In the book The Shadow of the Sun , the Polish author journalist Ryszard Kapuscins talks about the poor people in Lagos Nigeria struggling through extreme hunger. These people were living meal to meal and sleeping the rest of the time to save energy so that they could make do with the little food they could get, they had no energy to do anything else and were stuck in this eternal struggle for food. Initially I found that world of 1960s Nigeria distant and unreal—my brain processed it as fiction. But soon, I realized that it was as real today as back then. I thought about the thousands of street kids suffering malnutrition that I saw in India growing up. I remembered their thin limbs begging for money every time I stopped at a traffic signal. I felt a visceral need to do something about it.
My first reaction to the problem was that I should set up canteens that serve free nutritious food to the needy and poor, not unlike the Langars of the sikh faith. But soon I got bogged down in the details—how to reach the poor and how to fund the canteens. Since I am in no way capable of running a food operation I decided to donate to charities that have a better grasp of the problem.
Finding charities that work on solving hunger in India was not straightforward. Givewell did not rate any Indian charities. Looking at some of the charities that came up as top search results, I was discouraged by their focus on the fundraising efforts—fundraising banquets at Taj or building mobile apps for the donors. It was difficult to find data about the efficiency of Indian charities. A note by a Givewell evaluator sums the situation well
“I was told by one organization that its measure of success is ‘the percentage of children who complete the program who do not enter prostitution.’ However, “completing the program” was defined as those who did not drop out of the program before the age of 21 and were settled and married. In other words, it seems that only success cases are included in the success rate. Unsurprisingly, the organization claimed a 100% success rate on this metric.”
This is when I realized that to make progress, I need to find charities that have a good enough solution and not the best solution and I found a couple:
Akshay Patra is a charity that distributes free meals to kids via schools. They have 52 kitchens in India and are mostly an urban operation. They have found that central kitchens in urban areas and automation helps them bring down the costs. They have not found the same cost benefits in rural areas. Overall the model seems simple, raise money and feed kids meals via their school programs.
Salam Balaak started out as a daycare centre for street children but realized that a safe space is the most critical need for children from poor families. They operate residential shelters for poor kids where they also provide the poor kids with nutritious meals. They operate four residential homes for poor kids and also run an open shelter program where the kids stay with their families but can come to the open shelter for food and some space. The Salaam Baalak solution focuses more on the end to end outcomes for kids and focuses on living and meals. They only operate in New Delhi right now. This solution is perhaps more effective but is difficult to scale up to the millions of poor kids in India.
Reading books about places I have not been to, so often stirs so many different emotions in me and sometimes, like today, these emotions inspire action. This holiday season I urge you to read about places and people you know nothing about and to donate to charities that work to help the poor in the developing world.
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