A Ray of Hope

When I was nine years old, I had the chance to go to an island called Sumba with my family. I had no idea that I would be returning to this eastern Indonesian island every summer for the next twelve years. At that time, I had always lived in France. I had never set a foot in Asia. I knew that in some places across the globe people suffered from poverty but the word poverty only rang a distant bell in my mind.

I was blessed with a privileged life in which I had always taken water, healthcare and education for granted. I didn’t know what it meant to be in need. Upon arriving in Sumba, I opened my eyes to a whole new world, a world that felt like stepping back in time, a world that transpired both beauty and suffering, a world deeply in need.

Sumba’s population is made up of approximately 700,000 people. Religion and traditions that have survived thousands of years play an important role in the Sumbanese every-day life. Houses are built with bamboo and topped with grass, favoring the ascendance of ancestral spirits called the Marapu. Sumbanese women are known for the beautiful Ikat cloth that they weave into intricate patterns.

Traditional houses in a Sumbanese village.

Traditional houses in a Sumbanese village.

Unfortunately, the Sumbanese are some of the poorest in Indonesia and child mortality is among the highest in the world. The majority of people don’t have access to healthcare, water or education.

During my first summer in Sumba, I met Rainy Octora. Born and raised on the island, Rainy became the driving force of a non-profit organization called the Sumba Foundation that helps reduce malnutrition, eradicate malaria, generate income and improve access to education without hurting the unique culture of the island’s residents.

Rainy Octora serving lunch to students as part of one of the Sumba Foundation’s project to decrease malnutrition.

Rainy Octora serving lunch to students as part of one of the Sumba Foundation’s project to decrease malnutrition.

Through Rainy, I learned the challenges that a foundation can face in its effort to alleviate poverty. I saw how difficult it was for Rainy to both focus her energy on fundraising and spend every day on the field. I followed Rainy in villages where she weighed malnourished babies one by one from a scale tied to a tree. Rainy monitored their health and brought their mothers packs of milk every week. I followed Rainy to schools where she started lunch programs for children. Some walked from far away to attend school everyday and didn’t eat anything until they got back home. I followed Rainy when she brought an eight-year old girl suffering from malaria to one of the foundations clinic, where nurses treat thousands of villagers.

Every day spent organizing fundraising initiatives was a day less for Rainy to be out there, feeding kids who couldn’t possibly focus at school with empty stomachs, helping parents whose babies’ lives stood between life and death. Because of that, I began thinking about what could relieve foundations from the load of fundraising.

A few months ago, I discovered One For The World (OFTW) and found an answer to that question. By encouraging people to pledge 1% of their income to some of the most effective nonprofit organizations in the world, OFTW can help foundations continue assisting those in pressing need without constantly worrying about funding. And by finding the foundations that have the greatest impact, OFTW does more than that: it helps people make sure that every dollar they donate will help others improve their life conditions in the long-term. To maximize impact, OFTW supports cost-effective foundations that focus on food, water, healthcare, economic opportunity and education.

I became curious about the concept of impact and how to donate effectively after shooting a first “documentary” on Rainy and the Sumba Foundation. I wondered if the Sumba Foundation’s efforts created sustainable change in the life of the Sumbanese. So I embarked into a five-year long project focusing on a small village in Sumba, named Hobajaingi. Through this new film, my goal was to retrace the full arc of development: from a village where women and children walk over 18 miles a day to get water, to the installation of a well, the cultivation of irrigated vegetables, and finally, the positive impact of balanced diets on children's health and well-being. I wanted to demonstrate the rapid chain effect that ensues after villagers have access to water and how, over less than five years, the foundation can provide considerable help without generating dependence or radically changing Sumbanese culture. The foundation simply provides villagers with the necessary resources to improve standards of living and encourages them to maintain those conditions independently.

Children in Hobajaingi Village before the Sumba Foundation intervened in 2013.

Children in Hobajaingi Village before the Sumba Foundation intervened in 2013.

I began filming this remote village of around 200 habitants a few weeks before the foundation intervened in 2013. Since the village is situated on top of a hill, the closest water source was located approximately 3 miles away. Villagers had malaria up to five times a year, preventing them from working for important periods of time. Children suffered from severe malnutrition.

The houses were falling apart but their residents lacked the resources to repair them. Between houses stood piles of garbage. And, as I peeked inside houses, I found elderly women crushing betel nuts, a form of stimulant drug used for betel-chewing to reduce hunger, with babies on their laps holding their hands as they prepared the drug.

The government had built the infrastructure necessary for water to reach the village but due to a malfunction in the system, it never did and the government never fixed it. The Sumba Foundation’s engineers stepped in and repaired the water system in September 2013, and provided mosquito nets to reduce the rate of malaria.

The impact of this new access to water unravelled at an incredible speed. When I filmed the second year, in 2014, women and children no longer had to spend hours walking to get buckets of water. Hence, with help from the foundation, the villagers devised a plan to build a garden, using an irrigation system. Better hygiene and this new source of alimentation increased the quality of health and decreased malnutrition, especially for children who began attending school with renewed energy.

Women carrying buckets of water before the Sumba Foundation helped them get access to water in Hobajaingi Village in 2013.

Women carrying buckets of water before the Sumba Foundation helped them get access to water in Hobajaingi Village in 2013.

When I returned in 2015, the irrigation system and the vegetable garden were up and growing. The foundation helped mothers to learn how to cultivate vegetables and improve their children’s diets. The same children I had seen two years earlier tired and some almost motionless were now running around, lively. The rate of malaria decreased. Men began using the land around Hobajaingi for farming, bringing in new sources of revenue. During the week I was filming, a man was building a new house for his future wife and family, a tradition that the village’s poverty had prevented in the past.

After witnessing the wonderful chain effect that followed the Sumba Foundation’s intervention in Hobajaingi village, I wanted to find other organizations around the world that could replicate this kind of impact at a wider scale. Again, One For The World was the perfect solution. The current top five charities in OFTW’s portfolio include Possible, Give Directly, Population Services International, Against Malaria, and Living Goods. Those non-profit organizations have incredible impact in the world’s poorest countries. They trigger long-term change and bring professionals ranging from government officials to health providers together in order to assist the people who need it the most.

Possible delivers free and cost-effective health care aid, to poor communities in rural Nepal. In 2016, Possible attended over 100,000 patients, carried out over 7,000 surgeries, and helped deliver over 1,000 babies.

In Kenya and Uganda, Give Directly uses cell phone technology to make unconditional cash transfers to people suffering from severe poverty. Research shows that those kinds of transfers generate an important rise in how much people spend on food, but also in their assets, business investment, and income, which can help them improve their life conditions considerably in the long-term.

Population Services International promotes affordable medical services, educational programs and various types of health products in order to improve living conditions and family planning in third world countries. It helps prevent malaria, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, pneumonia and other chronic diseases, and protects people from gender-based violence and mothers from experiencing problems during pregnancy.

Against Malaria provides mosquito nets to reduce the rate of malaria. The most recent World Health Organization report estimates that there were over 200 million cases of malaria in 2015, and over 430,000 people died. Against Malaria has provided 17.8 million nets, which is proven to be a highly effective method to reduce malaria. GiveWell, a non-profit dedicated to thoroughly researching foundations’ impact, estimates that for every 1000 children protected by nets, the foundation can save between 3 and 4 lives. In 2017, Against Malaria will distribute a total of 14.3 million nets to Uganda, Togo and Papua New Guinea.

Living Goods brings micro-entrepreneurs and community health workers together to deliver medical and nutritional products essential for health. In Uganda, research shows that villages where Living Goods provided their help saw a 33% reduction in infant mortality and a 27% reduction in mortality rates among children under five years old.

Examples of products provided by Life Goods to protect people against the three main causes of death (Source:  Life Goods Website ).

Examples of products provided by Life Goods to protect people against the three main causes of death (Source: Life Goods Website).

Throughout the past few years, as I reflected on the number of families struggling to survive, on the impact of charities and on the importance of giving, I often found myself hitting a wall. How can we help all of those people? How can intervention be helpful without being invasive? How can we provide assistance without changing beautiful cultures and traditions? One For The World answered many of my questions. The power of research and the work of the experts monitoring charities’ impact across the developing world give me hope. By combining those research tools with innovation, One For The World can help us help others.

Today, initiatives like One For The World represent the ray of hope that we can take philanthropy a large step forward and help more of the people struggling to care for their families and make it to tomorrow. Chronic diseases like malaria are preventable and we can save a child’s life with a few nets. This year, I was happy to join the OFTW chapter at Columbia University, where we raise awareness about OFTW’s mission and cultivate conversations about the importance of giving effectively. I encourage you to join the OFTW community too and make the pledge today!