Wheary: Beatrice Biira shows we can address poverty goat by goat
At 28, Beatrice Biira has had experiences that most of us will never have in our entire lives. She's been on "60 Minutes," "Good Morning America" and "Oprah." She was the subject of an award-winning, bestselling 2001 children's book called "Beatrice's Goat." She's met celebrities and been featured in People magazine and The New York Times. She interned for Hillary Clinton when she was a U.S. senator and captured the attention of internationally renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University.
Sachs was so inspired by Biira that he created a theorem for her. The "Beatrice Theorem" simply and powerfully states that: "Small inputs can lead to large outcomes."
In Biira's case, the "small input" was a pregnant goat. It was given to her family in the village of Kisinga, Uganda, in 1993, as part of the work of a development organization. Several other families in her village received goats as well. Each goat cost about $120, and the funds were donated by a children's church group in Connecticut.
What's the big deal about goats? They provide families with milk and immediate nutrition but also can provide income if a family sells leftover milk to neighbors. That's how businesses are born. Extra income of even a few dollars a week can enable a family, like Biira's, to invest in the future: to pay for education for children and to buy more seeds to plant so they have crops to sell.
Biira was living with her parents and five siblings when the goat arrived. When she was 9 years old, she and her siblings spent their days laboring in the fields. Biira's family members worked extremely hard, employing all their resources to grow enough food to have one meal a day.
Once the goat arrived, Biira's family was able to send her to school. At 10, she started first grade. From there she took off. Scholarships followed, first to the best girls school in Uganda and ultimately to the United States to earn a bachelor's and then a master's degree. Her siblings have pursued their educations, too.
Development experts at all levels argue bitterly about whether to focus on meeting immediate needs or to engage in longer-term structural projects. Organizations like Heifer International and micro-lenders like Kiva.org and the Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank focus on providing families in developing countries with the means to nurture small businesses. This approach takes time, so it doesn't always capture public attention. As individuals, we tend to respond more generously to meeting immediate needs in the face of disasters. That kind of compassion is undeniably important, but the big-picture projects can have profound impact and are worthy of support, too.
Biira's experience shows that providing access to loans or livestock, as well as training and infrastructure to creative viable income opportunities, can create change on the smallest yet most significant of scales.
Biira's latest stop on her incredible journey is New York, where she recently began working in the metropolitan area for Heifer International, the organization that provided the goat that changed her family's life. She's a resource for local groups that want to help address global poverty.
In her travels, Biira sometimes reads "Beatrice's Goat," the book written about her, to groups of children. Biira told me that kids connect with the cause of global poverty and understand the impact of simple solutions better than many of the development experts she's met. Adults often over-think the issues. Children don't, she explained to me.
Global poverty often seems abstract and overwhelming. Africa is far away. Most of us can't imagine the extreme hardship there, let alone envision effective solutions or how we could help. With the problems seemingly so insurmountable, we are apt to throw up our hands. Biira's job is to not let us off the hook.
The moment when Biira begins reading her story is poignant; for every Beatrice whose life was improved by the mere gift of a goat, there are millions more waiting to work their way out of poverty. And it is powerful, because we can help these individuals nurture micro-businesses and change their lives. Biira is here to help us understand how.
Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan. Beatrice Biira can be reached at Beatrice.Biira@heifer.org.