People want to help. Always. This is the message we get every time we return from a trip overseas: people sincerely care, they want to help, they want to make a difference, but they don’t know where to begin.
Today, on the international day of giving, we’d like to offer a few friendly suggestions based on the people we met and the projects we saw last month in East Timor/Timor Leste. No matter your interests (public health? women’s health? education? sports? environment?) there is room to give to the Timorese people. There are good people doing great work, and never a shortage of need. (Quick history: East Timor was a Portuguese colony for 450 years before Indonesian forces invaded in 1975, with a nod from the United States. The occupation lasted 24 years and more than 200,000 Timorese people died. It was one of the most brutal histories of the 20th century. In 1999 the people voted for freedom, and East Timor became the independent country of Timor Leste in 2002. It remains one of the world’s least developed countries. But it is free.)
If you find yourself with a few extra dollars to spend, have a look at the list below. Even if you don’t have a few extra dollars, many of these groups would greatly appreciate your help in another form: volunteer, spread the word, share your knowledge. Timor Leste is such a small country, it craves a little attention. I guarantee, there is ample gratitude on the other side of giving:
Bairo Pite Clinic (public healthcare, women’s health). Dr. Daniel Murphy, an Iowa native, has dedicated his services—for free—to the Timorese people since 1999. In that time, the clinic has grown to include daily consultations for hundreds of patients (“Dr. Dan,” as he is known to thousands around the country, sees about 200 a day; nearly 1.1 million people in the past 16 years), 55 in-patient beds, a malnutrition program, tuberculosis ward, grassroots training programs for rural birth assistants, TB outreach services, and much more. The toughest part about budgeting, Dr. Dan says, is covering the costs of daily survival—electricity, supplies, staff salaries and all the little expenses that add up to the full cost of keeping a health clinic afloat. Every dollar helps. Give here.
Plan International (education, women’s leadership, early child development). We’ve seen Plan at work in other countries. This is a group that’s all about boosting a child’s opportunities in life… and that covers a lot of ground. We visited a Plan project that focuses on early education through playgroups in rural schools. We also interviewed several women involved in a program to put more Timorese women into elected positions—at the local level (just 2 percent of local leaders right now are women). Give here.
WithOneSeed (environment, sustainability, agriculture, education). This is just one piece of a multi-faceted program based on a simple idea: planting trees and planting ideas. WithOneSeed helps subsistence farmers plant new trees on deforested land, paying each farmer a carbon offset price per living tree. More than 40,000 trees have been planted so far. Meanwhile, partner organization WithOneBean creates a stable, fair-trade market for local subsistence coffee growers. WithOnePlanet is the education arm of the whole shebang, teaching communities across Timor Leste and Australia about climate change and the environmental challenges of the future. Give here.
HIAM Health (malnutrition, food security, child and maternal health). This much-needed local NGO tackles hunger and malnutrition in the garden. It aims to educate families about nutrition, giving them the tools to grow their own food for a balanced diet. Today, many Timorese families do not lack food—but they do lack the knowledge or cultural resources for families to eat healthy, nutritious meals. Rice is often widely available, and many families fill up on this one starchy grain. Missing are the diversity of key nutrients needed for long-term health. Give here.
Mercy Corps (food security, sustainable agriculture, environment, economic development). This is another group that wears many hats, working in rural communities (where 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture). MercyCorps not only helps farmers with improved techniques and storage, for example, but also works on the economic side of things—savings and loan programs, access to markets, jobs. Here’s something I really like about this group: Country Director Joanna Walshe has a background in anthropology. That means she looks carefully at the cultural reasons why a program does or does not work. Is the fish pond too far from the house? Do women have enough say in the family or village to make critical program decisions? What are the real barriers to a healthy diet? These are the complex sorts of questions Walshe is constantly asking. Give here.
SportImpact (sports, human development). This group runs athletic workshops in rural areas, encouraging Timorese people in the farthest reaches of the country to organize their own sporting events and make their own equipment using local materials (water bottles, cardboard, wood, scraps). Not only do these programs promote health through activity, but they build confidence and inspire young Timorese to create the future they want—without waiting for the government or an NGO to do it. This is a key concept that would be useful in many post-conflict countries, where the long-time presence of aid can create a dependency syndrome.
Seeds of Life (agriculture, sustainability, environment, economic development). Working within the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, this initiative helps local farmer co-ops build a national seed production system that will supply farmers across the country long into the future. These seeds are open-pollinated and naturally selected high-quality, high-yielding varieties (no GMOs) of rice, maize, peanuts, cassava and sweet potato that were bred specifically to deal with local conditions in a changing climate. And they taste good, too—that’s key to making these crops succeed. In the past, the government had to import hundreds of tons of seeds each year just to meet farmer demands. This program aims to end that, replacing imports with biologically diverse and locally grown varieties. Seeds of Life also works on improved storage techniques. The initiative’s slogan: “Food security begins with seed security.” Get in touch here.
Marie Stopes (women’s health, sexual and reproductive health). Statistics have improved greatly since independence, but East Timor still faces some of the world’s greatest challenges in infant and maternal mortality. Many rural residents walk hours to the nearest clinic. Women have on average six children in a lifetime, but many have no access to doctors or midwives. Contraception can be hard to find. Marie Stopes aims to fill this gap, working with the Ministry of Health to ensure all women have the reproductive services they need. Give here.
World Neighbors (water and sanitation, agriculture, food security, health and more). This Oklahoma-based organization works in the remote enclave of Oecusse, a hard-to-reach district surrounded by Indonesia and the sea. There is no regular flight service. Getting to Oecusse from the rest of East Timor requires a (fairly expensive by local standards) 4-hour fast ferry ride, a grueling overnight ferry (which locals and foreigners alike told us never ever to do) or a drive through Indonesia. And Oecusse itself is largely cut off from… everything. Aside from the main town along the coast, almost no roads exist throughout the district (or the roads are so bad that no one drives them). Locals walk hours up and down the mountains—for health care, supplies, jobs, and anything else that people need. Give here.
ETAN (human rights, democracy, news). The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network promotes human rights, justice and independence for Timorese people. It also maintains a thorough email news list, providing subscribers with information on East Timor, Australia and the region that otherwise can’t be found easily. Give here.
Our reporting from East Timor was supported by a fellowship through the International Reporting Project (IRP).