My initial impression of the village of Sirakoro, Mali, was an explosion of color. The women were dressed in bold prints, often with twirled head scarves, and yet their dazzling outfits contrasted sharply with the mud brown backdrop of their village. On the surface level, to my untrained eye, the poverty in Mali was different from the stark, in-your-face urban poverty that I grew up around in Mumbai, India. Here the struggles seemed subtle to a visitor, but were equally if not harsher. No running water or electricity, scarcity of food, and lack of adequate schools—to name a few.
I traveled to Mali recently to attend a conference on Saving for Change, Oxfam’s innovative microfinance program that empowers women through small, rural, community-based autonomous savings and lending groups. Saving for Change is now reaching 300,000 women, in almost half of the 10,000 villages in Mali. We went to six different remote villages and had the opportunity to see the savings groups conduct their meetings, and to talk with individual members about their experiences.
Despite President Obama’s assertion last week in his speech during the Millennium Development Goals Summit that the delivery of medicines to Mali is improving the health systems there, the UNDP statistics on Mali continue to be humbling. The overall illiteracy rate is 73.8 percent, with women faring much worse, and the average life expectancy is 48.1 years.
Yet, here we were witnessing change in difficult circumstances. The savings groups are comprised of about twenty women, and they sit around a circle conducting their business orally, often repeating the amount that each woman contributes, since no written records exist.
Victoria Marzilli is Oxfam America’s social media specialist.
Yesterday, President Obama announced a global development policy at the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Summit—a big step towards fulfilling US development promises and helping people lift themselves out of poverty. In addition to organizing events outside the UN summit and working to influence US officials, Oxfam America used social media to raise awareness and spur a conversation about how the MDGs can help us achieve the world we want.
Earlier this month, I posed that same question to Oxfam America’s Twitter followers: What does the world you want look like? Not just out of curiosity, but in order to raise awareness about the MDGs and how they help us achieve a better world—one without poverty, hunger, and social injustice.
Using the hashtag #worldiwant, we captured thousands of tweets from all over the world and brought a select few to this week’s UN MDGs summit in New York City, in the form of posters displayed during the event at Lincoln Center (see more photos on Flickr). Here are a few of your creative responses that were among my favorites:
@ClaudiaCostin: I want a world where kids go to school every day, knowing that this will make the difference in their lives. #worldIwant
*Claudia Costin is Rio de Janeiro’s Secretary of Education.
@voiceteam: #worldiwant – people can hold leaders to account and decisions that affect the poorest people are made openly and transparently
*Voice connects bloggers with important political events.
@SocialCauseGuru: #WorldIwant A world where violence against women is NEVER tolerated
We have heard from Islamabad that there are rumors the flood is receding in Shikarpur and other areas in Sindh Province. … [But] once in the rural areas we soon see that the water has only gone down by a few inches. There’s a very long way to go.
We stop and have a brief chat with some people, living under plastic sheeting, close to the roadside. A local man tells us it will be at least a month before the waters go down to normal levels. We go as far as we can before the road disappears under water.
The floodwater here doesn’t look dramatic; no gushing, roaring torrents, strong currents sweeping all before it. This is a plain area and the water lies flat and still. A row of telegraph poles stretch out into to the distance, strangely marooned, casting shadows in the still water surrounding them. There are remains of mud houses crumbling and dissolving in the water.
In places we can see small green shoots poking out of the water; these are the rice fields. The crop, just weeks from being harvested, has been totally lost. Rice is the main crop in this area, and with only one crop a year the flood is a devastating blow after months and months of hard work. There will not be another rice harvest until this time next year, and only then if people can return home, are able to clear the land, buy seed and plant in time. …
Right now, our team has two different jobs to do: To help people who are displaced and won’t be able to return home quickly; and to help those returning to destroyed homes and livelihoods, like these rice fields.
In the distance we see a few people living on a small patch of land. They are probably staying there to protect what remains of their property, and livestock. Otherwise, what was once a thriving village has a slightly eerie air. Walking back up the road to the car, all we can hear are the birds.
Today I met Raiza, a petite young woman of 22, who’s living in a camp for displaced people at Government High School in Shirkapur district in Sindh province. In conjunction with our local partner group Participatory Development Initiative, Oxfam is providing the 360 families living at the school with cash vouchers for 5,000 rupees (about $58). These vouchers help ensure that people can buy what they need to get by in the camps for at least the next two to three weeks.
“Before the flood I was farming and keeping livestock, and my husband cut people’s hair. Any money I made I gave to my husband and he decided what to spend it on. We didn’t own the land we were living on…we were tenant farmers,” Raiza told me.
“When the flood came we were just sitting in our home. We didn’t know the flood was coming…we just heard the water…we just had to leave our village. The water came very fast. We could only save our children, ourselves and some clothes…we didn’t even have time to save some crockery and other things. We lost everything … our home, livestock.
In Cambodia’s northern-most province of Ratanakiri, Sap Lan shows visitors her rice field. The indigenous Kavet woman says that normally by this time of September the plants are up to her waist. Late rainfall this year means her rice plants barely reach her ankle. She is counting on harvesting wild fruits and vegetables from the surrounding forest for food and to earn money to buy rice.
Indigenous people in this province like Sap Lan depend heavily on nature, especially rain and forest resources. Their community forest is thick with huge, magnificent trees, some as wide as five people joining hands in a circle. They soar into the sky. It is dark in the late afternoon in the woods, and when you break out into the rich light of the rice field, the bright green shocks your eyes.
There are 11 people in 29-year-old Lap’s extended family; all living in one small house near their 2.5-acre rice field. Last year they made up for a dry growing season and a shortfall in rice production by gathering the fruit from samrong trees. In some places people can pay $10 for a kilo of samrong fruit. The family earned enough to buy a motorcycle and fix up their house.
The struggle for survival here may become even more challenging: The family is hearing that a mining company is exploring for minerals in the area and that the company has a 20,500-acre concession from the government, granted without consultation or permission from the local people in the village of Lalai, on the edge of a large stream flowing into the Se San river, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.
Oxfam and our partners have launched a rapid-relief effort to reach more than one million people with essential aid. Some of that aid takes the form of hygiene kits, like the one shown above. Each hygiene kit includes 15 bars of soap for personal use, soap for washing clothes, two towels, a cloth that can be cut into strips for sanitary protection, a plastic kettle for washing, and two buckets with lids.
“People still remember what happened a few years ago,” the New York Times quoted an economist at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization saying on Saturday as news of rising food prices—and the possible clashes they could trigger—hit the headlines.
How could anyone who was hungry then forget?
Accompanying the Times story was a stunning photo of a young boy in Mozambique where the cost of bread has suddenly skyrocketed by 30 percent. Defiance—or is it disbelief?–seems to arc through every bone in his body: Wearing shorts and a pair of boots that climb almost to his knees, he’s staked out his position in front of a burning car. On his head floats a too-big cap that must have once belonged to a policeman or a military officer. Continue reading →
In the hills and river valleys north and east of Hanoi, rice farming is on my mind. But I am also thinking about my uncle Henry, who served as a corpsman (medic) in the US Marines here in Vietnam,where he was badly wounded.
“It’s a beautiful country,” he once told me. He would know, as his recon unit spent a lot of time (sometimes two weeks straight) out in the countryside. And I am here to say that he was right.
I am much farther north (about 250 kilometers north and west of Hanoi) than Henry ever was. I spent the last two days talking with farmers learning a different way to grow rice, Vietnam’s most important food crop. They call it SRI: System of Rice Intensification. The local office of the Plant Protection Sub Department, with help from Oxfam, is running farmer field schools, going commune by commune to teach techniques that help farmers increase yields, reduce diseases and pest infestations (and the need for pesticides), while using fewer seeds, less water and labor. The farmers I spoke with said they are making more money on the paddy land with the right soil that allows them to grow SRI rice.
In Dae Phac commune, Vuong Hoang Kim, a 28-year-old mother of two, said SRI is helping her family improve their standard of living. “We can buy things, and pay for my [eight-year-old] son’s education expenses, like books and clothes,” she told me outside her modest but comfortable home on a hillside overlooking the green rice fields, where her plants are gracefully arched with the weight of maturing grains of rice. “We can also invest in different types of fertilizer for our next crop.”
This province, called Yen Bai, is one of the poorest in the country. The poverty rate is something like 20 percent, so many farmers are enthusiastic about the potential benefits of SRI.