2011-12-06 / Editorial

Gifts that say you care

Nicholas Kristof

Give Grandma a bit of credit! These holidays, would she rather receive a silly reindeer sweater or help a schoolchild acquire glasses to see the blackboard clearly for the first time?

Choosing the perfect holiday gift is one of life’s greater challenges, modestly more difficult than earning a Ph.D. in astrophysics. So it is time for my annual gift guide.

For starters, the websites of the major humanitarian organizations offer alluring holiday gifts. Through the International Rescue Committee, $30 buys a flock of chickens for a needy family. At CARE, $29 gets a girl a school uniform. Through Heifer International, you can stock a fish pond for $300. With Mercy Corps, $ 69 can start a female entrepreneur in the sewing business.

Beyond those organizations, here are some lesser- known charities that may help put a grin on Grandma — and on someone else.

— Helen Keller International fights blindness and malnutrition around the world with simple and cost-effective programs. One of the best ways to improve children’s health is to focus on micronutrients, like iodine, vitamin A and zinc — and in some cases to fortify foods with nutrients at a negligible cost. Helen Keller International, at hki.org, is a leader in that effort, and gets more bang for the buck than almost any group I can think of.

And those glasses I mentioned for a schoolchild? That’s a Helen Keller International program, ChildSight, which operates in the United States as well as in Indonesia and Vietnam. Schoolchildren are screened for vision problems, and those who need glasses get them. Providing glasses costs just $25 per child — which is a much better value than a sweater that will sit in a drawer for eternity.

— Against Malaria has a simple model: $5 will buy a bed net that protects several people from mosquitoes that carry malaria. All the money that is donated goes to buy nets, and Against Malaria, at againstmalaria.com, gets a No. 1 rating and a rave review from GiveWell, which rates charities.

In a malarial area in Cambodia many years ago, I met a grandmother who was looking after several small children after their mother died of malaria. The family had one bed net, and every night the grandmother had to decide which children would sleep under it — and which one she would leave outside.

For the price of a stocking stuffer, you can spare a mother or grandmother that wrenching choice — and potentially save a life.

— Reading Is Fundamental is an American program that promotes literacy in high-poverty communities in the U.S. Its government financing has been slashed in the tight budget environment, so it needs support.

The group is a public-private partnership with 400,000 volunteers, bringing huge efficiencies. It provides new, free books to 4 million children across the U.S., and encourages the kids to read. Information is at rif.org.

— The Citizens Foundation was started by Pakistani businessmen concerned about their country, and it builds terrific schools for needy children there. We’re seeing U.S.-Pakistani relations spiral downward, and billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan haven’t accomplished much. The best way I can see to moderate Pakistan and defeat extremists is to bolster secular education.

When I travel in Pakistan, I see radical madrasas built by Wahhabi Muslim fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and other countries, offering free meals to entice students.

Fundamentalists donate because they understand the power of education to change a country. And we don’t even compete. Information is at citizensfoundation.org.

— GEMS is a New York-based organization supporting U. S. girls who have been trafficked, prostituted or otherwise sexually abused. It provides shelter and education for those rescued from pimps and provides some of the first nurturing many have received.

GEMS stands for Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. It was founded by Rachel Lloyd, herself a survivor of the streets who went on to earn degrees from Marymount Manhattan College and City College of New York and wrote a searing memoir, “Girls Like Us.”

Prostitution of children should be a stain on the national conscience, and GEMS helps survivors while using peer counseling to prevent the trafficking in the first place. It is at gemsgirls.org.

And here’s a special holiday message you can pass on to university students: Tell them that I’m announcing my annual wina trip contest.

In 2012, for the sixth time, I will take a student with me on a reporting trip to the developing world to try to shine a light on neglected issues. These trips have been life-changing for past winners.

Information about how to apply is on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, and thanks in advance to the Center for Global Development for again helping narrow the applicant pool down to finalists.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF writes for The New York Times.

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