Day one of the National CARE Conference was a party. Day two was a little like high school: First, we found our friends among the 1200 men and women who came from all over the world to learn about global poverty eradication.
My conference BFF was Sarah, who was my guide and translator when I traveled to Peru to write about CARE’s successful maternal health programs. Sarah and I share similar “class clown” tendencies and had a tough time controlling our giggles and whispers as we caught up on two years of news and gossip. What can I say? It’s hard to be a straight-faced, save-the-world advocate all the time. One of the more serious conference participants gave us the stink eye so we took it out in the hall until we could pull ourselves together.
There, I ran into a young woman I’d met at another CARE function. She’s newly pregnant and rushed up to share her news. “I had a little bleeding in the first few weeks. I Googled ‘bleeding and pregnancy,’ and the first link I found was your blog. I was so reassured.” Connections are made all over the world and I felt lucky to lend my support as she walked into new motherhood.
Then we moved at a fast pace between workshops and panel discussions where we learned about three focus issues at the center of this year’s conference:
1. Education for all girls
2. Employment and microfinance opportunities for women
3. The importance of saving America’s teeny, tiny foreign aid budget.
Keynote speakers, Melinda Gates and Laura Bush provided a bipartisan appeal to our Congressmen and Senators to continue funding programs that support the most vulnerable and potentially powerful women in the world – those living in developing countries. We learned things like:
• For every year a girl spends in elementary school, she increases her income potential by 10-15 percent. If she progresses through secondary education, she increases it by 20-25% per year. The children of women who get a basic education have dramatically better odds of living to the age of five than illiterate, uneducated women.
• Women in developing countries who participate in village savings and loans programs work personal miracles. They pool saved pennies in a lock box, learn money management skills and when they need a loan for something like small business or school supplies, they borrow. Almost invariably, they pay it back. The combined savings earns excellent interest and multiplies their investment rapidly.
The thing I found most interesting was this:
• A recent poll revealed that most Americans think that our nation’s foreign aid contributions make up 25-40 percent of the total American budget. They think that’s a crazy, unreasonable chunk considering our economic situation and we should be spending only 10 percent overseas for food security, healthcare, agriculture, infrastructure, education, health care and emergency relief. Only 10 percent! That’s outrageous! Why? Because in reality, the foreign aid budget makes up less than one percent of our total national budget. Dare to dream of a world where we contribute 10 times the resources we currently allocate to support women and children in need.
The budget is the biggest political issue in Washington this month. It’s important that our Senators and Congressman make big budgetary cuts, but not here. Foreign aid is key to global security and American economic security. Even key officials at the Defense Department are begging Representatives to leave this tiny speck of budget alone. Make cuts elsewhere, please.
That’s the message we took to the Hill on Day Three. A storm troop of 1200 CARE supporters invaded House and Senate offices. We clustered into state groups and held meetings asking our representatives:
• Please, save the foreign affairs budget from being slashed to bits
• Support the Education for All Act when it is reintroduced, and
• Support employment, microfinance and economic opportunities for women in developing countries.
My group of six held seven meetings in two Senator’s and five Congressmen’s offices, lobbying like the non-professionals we are. Kelly (part of my group) was pregnant and still in that “green-in-the-morning” phase. It was no easy feat for her to dress up, show up and run with the pack from meeting-to-meeting. She’s not showing yet, but an experienced eye recognizes pregnancy when she bought red Jell-o, dried apricots and pickled veggies for our lunch in the Senate cafeteria. She wound up being a powerful advocate.
When I finally taxied to the DC airport, aiming for home, I was exhausted and exhilarated. And that’s where I stayed for hours as flights were delayed and cancelled due to weather conditions. I eventually wound up in an airport hotel where I clicked on the news and learned of the powerful earthquake and Tsunami that hit Japan. And just like that, the world turns and thousands (millions?) of people need our help. And we will help, because Americans have the most to give and we care. Hopefully, the foreign aid budget will back us up.
How can you help?
• Log on to CARE.org and check out the new CARE package.
• Contact your state Representatives and ask them to fully fund the foreign affairs budget.
Or, find your own way to put your talents to work:
• Sarah, Mary and Hikari are studying public health, social work, education and environmental science.
• David teaches with Americorps in underfunded schools.
• Matthew screenprints t-shirts and donates proceeds directly to homeless people.
• Amanda is into yoga and works with Off The Mat Into The World helping develop birth centers in Africa.
The important thing is this: We’re all in it together and we each have our way, but when we come together, we can be truly powerful.
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