Turning statistics into stories: My thoughts from the CARE Learning Tour to India and Nepal

Turning statistics into stories: My thoughts from the CARE Learning Tour to India and Nepal

5/8/17

When you spend as much time as I do utilizing statistics, facts (the real kind, not the “alternative” ones), dollars and data to persuade policymakers to adopt certain policy positions, you can lose track of the people who are represented by those numbers. That’s one of the reasons why I take such joy in the three or four times a year when I get to spend time in the countries where we carry out our humanitarian and development work side by side with my CARE colleagues and the people we exist to serve.

Just a little over a week ago, I returned from one such trip. This one a Learning Tour to India and Nepal with a bipartisan delegation of Senators, Congressional staff and thought-leaders, as well as CARE’s president and CEO, Michelle Nunn, to showcase how U.S. investments in developing countries build healthier, stronger and more resilient communities. While India and Nepal have both made strides toward reducing poverty, both still struggle with high poverty rates and persistent development challenges. Our trip focused on programs funded by the U.S. government in partnership with CARE and other NGOs, as well as partners from the corporate and private sectors, that are empowering women and girls and promoting better health, sanitation, education and expanded economic opportunities.

For Senators Chris Coon (D-DE) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who were part of our delegation, this was not new information. Both have traveled to developing countries and understand the challenges and opportunities that can transform lives. Senator Merkley, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, studied international relations in college and lived in West Africa. This trip was his first return to India in 36 years since he served as a summer intern for the State Department in New Delhi. On the trip, Senator Merkley said, “America benefits from international stability. Our relationships are much improved through our very modest foreign aid budget.”

Senator Coons, also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been an outspoken champion on the value of foreign assistance. On the trip, Senator Coons said, “U.S. foreign assistance has helped transform the world and bend the curve of history in a direction that helps America and Americans. It's not just charity. It's a way that we help open up other societies. We promote democracy. We promote a free press. We promote open societies that are more receptive to the sorts of things Americans care about.”

Why did they decide to come on this trip if they already understand the issues? Every one of our delegates made the trip to witness the challenges, solutions and opportunities that people, particularly women and girls, face in some of the most impoverished places in the world. But they also made the trip to take home stories that could potentially influence the course of the debate over the fate of our meager but highly effective foreign assistance programs in the FY18 budget.

We began our Learning Tour with a briefing by local experts in New Delhi on India’s current development challenges and successes. While India has seen groundbreaking economic growth since achieving independence 70 years ago, with a population of more than 1.2 billion people, the country is still overwhelmingly poor.

Later, we visited a local health facility in a New Delhi slum, where USAID is implementing their Urban Health and Nutrition Day program. More than 100 million people live in India’s slums, a population that’s expected to double by 2020. This program addresses the issues that impact the health and well-being of women and girls and can help to reduce extremely high rates of maternal and child deaths – simple things like hygiene, “kangaroo care”, breastfeeding practices and healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.

While in New Delhi, we also visited the Breakthrough program that’s addressing pervasive discrimination and violence against women and girls through pop culture, community mobilization and leadership training. In India, where gender-based violence is pervasive and 47 percent of girls are married before they’re 18 (one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world) programs like these are making inroads on centuries-old, culturally-based gender inequities that hold communities back. 

We also spoke with experts in India’s corporate sector about the tremendous role companies like Cargill play in fostering inclusive economic growth in India, where more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies are currently invested.

We then flew to Bihar (one of India’s poorest states and home to 110 million people) to visit CARE’s Gates foundation funded program to reduce maternal and child mortality through increased access to nutrition education and supplemental feeding, immunization and family planning.  We met with community health workers who are making critical change at the local level. With limited access to health services, Bihar has the highest fertility rate in the country and one of the highest maternal, neonatal and infant mortality rates. More than a quarter of the world’s pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths happen in India and these dedicated community health workers are bringing those numbers down through simple interventions that save women’s lives and change families’ futures.

In Bihar, we also had the chance to visit the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) program, which was established in 2009 in partnership with USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal with this program is to support women farmers by improving their access to modern farming technology and resources so their harvests are stronger and more bountiful. Many of the women told us they spend the extra income from their improved crops on sending their children to school.

As we continued our Learning Tour in India, we witnessed examples of grinding poverty, but also lives improved through brilliant innovations and life-changing opportunities provided through U.S. foreign assistance. Then, we hopped on another plane and headed to Nepal. 

A quarter of Nepal’s population lives in poverty and as many as 41 percent of girls and 11 percent of boys are married before age 18. Nepal is also recovering from two devastating earthquakes in 2015 that killed 9,000 people, caused $7 billion in damage and pushed 8 million people into poverty.

We visited a social-business organization called Sabah that strengthens the livelihoods of financially deprived women. Owned and operated by its strong network of 2,500 female home-based workers, the program offers women training opportunities and facilitates connections in domestic and international markets – an approach that’s increased women’s incomes by 170 percent.

We also visited several other programs and met with countless women whose lives have been changed through U.S. investments and foreign assistance. But there was one women, in particular, that we came home thinking about.

Pabitra Nepal joined a CARE and Save the Children program (funded by USAID), which aims to support women in the regions hardest hit by the earthquakes of 2015. With two young children and her husband having moved abroad to find work, Pabitra needed help rebuilding her life after her home was destroyed.  Lack of safe drinking water and latrines where Pabitra lives often cause diarrhea, malnutrition and death by dehydration, especially for children, so program facilitators taught the mostly-female group about masonry to rebuild their houses and earn incomes. The women themselves mapped and analyzed the damage in their community and are approaching their local government officials for support. And some are even running for office. In the meantime, Pabitra’s group is building latrines – a basic but critical need – for as many families as possible.

For all of us who made this trip, stories like Pabitra’s turned the stats into real life examples of how these precious few dollars are being utilized by groups like CARE to help people improve their own lives. It’s the power of those stories that turns our interests and beliefs into true passion and make us better advocates for foreign assistance when we get home. And as we all know, now more than ever, we have to find new and more persuasive ways to show the true impact of these programs – not just for women like Pabitra and their families, but ultimately – through greater prosperity, stability and peace – for us all.    

David Ray
Vice-President of Advocacy

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