Sunday inspiration: simple, effective action

Via Catherine Price at Salon comes the story of Olga Murray, who devised a simple, practical philanthropic solution that has virtually eradicated a tradition of starving Nepalese farming families selling their daughters into indentured servitude.

1n 1989 Murray was horrified to learn that in poor farming districts a daughter would be sold into domestic slavery to wealthy families for as little as US$35-75. But she and her colleague Sam Paneru came up with an idea based on their understanding of the problems facing poor Nepalese families struggling to feed every mouth – piglets.

Murray and Paneru understood that pork was a prized meat in Nepal and that many families were selling their daughters because they couldn’t feed the rest of their families. So they began approaching village fathers with a proposal: If they promised to keep their daughters and to send them to school instead of selling them, the organization Murray and Paneru worked for, the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, would give them a piglet to raise — a piglet that would fetch the same amount of money at market as one of their daughters. What’s more, the NYOF would pay for the girls’ schooling and provide families with a kerosene lamp and 2 liters of kerosene a month. The result? Of the 37 families they approached the first year, 32 said yes. (The Chronicle notes that “some asked for and received a goat instead of a pig” — proving that even in the most absurd situations, it’s good to be flexible.)

The craziest part: Since the beginning of the program, Murray and her colleagues have helped to save 3,000 girls from slavery and, says the Chronicle, to “all but eradicate the long-held tradition of indentured servitude in the Tharu village.”

There’s a lot more detail, including how girls who have been freed as a result of the piglet program are now vocal activists and watchdogs on behalf of other girls, in the San Francisco Chronicle feature that prompted Catherine’s post.

More reading at the official website about the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, and this program in particular.

She’s not the only person to come up with these microfinance programs that can make a huge difference to a larger systemic injustice or deprivation. I’m a big fan of the program that builds micro-hydroelectric generators in Africa for only a few hundred dollars a time – during the day it can power a business endeavour, and during the night it provides light for children to study, or for a family to listen to the news and be better informed. (of course, it’s only effective in countries with no water shortage problems)

What other effective microfinance programs do you know?

Categories: education, ethics & philosophy, Life, social justice, work and family

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7 replies

  1. The Heifer Project is a very prominent organization creating this kind of change. The link below is a video about widows and single women in Nepal and how they are changing their lives.
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  2. I’ve been donating to for several years. You loan the money to an entrepreneur from almost any area of the world, and you can loan as little as $25. As long as the loan doesn’t got

  3. Crappy keyboard — as long as the loan doesn’t go into default, you get your money back and can loan it out again. I’ve helped fund 14 different small start up businesses; everything from beekeeping to sewing to a taxi service (consisting of one beat up old car).

  4. My extended family provided some start up funds to a program in Peru for women making accessories (hats, scarves etc) in lieu of Christmas presents:
    It’s supported by the Sisters of St Joseph in Australia, registered for Fair Trade, and I now have a very soft grey scarf.

  5. At the risk of pouring a little cold water on this (or maybe just a little bit of lukewarm water), I do think there is something to be said for the various marxist critiques of financialization, NGOs as conduits for neo-imperalism, and the ways in which micro-loans and commodity-driven programs (for example) are also about promoting capitalism and can in some contexts serve to increase social stratification. On the other hand, Murray’s work represents something we cannot not want if we are interested in women’s welfare (let alone the promotion of women’s rights), and to some extent avoids some of the problems of financialization. So I suppose it is just a certain vague wariness of the ways that such forms of help for women in other contexts could have other, less immediately obvious effects.

  6. That’s a very good point to keep in mind, Klaus. I’ve read about some of the social stratification problems resulting from NGO aid programs in Africa especially, and describing it as neo-imperialism can be distressingly accurate.
    I suspect that the way in which Murray’s piglet scheme avoids financialisation was quite deliberate and largely due to her long experience with aid-work in Nepal and how it affects the communities who receive it. That’s why it works so well.

  7. I’m sure the likes of Murray are aware of the various critiques. Or perhaps that’s: ‘have been made aware’ of the various critiques, and maybe even from some of the activists that work like hers has fostered. Our privileged position on this side of certain global divisions draws us into positions of complicity with those kinds of structural problems, even when we try to help. And the immediate effects of programs such as Murray’s are so obviously good, while the other possible effects are difficult to imagine from such a distance in terms of experience etc. I guess you end up somewhere in the vicinity of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

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