July 3, 2008

Beatrice's Goat Graduates

Beatrice's Goat is a book that we occasionally use to talk to kids about the fact that small improvements, opportunities and resources can have a big impact on the daily lives of people in a developing world context.  It's a decent resource to introduce the concepts like relief and development, what they look like and how they differ.  The book is based on the real life story of Beatrice and her family in Uganda who receive a goat through the work of Heifer International and how that goat impacts their life - specifically by providing her the means to receive an education.  

The NYT brings the story full circle with news that Beatrice is not only fine and doing well but graduating this year from Connecticut College with big plans for the future:
Granted, foreign assistance doesn’t always work and is much harder than it looks. “I won’t lie to you. Corruption is high in Uganda,” Beatrice acknowledges.

A crooked local official might have distributed the goats by demanding that girls sleep with him in exchange. Or Beatrice’s goat might have died or been stolen. Or unpasteurized milk might have sickened or killed Beatrice.

In short, millions of things could go wrong. But when there’s a good model in place, they often go right. That’s why villagers in western Uganda recently held a special Mass and a feast to celebrate the first local person to earn a college degree in America.

Moreover, Africa will soon have a new asset: a well-trained professional to improve governance. Beatrice plans to earn a master’s degree at the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas and then return to Africa to work for an aid group.

Beatrice dreams of working on projects to help women earn and manage money more effectively, partly because she has seen in her own village how cash is always controlled by men. Sometimes they spent it partying with buddies at a bar, rather than educating their children. Changing that culture won’t be easy, Beatrice says, but it can be done.
I'm not a huge Kristoff fan and I could quibble with some of his presentation here but I won't because all in all it's a pretty cool story that happens to be true, even if it happens to be the exception rather than the norm for this type of donation program.  I don't use a lot of sports analogies but I'll try one out here.  You step up to the plate at a baseball game and what's the best thing that can happen?  You hit it out of the park.  What happens most of the time?  A swing and a miss?  A single if you're lucky.  It's not the best thing that could happen but it's the much more normal thing and it's still a "good" thing because it advances the game, it pushes the play in the right direction for your team.  Most agricultural development is a lot of swinging and missing with occasional base hits.  Small incremental successes that in the aggregate you hope improve the lives of the peoples and communities you are working with in marginal ways at best.  At some point you hope those little successes push through the inertia of hunger or poverty and you get enough runners on base to start bringing some of them home, to really get things moving, but that is a lot of work and it takes a lot of time and sometimes you just strike out and you never get there.  But every once in a while you hit a home run and you celebrate because that's what you do when you hit a home run.  Nothing wrong with a bit of good news now and then, if for no other reason than that it reminds you that home runs exist, they do occasionally happen.  And then you get back to working the count.

Anecdote:  I met and chatted with the guy in charge of Heifer's livestock programs last week and was really impressed.  They occasionally catch flack for some of their program decisions but I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and care present in the way he articulated their mission and vision and their commitment to keep trying to do what they do better.  

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