Happy holidays! In the spirit of the season, here’s a suggestion: Instead of inflicting a garish tie on your brother or a carcinogenic face cream on your aunt, how about saving a life?
It’s time for my annual “gifts with meaning” guide, with suggestions for presents that won’t just clog a chest of drawers. Consider a $20 flock of ducks to an impoverished Bangladeshi family through Heifer International, or a $143 CARE scholarship for a girl in a developing country to attend high school. Or some other ideas you may not have thought of:
• Deworm a child. Or a village of children! One-quarter of people worldwide have worms in their bellies, impairing their nutrition and often leaving them anemic. Children can be dewormed for about 50 cents each, and this leads them to miss less school and earn more as adults. Kids in the American South were dewormed 100 years ago by the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, leading to large gains in school enrollment and in literacy, and now we can easily and cheaply achieve the same gains worldwide.
An excellent website called Givewell.org rigorously examines which charitable causes get the most bang for the buck (I strongly recommend browsing the site), and it recommends several deworming organizations. My favorite (yes, I have a favorite dewormer) is Deworm the World (evidenceaction.org/dewormtheworld).
• Pull a tooth! Millions of Americans can’t afford health or dental insurance, and a lifeline comes from volunteer doctors and dentists working through Remote Area Medical (ramusa.org), an aid group that offers huge health fairs to those with no other access to help. During my visit to a fair in Virginia, I watched as one 30-year-old man had 18 teeth pulled.
Some uninsured families camped out for three days for a chance to see a doctor or dentist, and people had tears in their eyes as they thanked Stan Brock, the group’s founder. Some children walked out with new glasses and could see for the first time. Remote Area Medical doesn’t solve the systemic health care problems, but for those who have suffered an agonizing toothache for months or years, a dentist makes a life-changing difference — and since the doctors, dentists and nurses donate their time, it’s very cost-effective.
• Fix a foot! About one child in 800 worldwide is born with clubfoot, in which one or both feet are twisted and deformed. In poor countries, these kids often end up unable to walk, attend school or hold a job; frequently, they end up as beggars. Yet clubfoot is easy to fix in infancy using a series of plaster casts, for about $500 a child.
Two great organizations focus on this issue: MiracleFeet (miraclefeet.org), based in North Carolina, and CURE (cure.org), based in Pennsylvania. I’ve watched MiracleFeet transform lives in Liberia and CURE in Niger, and it’s thrilling. Skeptics who think that humanitarian aid money is wasted should see toddlers who seemed destined to become beggars now running around, their lives transformed, because of a relatively inexpensive fix.
• Fight ethnic cleansing! Myanmar has gotten away with a brutal campaign of murder, rape and pillage directed at the Rohingya Muslim minority. Some experts believe it may qualify as genocide, and hundreds of thousands of survivors have poured into Bangladesh.
As it happens, one of the world’s best aid organizations, BRAC, is based in Bangladesh and does extraordinary work there as well as in other countries from South Sudan to Afghanistan. BRAC (brac.net) is now working with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and building latrines, clinics, wells and safe spaces for refugee children. To fight the slaughter, we also need advocates, and Fortify Rights (fortifyrights.org) is a longtime leader in fighting for the Rohingya.
• Test for cancer! It’s scandalous that a quarter-million women a year still die of cervical cancer, when these deaths are overwhelmingly preventable with HPV vaccinations and simple screenings. A Florida doctor, Vincent DeGennaro Jr., has poured his soul into starting a small aid group, Innovating Health International (innovatinghealthinternational.org), that helps women with cervical and breast cancer in Haiti and tries to prevent those cancers in the first place. It supports simple vinegar-based screenings that cost almost nothing — but can prevent an agonizing death.
President Donald Trump is cutting off funds for some reproductive health organizations, like the U.N. Population Fund, so aid groups in this sphere could use a boost. Partners in Health (pih.org), a leading health aid organization, also does superb work fighting cervical cancer and other diseases in Haiti.
• Give a bed net! I’m haunted by a memory from two decades ago in Cambodia: I came across a grandmother caring for seven children because the mother had just died of malaria.
The grandma had one mosquito bed net that could accommodate a couple of children. Her hardest task every night was to figure out which children would sleep under the net and which would sleep unprotected and perhaps die.
The Against Malaria Foundation (againstmalaria.com) supplies effective bed nets for about $4 each to families in areas where malaria is a major killer.
Neckties and sweaters are expensive, but saving a life, even in 2017, is a bargain. I hope you enjoy the holiday season.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.