, protection, safety, security - none of which we can take for granted, but mostly, we do.
One of the important things about Isaiah’s words is the exhortation to care for those who we see. But in our modern world, increasingly we do not see the have-nots. While it may not be our intent, it is the result of planning, policy, and increasingly disparate income distribution which protects and reinforces privilege. We live in metaphorically gated communities, walling ourselves off. If we want to get through the gates of redemption, we need to take a good look at how we systematically keep our gates closed to the Other.
Today I will mention seven gates of protected privilege, and then I will share seven relatively simple gate busters. The first seven gates are local/national; the seven gate openers are global, reflecting the book research I have been doing for the last 18 months on global poverty alleviation. In truth, it is easier to provide life-saving drugs for a dollar a dose than to restructure American life.
Let’s look at seven gates within which we live our lives.
1. Through a combination of burglar alarms, so-called “security systems”, air conditioning, and cars, we have effectively gated our houses so that no one can get through, unless we let them, or they outsmart us. In our house, the dreaded invader is actually pollen. As a result, we have accepted lifestyles which preclude anyone, friend or neighbor, ever dropping by. Our doors are closed. When is the last time you were a spontaneous visitor, or hosted spur of the moment guests? If a person in need knocked on our doors, most of us would feel very nervous about letting them in. Because we would think a person that did this is crazy. What kind of world have we built, that if someone needs something and reaches out directly at our doorsteps, we are most inclined to call 911?
2. We have literally built gated communities. I often made fun of the one my in-laws lived in, since it actually had a gate, for which you needed a password or someone to buzz you in, but any affluent American neighborhood actually has an invisible gate. Housing stock tends to be segregated by class, perhaps, rather than race, but segregation it is. A low income family on my block set off a stir because their noisy kids played outside all the time. “This is not how people behave here”, one irate African American neighbor complained.
3. We have created an alternate system of private education, so very few of us send our kids to the local public schools, unless we live in high income areas. We sent our kids to day school, so we felt somewhat virtuous, but in fact, we fit into the same pattern as most upper-middle-class Philadelphians. Our kids received superior educations with PLU’s - People Like Us. I learned this term from my daughter-in-law Becca and it captures the assumptions we share with peers, or within lifestyle enclaves.
Mt. Airy is very PLU, if you shop at Weavers Way, eat local, and live in precincts which are 98% Democratic. I just read in the NYTImes Retirement section that 1 in 500 Americans over 65 have a regular yoga practice. If you find that surprising, welcome to the club, since in our neighborhood it is more like 1 in 5. Private school, for all its merits, has gradually hollowed out public education and contributes to the shameful situation in which we find ourselves today. Not intentional, but just the same, we have erected a gate around our children to make sure they have good educational experiences, and as for the rest of the children - we will go to rallies and beg for money from Harrisburg and hope it works.
4. We have built transportation systems designed for people with adequate financial resources. That means you drive a car, or if you go a distance, you fly. Amtrak is an expensive option, but it IS an option in the Bos-Wash corridor. I lived in Philly for 20 years before I got on a bus, because I had no idea where they went, and the system was not designed to attract affluent customers. Buses, in Philly, are for poor folk.
I recently visited Mpls, and was heading from there to Des Moines, Iowa, to visit family. I logged onto Amtrak to make a reservation, but - no train! Not on the Bos/Wash corridor. There were flights, I am sure, but I wanted to see the cornfields, so I booked a Greyhound bus. (Not a Bolt or Mega, with wifi. Just Greyhound.) There was no accessible info online on how to get from the airport where I was dropping off my car to the bus depot downtown. The car rental people had no information, having never talked to anyone who needed to travel to a bus depot. Eventually I took a van downtown to Greyhound, and was pretty flabbergasted when the first stop on our journey was - the Twin Cities airport. Point is, so few people ever need this information that it is invisible.
At a bus stop break, where we parked at a gas station convenience store in SmallTown, Minnesota, one of the passengers started to shake and lose his balance. This happened a few times, and the clerk came out from behind her plexiglass shielded cash register to check on him. He confirmed he was NOT okay. The bus driver came around and instructed this kind woman to call an ambulance. Then we took off. An impoverished man taken care of by our safety net - that’s a good thing. But what happened to him next, after he was discharged from the emergency room?
5. While the gentleman on the bus was taken to a hospital, for many in our country, that is not the case. They are undocumented and will be turned away, or they ironically have too much income to qualify for medicaid but not enough to afford insurance. Let us pray that the expansion of medical care insurance in our country will move forward.
6. When I was young, my male counterparts worked very hard to avoid the draft. That was Vietnam, a turning point for our country when young, well-educated (which means affluent) men resisted the call to military service. This upended our military which was, cleverly and with our complicity, recast as a Volunteer Army. In exchange for taking the risk of being killed, or disabled for life, you can enlist in our armed forces. Affluent people rarely take the military up on this offer, so we have walled ourselves off from risk-sharing and outsourced our defence to lower income Americans with fewer options and more interest in service. You can bet we would not have invaded Iraq if it had involved drafting high income soldiers, People Like Us.
7. The immigration debate rages, and due to post 9/11 security concerns, we have made it ever harder to immigrate to this country. We make it difficult for students who want study visas, and we have actually built a separation wall on the Arizona/Mexican border despite the fact that Mexican immigration has markedly slowed. In one generation the Mexican birth rate has dropped from 7.3 per Mexican woman in 1960 to 2.4 in 2009. Jobs dried up during our recession, and the Mexican economy has been improving. Just saying.
In general, we Americans have not just gates on our Northern and Southern borders, but are bounded by two oceans. We manage not to see the rest of the world, even more than we manage not to see American poverty. Not to say that it is picnic to be poor and homeless in the United States, (and hats off to all the work our community does through NPIHN to address local homeless families) but relatively speaking, try living without running water, electricity, and sanitation, and you’d take American poverty hands down.
Hence the next part of my talk. Unfortunately I am not telling seven stories of easy fixes for the situations I just outlined. But when it comes to world poverty, there are easy fixes. Because of inadequate governance and inequitable distribution, end users cannot access them.
Whether you fast with difficulty, or find it a meaningful spiritual practice, hunger for us is just that - an option. I want to share with you seven ways of improving people’s lives globally, many of which I have learned about in this last year, researching a book on 100 Tools under $100 for poverty alleviation. Quite a few of them involve food.
Giving the kind of aid the haftarah envisions, handouts, is obviously important. The persistent poverty described by Isaiah presumes poverty is a constant. But we are learning that many of the poverty traps - the things that keep the poor getting poorer - can be addressed and some can be avoided altogether. We will not get rid of global poverty, but we can lessen its severity, and help people with a hand up. Poor people are praying for sustenance, mazel, protection, safety, security - just the same as we are.
1. Children in our world starve. Droughts, disasters, or political disruptions destroy harvests and citizens of failed states are driven from their homes, seeking food and shelter. There are - God Bless Them - massive NGO humanitarian responses to meet this flood of need. (LIke two million in refugee camps in Syria as we speak.) In the past acutely malnourished children were fed by IV, in field hospitals. Some recovered, but being in a hospital with malnourished children weakened from pneumonia and diarrhea is not where you want to be.
Enter Plumpy’nut. A French physician, Andre Briend and food engineer Michele Lascanne developed this ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) in the 90’s - which is a tube of peanut base with essential micronutrients added. Acutely malnourished children can now squeeze the food right into their mouths, and can be cared for by family without hospitalization. This has multiplied the number of children which can be saved manifold. It is patented and franchised to factories in the developing world, nearer to locations where it is needed, providing a market for local farmers, as well as employment. this also lowers the cost. It does not answer the question of the mother who receives a box of a month’s supply - what is she supposed to eat herself? What is she to feed her other children, who are hungry, if not technically acutely malnourished?
You can donate to Edesia Global , which manufactures Plumpy’Nut in Providence RI for global humanitarian distribution.
2. Pregnant mothers who are anemic, generally an iron deficiency resulting from inadequate nutrition, are at high risk for hemorrhaging in childbirth. Maternal death is a tragedy. It is also a disaster, if not a death sentence, for a woman’s surviving children. Much effort has been expended this last decade of the Millenium Development Goals to lower maternal death, and there have been many gains. But that just means fewer women die of completely preventable (and completely predictable) birth complications. We are talking about millions and millions of at-risk women.
Misoprostol is a well-researched pill which prevents postpartum excessive blood loss and is recommended by the WHO. It does not need refrigeration nor does it require an injection. It saves mothers’ lives, and is an off-patent drug, so it’s very inexpensive. The problem is getting it to the birth attendants and clinics.
Melodie Holden started an organization called Venture Strategies Innovations which now works with health systems in 15 countries to get women access to miso. Countless women’s lives have been saved, and they live to take care of the new baby and their other children.
Fewer people need to say “your wife, your mother, your sister, your daughter, or your friend bled to death because of the lack of a pill that costs under $1.” Amen.
here is their link: http://www.vsinnovations.org/
3. And while we talk about malnutrition - especially when all our stomachs are growling - how about addressing this problem before children become acutely malnourished (that means, near death)? Inadequate nutrition isn’t just calories, it is also a deficit of essential micronutrients like vitamin A, iodine, zinc, and iron. Worldwide a quarter of a billion kids get inadequate Vitamin A, which is the leading cause of blindness, and death, and is entirely preventable.
Breastfeeding is the first course of action, along with supplements. Another approach is to encourage the cultivation of more nutritious crops, some of which can be bred to increase their delivery of micronutrients. A major initiative, SASHA - Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa - is working to deploy sweet potatoes, which are rich in - yes - vitamin a. They require less water and pesticides than more popular, common crops, and are far more nutritious. The initiative seeks to raise their popularity and improve their durability and yield. Some if this is done through genetic techniques, the results of which are publicly shared. This is a side of the GMO debate you don’t hear much, within our gates.
For more Info, http://cipotato.org/research/partnerships-and-special-projects/sasha-program - this is funded by the Gates Foundation.
4. So, we improve yields. That is good, but one little known fact is that after crops are harvested in the developing world, nearly 50% of the crops are ruined. All that back-breaking labor, half of it performed by women farmers and blam - gone. Insect infestation means that farmers either need to sell their crops right away, glutting the market and lowering prices, or use costly insecticides to preserve their crops.
For $2.20, farmers can now purchase PICS - Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage bags. Developed by Indiana academics researching in the field with scientists from Africa, it is essentially a heavy duty triple ziplock bag. It enables a staple, cowpeas (which we call black-eyed peas) to be stored without insecticides, since the bag keeps out all moisture, preventing infestations. Farmers can benefit from their full crop production, and sell the stored grain when prices are higher. Twice as much food and more than twice the income. The bags are now manufactured in Africa, creating jobs. They can be reused many seasons. $2.20 amortized over many growing seasons.
5. One of the main causes of illness among the global poor is waterborne diseases. Without sanitation, local water is continually polluted, and drinking it spreads disease. There are many effective water treatment approaches - such as filtration - which requires equipment, chlorination which requires inputs, or boiling, which consumes fuel and generates emissions, but they all work very well.
What is less well-known is SODIS, solar disinfection. Simply fill a 2 liter #1 plastic bottle with untreated water and leave it in the sun for a few hours. The ultraviolet rays will kill all the pathogens when the interior heat reaches 149. All the extra heat required to bring the water to boiling, at 212, is unnecessary. SInce the vast majority of the world’s poor live in areas of high solarization, this is very good news, but hard to disseminate. People don’t really trust that it could be true. but it is. This simple technique will improve and save many lives, and trees, too.
You can donate a Solvatten unit for use in Haiti: http://www.thegreenhaitiproject.org/solvatten-ab.html
6. There is a field now, poor economics, which actually uses academic tools and studies how poor people make the myriad economic decisions they face every day. Economists like Esther Duflo study how people fall into poverty traps from which it is nearly impossible to rise up. Illnesses are one of the biggest causes of American family bankruptcies, and it is no different for the global poor. A family member falls ill. Money needs to be scraped together to take the patient to whatever passes for a hospital or clinic, medicines need to be paid for, and family members need to stay and provide the nursing. All these outlays, while no one is bringing in any money, especially if the patient is a breadwinner, wipes out the family’s fragile economic resources.
If the patient dies, then there are expenses of funeral and burial. Often people are forced to sell off productive assets to pay the bills - like livestock, or say, a daughter. Pulling kids out of school. Borrowing money at usurious rates to pay off debts. The family is pretty much never going to restabilize.
A recent innovation, spawned by microfinance, is microinsurance. For a few cents a week, families can buy life insurance. If an insured person dies, the family quickly collect benefits to pay funeral expenses and settle debts, allowing the family to re-establish some security. Believe it or not, African mobile phone companies are partnering with for-profit microinsurance companies to offer life insurance to customers along with every purchase of mobile minutes, in order to develop loyalty in a very competitive market. Millions of people are obtaining life insurance for the first time, and it is helping them avoid that particular poverty trap.
7. How many people here have a birth certificate? Within our gates, it is normal, but there are millions of global births each year that go unregistered. That means these people are literally not counted. Their births and deaths are not included in any demographic health or education studies, and they cannot access any government benefits. Girls cannot prove their age and are vulnerable for forced child marriages. No birth certificate, no passport. People for whom birth registration is particularly challenging include nomadic peoples, migrant workers, remote indigenous tribes, and slum families dwelling in unrecognized shanty towns such as the one hauntingly depicted by Katherine Boo in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. These problems are especially acute for stateless persons, such as refugees and their children, who can be stuck in legal limbo for decades. (Our own Ari Brochin works with such a population of Burmese refugees in Thailand.)
NGO’s have been waging major campaigns to combat this problem, encouraging countries to make the process simple and free, with remarkably good results, including Apps For That. Those birth certificates will certainly help open the gates of security for many millions of people previously denied access.
You can sponsor the registration of a child’s birth for $25.
It is a messy world. I think, though, that Isaiah would be pleasantly surprised to know that we now have the ability to lessen the severity of many harsh fates.
We sitting in this room are privileged because of good luck, not merit. As Anne Frank famously said, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." Think of all that we can do to help inscribe others in the Book of Life..
May we merit to be inscribed as well.
To read more: my book project blog has many initiatives featured.