Mr. Kristof is in Masumba, Malawi and tells us about “Doughnuts Defeating Poverty.” He says a family in Malawi is a great example of how a little structured saving and entrepreneurship can change lives. Just look at what Biti Rose did with fritters. In “Save the Candidates” Ms. Collins says calm down, people! It’s too early to be filled with anxiety about the November elections. Let’s answer all those questions that have you so worried. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
If you want to understand some of the best new ideas to chip away at global poverty, an excellent place to start is the Nasoni family hut here in the southern African nation of Malawi.
Alfred Nasoni and his wife, Biti Rose, have had seven children in this village of Masumba. Two died without ever seeing a doctor. Alfred and Biti Rose pulled their eldest son out of school in the fourth grade because, they said, they couldn’t afford $5 in school costs for a term. And they farmed only part of their 2.5 acre plot because they lacked money for seeds.
Yet poverty is sometimes romanticized, and it’s more complicated than that. Alfred, 45, told me that even as his children were starving, he spent an average of $2 a week on local moonshine and 50 cents on cigarettes. He added that he also spent $2 or more a week buying sex from local girls — even though AIDS is widespread.
All this hints at an uncomfortable truth: The suffering associated with poverty is sometimes caused not only by low incomes but also by self-destructive pathologies. In central Kenya, a recently published government study found that men, on average, spent more of their salaries on alcohol than on food.
It’s a vicious circle: despair leads people to self-medicate in ways that compound the despair.
Yet there are escape hatches. In 2005, Biti Rose joined a village savings group founded by CARE, the international aid group. These “village savings and loans” are among the hottest ideas in development work. They now serve some six million people in 58 countries.
After recent financial crises, plenty of Americans love to hate banks, but many of the world’s poor don’t have that luxury: more than 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have a bank account, according to a landmark World Bank report, “Measuring Financial Inclusion.”
The poor typically receive a pile of cash once or twice a year, at the end of a harvest, and then have no good way to save it. That increases the risk that some of it will be squandered.
In some African countries, cellphones are emerging as the new banking system. But here, and in much of the world, the solution is savings groups like Biti Rose’s. She and 19 other members met weekly and each deposited the equivalent of about 10 cents. The money was then lent out to members, and CARE coached them on how to start small businesses.
With a loan of $2, Biti Rose started making and selling a local version of doughnuts, which she initially sold for 2 cents each. “People really liked my doughnuts,” she noted, and soon she was making several dollars a day in profit. Inspired by her example, Alfred began growing vegetables and selling them; he turned out to be a shrewd businessman as well.
Seeing an upward trajectory in the family fortunes, Alfred cut out the girlfriends and curbed his drinking, he says.
Biti Rose and Alfred then had the resources to buy seed and fertilizer for all their own land and to lease an additional two acres as well. These days, they hire up to 10 farm laborers to work for them. In the old days, they harvested less than one bag of corn a year; this year, their harvest filled seven ox carts.
All savers aren’t that successful, of course, but there’s no doubt that the nudge to save money and start businesses can be transformative and self-sustaining. CARE moved on in 2009 to take its model to more needy areas in Malawi, but the savings groups around this village multiplied anyway. Other farmers envied Biti Rose and Alfred replacing their leaky grass roof with a tin one, and they decided to start their own savings groups. The idea has even spread, without CARE’s help, across the border to villages in Mozambique.
Yet I think there’s something going on here beyond microsavings and entrepreneurship. Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of an exceptionally good book called “Poor Economics,” argues that outside interventions sometimes work partly when they give poor people hope. That’s precisely what I’ve seen in many countries: Assistance succeeds when it gives people a feeling that a better outcome is possible, and those hopes become self-fulfilling as people work more industriously and invest more wisely.
For Alfred and Biti Rose, their hopes are now focused on their younger children (the oldest has married). Biti Rose never went to school at all, but she is planning to send her younger children to university.
She is also planning future purchases, including the first television in the area. But don’t think Biti Rose is going to kick back. She sees the TV as an investment.
“I’m a businesswoman,” she said firmly. “I can’t give anything away. If there’s a soccer match or something, anybody who comes in my house to watch will have to pay a fee.”
If you want to help, consider Kiva. Of the 44 loans I’ve made only one hasn’t been repaid in full. Now here’s Ms. Collins:
Everywhere I go, concerned citizens ask about the November elections and what they can do to make sure that whatever it is that they’re terrified is going to happen, doesn’t. Therefore, as a public service, I am prepared to answer questions:
I am terrified that President Obama is going to lose! What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen?
If you’re living in a swing state, all you have to do is wave your hand and somebody will leap out of the bushes, beg you to put up a sign on your lawn, and ask you to become a volunteer. If you pick the sign option, be prepared for the possibility that somebody will steal it. We’re having that kind of election year. If you choose to volunteer, your assignment will probably be less exciting than you had hoped, but I have definitely heard reports about people who met their future spouse while licking envelopes in the back room of a near-empty storefront in a half-abandoned shopping mall.
I am terrified that President Obama is going to win! What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen?
Oh, for heaven’s sake! Just look at the first answer. I’m not going to say everything twice to prove my evenhanded impartiality. This is the opinion section.
How do I know if I’m in a swing state?
The Times politics page on the Web has a map. But if you live in a populous state and never see a presidential candidate who isn’t fund-raising, that’s a clue. May I say, by the way, that I am pretty ticked off about Iowa and New Hampshire making the cut? We have to spend every primary season wringing our hands over Iowa and New Hampshire. You’d think that they’d let somebody else have a turn in the fall.
What if I’m not from a swing state?
You can volunteer to staff a phone bank calling people in Iowa and New Hampshire. Or you could donate money to your candidate. Think about Congress, by the way. Representative Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, claims that he had a lot of incumbents in 2010 who were totally confident that they’d be elected a week before the voting, then got wiped out by a sudden last-second infusion of money from Republican “super PACs.” Even if that’s apocryphal, you can see how the Democrats would be terrified, what with all the Republican billionaires floating around this year.
How come the Democrats are so short on billionaires? Whenever you hear about some guy tossing $20 million into a “super PAC,” it always seems to be a Republican.
I asked a top Obama operative that very question the other day. He sighed and said: “Our billionaires are principled. They all want to spend their money curing malaria.”
Do you think that’s it?
To be fair, Republican rich people are also interested in curing terrible ailments. (Donald Trump once told me that he had been looking for a cause along that line but decided that all the best diseases were taken.) And the answer to the Democratic billionaire shortage is probably closer to what Alec MacGillis of The New Republic diagnosed as an “existential” problem, a rich-person contempt for the whole sordid mess that campaign fund-raising has become. It would so be the Democrats’ luck to get stuck with billionaires cursed with existential angst.
Couldn’t they give the money secretly? I heard rumors you could do that.
Yes, under the current system you can give a ton of money to, say, defeat Barack Obama, and keep it a secret as long as you give it to a nonprofit organization dedicated to social welfare activities, like the one founded by Karl Rove.
Wait a minute. How can an organization for secret billionaire donors, dedicated to the defeat of Barack Obama and founded by Karl Rove, count as a nonprofit group dedicated to social welfare activities?
It’s all about the campaign finance laws and the I.R.S. and the Federal Election Commission. Really, it’d be easier to explain what the physicists at the Large Hadron Collider discovered about the Higgs boson.
I don’t remember being this worried about billionaires in 2008.
That’s because in 2010, the Supreme Court threw out campaign finance rules as we know them. That was before Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. became averse to overturning major acts of Congress whenever the mood strikes.
About those needy Congressional candidates. How do I pick a worthy one?
There ought to be a political version of those international children’s charities, a place that would send you a picture of a House or Senate candidate with big, sad eyes who would promise to write to you every month if you’d just promise to send them $100 a month until the election.
Failing that, I trust you to know how to do a computer search.