By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: September 15, 2010
Early this year I wrote a column from Zimbabwe that focused on five orphans who moved in together and survive alone in a hut.
The eldest, Abel, a scrawny and malnourished 17-year-old, would rise at 4 o’clock each morning and set off barefoot on a three-hour hike to high school. At nightfall, Abel would return to function as surrogate father: cajoling the younger orphans to finish their homework by firelight, comforting them when sick and spanking them when naughty.
When I asked Abel what he dreamed of, he said “a bicycle” — so that he could cut the six hours he spent walking to and from school and, thus, take better care of the younger orphans. Last week, Abel got his wish. A Chicago-based aid organization, World Bicycle Relief, distributed 200 bicycles to students in Abel’s area who need them to get to school. One went to Abel.
The initiative is a pilot. If it succeeds and finds financing, tens of thousands of other children in Zimbabwe could also get bicycles to help them attend school.
“I’m happy,” Abel told me shyly — his voice beaming through the phone line — when I spoke to him after he got his hands on his bicycle.
Before, he said, he wasn’t sure that he would pass high school graduation exams because he had no time to study. Now he is confident that he will pass.
The bicycle project is the brainchild of a Chicago businessman, Frederick K.W. Day, who read about Abel and decided to make him and his classmates a test of a large-scale bicycles-for-education program in Zimbabwe.
Mr. Day is a senior executive of the SRAM Corporation, the largest bicycle parts company in the United States. He formed World Bicycle Relief in 2005 in the belief that bicycles could help provide cheap transportation for students and health workers in poor countries.
At first, his plan was to ship used bicycles from the United States, but after visits to the field he decided that they would break down. “When we got out there, it was clear that no bike made in the U.S. would survive in that environment,” he said.
After consulting with local people and looking at the spare parts available in remote areas, Mr. Day’s engineering staff designed a 55-pound one-speed bicycle that needed little pampering. One notorious problem with aid groups is that they introduce new technologies that can’t always be sustained; the developing world is full of expensive wells that don’t work because the pumps have broken and there is no one to repair them.
So World Bicycle Relief trains one mechanic — equipped with basic spare parts and tools — for every 50 bicycles distributed, thus nurturing small businesses as well. Abel was one of those trained as a mechanic this time.
In the world of aid, nothing goes quite as planned, and it’s far too early to know whether this program will succeed. World Bicycle Relief tried to get around potential problems by spending months recruiting village elders to oversee the program (it helps that the elders receive bicycles, which they get to keep after two years if they provide solid oversight). Elders will ensure that fathers and older brothers do not confiscate bicycles from girls on the grounds that females are too insignificant to merit something so valuable.
Parents sometimes try to save daughters the risk of walking several hours each way to school by lodging them in town. But the result is sometimes sexual extortion; if a girl wishes to continue her education by staying in cheap lodgings, the price is repeated rape. With bicycles, those girls will now be able to stay at home.
World Bicycle Relief has given out more than 70,000 bicycles so far, nearly 70 percent to women and girls. It expects to hand out 20,000 bicycles this year. And if all goes well, Abel may be the first of tens of thousands of Zimbabwean students to get a bike.
So, for Abel, this is something of a fairy-tale ending. But one of my challenges as a journalist is that many donors want to help any specific individual I write about, while few want to support countless others in the same position.
One obstacle is donor fatigue and weariness with African corruption and repeated aid failures. Those are legitimate concerns. But this column isn’t just a story about a boy and a bike. Rather, it’s an example of an aid intervention that puts a system in place, one that is sustainable and has local buy-in, in hopes of promoting education, jobs and a virtuous cycle out of poverty. It’s a reminder that there are ways to help people help themselves, and that problems can have solutions — but we need to multiply them. Just ask Abel.