If people knew the results of giving, they wouldn’t eat without having shared their meal with others. —The Buddha (Itivuttaka 26)
Behatrice Valsaint, a mother in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, has a hope every morning for her five-year-old son, Fabenson: she hopes he will not die of starvation. So does Rajni, a mother of a cognitively delayed boy in India, and Khorn Vanna, a Cambodian mother who has worked many hours in a degrading karaoke bar to keep her daughter fed.
The odds are against these mothers. Around the world, ten million people—half of them children—die of hunger and hunger-related illness each year, and the statistics are especially dismal in the countries where Behatrice, Rajni and Vanna live. Thanks to Buddhist Global Relief (BGR), its supporters and its partners, these women are defying the odds.
BGR grew out of an essay, “A Challenge to Buddhists,” that Bhikkhu Bodhi published in 2007, in which he challenged American Buddhists to stand up as advocates for justice in the world. Rising to the occasion, in 2008 several of his students joined him in founding BGR, an all-volunteer organization with the mission of combating hunger and malnutrition. In its short life span, BGR has developed a multifaceted approach that emphasizes tackling hunger at its roots. BGR sponsors projects that provide food relief and poverty alleviation both in the developing world and in the U.S. It operates by establishing partnerships with agencies and relief organizations already working on the ground in the regions that the projects serve. It chooses partners with an established track record of effectiveness and responsibility, and it shares the results of its projects with the public on its website and in its newsletter and annual reports. While BGR occasionally funds emergency relief, most of its projects aim for long-term results. They do so by promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture, by creating educational opportunities, particularly for girls and young women, and by helping women start right-livelihood projects to support their families. BGR does not proselytize or make religious affiliation a condition for aid. It sponsors projects among Christians, Muslims, Hindus and nonreligious communities as well as among Buddhists.
BGR’s projects in Haiti provide a tableau of the organization’s philosophy. Children like Fabenson, still living in a tent city after the devastating earthquake of 2010, receive a meal daily at Lamanjay, a hot-lunch program in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. The program is organized by the What If? Foundation and funded in part by BGR. “We are living with the grace of God and this food program,” says Behatrice. “I don’t know what we would do without these meals.” At the same time, for Fabenson and his family to break free of dependence on their daily meal at Lamanjay, he and his siblings must be able to attend school. School costs in Haiti are high for families that can hardly afford rice. In response, BGR provides an annual grant to the What If? Foundation [see page 14] to help Port-au-Prince elementary school students pay their school fees.
In the rural part of Haiti, where rice production has been poor, BGR has also partnered with Oxfam America to promote the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, a system it also supports in Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Ethiopia. This organic farming method reduces inputs and increases crop quantity and quality. In Haiti, as in other countries, those trained in this approach train other farmers, spreading the method exponentially. Thus the BGR projects in Haiti address hunger both individually and systemically.
In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha says that the gift of food gives four things to those who receive it: long life, beauty, happiness and strength. Lamanjay’s hot lunches give Haitian children the strength to go to school, which will lengthen their lives and enrich the lives of their children. So, too, does Oxfam America’s SRI farming training for rural Haitians. And both provide Haitians—young and old—access to their physical, mental and spiritual potential.
In Cambodia, three decades after the Khmer Rouge regime decimated the country’s infrastructure and executed its educated class, only 26% of Cambodians graduate from high school and only 2% of women have college degrees. Cambodian girls living in poverty and without access to education are at risk of sexual servitude or slave labor. Estimates say that a third of the sex workers in Cambodia are children and adolescents.
BGR has partnered with Lotus Outreach, a U.S.-based organization, to rescue Cambodian girls from such a fate. One project on which they collaborate is the Non-Formal Education (NFE) program, which teaches literacy and employment skills to girls working in the sex industry. Another project is Lotus Outreach’s GATE program (Girls’ Access to Education), which provides fifty kilograms of rice monthly to families on the condition that they allow their girls to remain in school instead of forcing them to work. For those girls in the GATE program who show exceptional academic promise, the BGR–Lotus Outreach partnership provides scholarships to attend two- and four-year colleges under the advanced GATEways program. In 2013, 90% of GATE scholarship recipients passed their exams and advanced to the next level. Eighty-nine girls—coming from the poorest strata of society—have been attending college with the aid of GATEways scholarships.
Gate program ninth-grader Norin Rotha, whose family lives in a tin hut, once had to drop out of school to care for her missing sister’s children. She now studies physics and chemistry and is hoping to become an engineer. Chantha Luen, an orphan from the Svey Chek district, is one of the first students to graduate college thanks to a GATEways scholarship. Third in her teaching class, she has returned to her hometown to teach. And Khorn Vanna, a former sex worker who attended the NFE training, didn’t just get a better job—she started her own tailoring business that now employs a hundred other people.
In India, BGR has partnered with the Bodhicitta Foundation to establish a community center for women and girls in the slums of Nagpur. The Bodhicitta Foundation, founded by the Australian nun Ayya Yeshe, takes a holistic approach to ending poverty, beginning with the immediate medical needs of impoverished women and girls and ending with their education and employment. Rajni had difficulty caring for her disabled son. She found support at the Bodhicitta Foundation, where she attends job training. She hopes to use the extra money she makes with her new skills to send her daughter to a good school.
BGR is a relatively small charity, but the effects of these modest projects multiply. An economically empowered woman tends to reinvest 90% of her income into her family, and an educated woman is more likely to keep her children in school. She, her children and her grandchildren are less likely to suffer from poverty and hunger. For each woman beneficiary, generations of children are likely to benefit—not to mention other women in her community who gain from her example and ideas.
BGR’s “gift of food” as extolled by the Buddha in the Anguttara Nikaya provides long life, happiness, and strength for children in Haiti, for girls in Cambodia and India and for farmers in the remotest areas of developing countries. But what about beauty?
There is beauty in hope. Wanita, another beneficiary of the Bodhicitta Foundation in India, tells a story about a frog stuck in a deep, dark well, which represents poverty. “Bodhicitta Foundation has lowered a bucket for us,” she says. “I don’t have much money but I have solutions now, and hope.” Behatrice, in Haiti, her arm around smiling, well-fed Fabenson, repeats the sentiment: “I could not go to school myself, but my children have hope.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi recounts a well-known fable to put BGR’s work into perspective. “A boy picked up stranded starfish on a beach and threw them back into the sea. A beach stroller approached the boy and said, ‘There are thousands of starfish on this beach, and you can’t save more than a tiny fraction. How can you hope to make a difference?’ The boy looked down, picked up another starfish and threw it back into the sea. He then replied, ‘I made a difference for that one.’” BGR may not be able to create a world free of hunger and oppressive poverty, but for many families in Cambodia and Haiti, and thousands of small-scale farmers in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Kenya and Rwanda, BGR has been making a difference.
For more information about Buddhist Global Relief, visit www.buddhistglobalrelief.org. BGR’s main fundraising activity has been its Walks to Feed the Hungry held in major U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York as well as in Banteay Meanchey, Cambodia, and Nagpur, India. Details are at http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/active/walks.html.
Jennifer Russ has been writing for Buddhist Global Relief since 2012. She lives and teaches in northwest New Jersey.
From the Fall 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 1)
© 2014 Jennifer Russ