Give a woman a chicken

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Give a woman a chicken.

You've heard the parable about teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime. Last week Bill Gates provided a contemporary update: give a woman a chicken and help put an end to extreme poverty.

The Gates Foundation partnered with global aid charity Heifer International in launching the Coop Dreams project which touted the value of raising chickens to help sub-Saharan Africans, particularly women, become self-sufficient and feed their families.

Bill Gates "gamified" philanthropy with this project. Visitors to the Coop Dreams game on his blog earned points by reading his memo on the project and completing certain tasks triggering a donation from the Gates Foundation to buy a flock of chicks to be given to a sub-Saharan family. The campaign closed after generating donations of more than 100,000 birds.

Gates' blog noted that, as a city boy from Seattle, he didn't know much about chickens ("they were something you made silly jokes about"). But through his work with the foundation, he's learned just about anyone living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens.

Here's why giving a chicken is a better solution for overcoming poverty than giving cash (or some other animal):

  1.  Chickens are easy and inexpensive to take care of as many breeds can eat whatever they find on the ground. They do need shelter and somewhere to nest and they need vaccinating — but it only costs 20 cents per chicken to prevent the most deadly Newcastle disease.
  2. They're a good investment. If a farmer starts with five hens and the use of a neighbour's rooster, she can have a flock of 40 chicks after three months. With a sale price of US$5 per chicken (typical in West Africa), she can earn more than $US1000 a year, versus the extreme poverty line of about $US700 per year.
  3. They help keep children healthy. Malnutrition kills more than 3 million children a year. Eggs, rich in protein and other nutrients, can help fight malnutrition and farmers can use the proceeds of chicks sold to buy nutritious food for their children.

Gates' fourth reason was something of a revelation to me — and he pointed readers to his wife Melinda's blog post about women and chickens. Yes, Gates says chickens are fantastic because they empower women: "Because chickens are small and typically stay close to home, many cultures regard them as a woman's animal, in contrast to larger livestock like goats or cows".

Additional research says women who sell chickens are likely to reinvest the profits in their families.

The Coop Dreams project seems to me another generous and well-considered gesture by Gates, using his vast wealth to make the world a better place.

Of course, the world being what it is, even this gesture attracted negative comment from some who thought Gates should distribute his wealth differently.

One critic said sending poor people chickens they can easily purchase themselves is paternalistic; another said chickens are bad for climate change with agriculture contributing to 14-18 per cent of greenhouse emissions. Others said money spent on chickens would be better spent on eradicating malaria, TB, yellow fever etc.

I like the idea of gifts that keep on giving; I like the simplicity of giving chickens; I like Gates' innovation in turning charity into a game people want to participate in; and I like that philanthropy is a growing phenomenon.


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