Healthy Scholars build appetite for eradicating extreme poverty

February 6, 2011

Inspired by economist and professor Jeffrey Sachs, two college juniors are working to entice fellow students to pledge $1 a week to support the United Nations Millennium Goals and specifically to help eradicate extreme poverty in Africa.

If their efforts succeed, they hope their Healthy Scholar Foundation model will spread to other campuses across the country.

The idea emerged at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where Max Bevan, a lifelong Episcopalian from New Jersey, and Kiyo Egashira of Washington state took a development economics class and read Sachs' book "The End of Poverty" while studying abroad last semester. They began talking about how much Sachs' book influenced their perception of the "poverty trap" in Africa and how "the way he approached the solution seemed feasible," Bevan recalled.

Many Africans use all their resources simply to survive, with no money left over for health care or education, he explained. So they need additional money fed into their economies to place them on the first rung of the development ladder, he said. "We were discussing how we could get involved."

"Max called me one night," Egashira said, "and said, 'You know, we go to a school of 3,000 people. If we can get them all to give a dollar a day, we can get hundreds of thousands of dollars every semester.' I said, 'I don't know if we can get a dollar a day, but we can definitely get a dollar a week,' and we just kind of took it from there."

The two created a business plan and got in touch with Millennium Promise, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to cut extreme poverty – defined as living on less than $1 per day – in half by 2015. The Episcopal Church's General Convention has endorsed the MDGs.

Sachs, special adviser to the United Nations secretary general and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, co-founded Millennium Promise, which oversees Millennium Villages in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The organization provides support and funding for grassroots development in the villages, affecting more than 500,000 people, Bevan said.

Monies that Health Scholar collects will go to Millennium Promise, which endorsed their efforts.

"It's enormously rewarding to be able to work with really civic- and purpose-driven students who understand that what happens in Africa is not necessarily confined to Africa," said Bill Rigler, Millennium Promise director of communications. "They're not content to sit back and say, 'People are dying half a world away, and why is it our problem?' To the contrary, they're saying, 'We have the ability to do something about it, so we should and we are.'"

Back at Skidmore, Bevan and Egashira have gathered about 20 initial pledges, set up a website allowing online donations and started talking to area businesses about providing support, including for Healthy Scholar T-shirts to give students who pledge $25 or more. Within the next week, they hope to launch their campaign in earnest, educating students and faculty about poverty and the MDGs and encouraging them to pledge at least $1 a week, or $15 per semester. Bevan said he also was looking to see whether Sachs' book could become the next book incoming freshmen all read.

"We strongly believe we can raise up to $20,000 a semester," Bevan said. They hope corporations will match pledges or perhaps donate 10 percent for every dollar pledged, he said. "In the long term, we believe that in a school of 2,800 students we can raise $30,000 or $40,000 a semester."

Moreover, they made the business plan simple enough that other schools could replicate it, he said. Already, a friend at Elon College in North Carolina has expressed interest in starting the program there.

Skidmore junior chemistry major Nicholas Peterson, who at home attends St. James's Episcopal Church at home in West Hartford, Connecticut, pledged $25 to Healthy Scholar and plans to continue to pledge. He also plans to make posters to help raise awareness of the effort.

Peterson said he thought other students would support Healthy Scholar once they knew about it. "What they're asking for is only a dollar a week. I think that's pretty attainable for most people, especially at a school like Skidmore."

"They say that $25 can give a family clean water for two years, so every little bit counts, and hopefully we can get enough people to donate just a little, and that should add up," Peterson said. "Hopefully, once we learn how to grow this program and figure out all the kinks, we can pass it on to other schools with pretty relative ease, because I'm sure many kids will be interested in joining the cause."

For these college students, the desire to make a difference in the fight against extreme poverty reflects the values they learned from their churches and families.

Although not raised in a "religious environment," Egashira said, "in terms of my values, it's just unfair that people are born into the places they are and they're punished because of that. Max and I were born into well-to-do families with two loving parents in a country where we have a lot of opportunities, and there's people out there that, just because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, they have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, whether their family members or their friends or themselves are going to get sick and die because they don't have health care, whether or not they're going to get a good education.

"A lot of students our age kind of take those things for granted when it's really just kind of the luck of the draw," he said. "That's kind of what drives me, is leveling the playing field, I guess; helping bring opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn't have them."

Peterson sees a connection between "listening to all the sermons" and the lessons about helping one's neighbors and giving back to the community and Healthy Scholar's mission.

"I've always been taught ... to give back," said Bevan, whose home church is St. Peter's in Morristown, New Jersey. "When you say, 'your neighbors,' these are our neighbors. We have an impact on each other."

"Some people don't even have the faith to believe that what we're doing can make a difference," he said. "I really do believe that our movement ... can help bring the people of the world closer together."