The girl outside a remote rural school in South Asia is as sharp and vivid in Chloe O’Gara’s mind as a Polaroid image: thin as a rail, eyes big, forehead crunched in concentration, leaning against the glassless window frame of a sweltering, tin-roofed schoolhouse. She stared intently at the chalkboard and strained to hear the teacher. One young sibling was hoisted on her hip, the other orbited her like a giddy, pint-sized planet.
“She was maybe 9 or 10,” said O’Gara, “right on the edge of puberty. And I will never forget that girl, doing her very best, her very best, to learn to read while all this other stuff was going on around her. Judging from her muttered words, she read better than most other kids who were actually in the classroom, had pencils in their hands and paper to touch and look at. She was so hungry to learn, but life had other plans for her.”
In a career that spanned more than 30 years—the last six as a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation—Chloe O’Gara has worked to improve opportunities for women and children like these in West Africa.
Of all the revelations that O’Gara has unspooled in a career that’s spanned three decades, four continents and nearly 60 countries, none is as revolutionary—nor as simple—as this:
Child care can change the world.
O’Gara left the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation July 1 after four years as a program officer in the Global Development and Population Program. Since 2012, she had managed the program’s investments in International Women’s Economic Empowerment, a grants portfolio created by Program Director Ruth Levine and O’Gara to address the increasingly pivotal role that women play in their economies, at both micro and macro levels.
There is a lot about women’s work that is simply unknown but what is clear, O’Gara says, “is that every economy in the world has an enormous donated workforce” like the girl at the schoolhouse. The best data suggests that if all unpaid domestic work—of which the biggest chunk is child care—were compensated, it would account for as much as a third of a country’s national income.
Valuing child care as a part of overall production would trigger a domino effect, the result of which would almost certainly be a model for broad-based personal and economic development. Take the example of the little girl yet again: Relieving her of her child care responsibilities would surely augment her education, providing her with better employment opportunities down the road. Her younger brothers and sisters would also fare better. For children whose mothers work, verbal and social skills can be dramatically enhanced by interaction with other children their age and trained childcare workers in a safe setting.
More immediately, though, are the expanded opportunities that would be available to the little girl’s mother. “Working is not a choice for most people around the world,” O’Gara said. “And we know that a third of women raising children today are single parents. So, if mom has to work, who is going to take care of the kids? One of the things that we do have evidence of is that women pursue better jobs when they have reliable child care because they know that they have someone to watch the kids when their child gets sick. Child care even makes women better entrepreneurs because they are better able to work the hours necessary to make their small business a success.”
O’Gara raised three daughters of her own while working many years both in the field and in Washington in the international development world, most notably for the nonprofit organization Save the Children. She is leaving the Foundation before her eight-year term limit to spend more time with her family.
In her absence, Levine will manage the Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which seeks to fill key gaps in data about women’s work and the factors that facilitate or impede it. This, in turn, enables governments to target economic policies so they expand and improve opportunities for women to earn a living and control the assets they have.
“Everyone wants women to become more active in their local economies,” said O’Gara, “but if they become active at the expense of their children’s development, you’re really just perpetuating this global underclass.
Maite Arce’s 950-mile tour of national parks in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico—which included hiking, biking, rafting, and video blogging—was equal parts family vacation and social media campaign. Its goal was to raise Latinos’ awareness about conservation.
Last summer, with her husband and three telegenic teenage boys in tow, Arce—the founder and CEO of a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the Hispanic Access Foundation—deftly trained her camera on the leviathan oil rigs and gas refineries that rise like hallucinations from the gorgeous expanse of blood-red buttes, untouched plains, and glistening creeks.
Arce produced a ten-part Web series on the excursion, titled Four Stops, One Destination, as part of her organization’s strategy to strengthen grassroots conservation efforts by introducing the estimated 54 million Latinos who live in the United States to the pristine outdoors. Despite polls that consistently demonstrate strong support among the Latino community for protecting the environment, only 9 percent have visited a national park.
Maite Arce and family on their Four Stops, One Destination tour. (click to enlarge image). Photo Credit: Hispanic Access Foundation
“Conservation and energy collection: if we can get them equal, we won’t ruin the lands for generations to come,” said Arce’s oldest son Luke in the final episode, balancing the competing values in his hands like an imaginary scale. “I want [everyone] to see what I’ve seen.”
Among those who did see what Luke saw was Michael Scott, a program officer in the Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program. Only weeks after Arce returned to Washington, Scott saw the Four Stops Web series. As part of his program’s strategy to protect western land from oil and gas drilling by building a broader constituency for conservation campaigns, Scott had already been looking to cast a wider net for new grantees; two of his grantees had recommended that he look at the work being done by the Hispanic Access Foundation.
It took all of 30 seconds to make a believer out of him.
“I was immediately impressed by what a wonderful time the whole family seemed to be having,” Scott recalls. “It was an almost visceral experience watching them hiking with a ranger and discovering the beauty of Dinosaur National Monument —then spotting a gas plant right next to it. And the whole family seemed to have this profound understanding of the issues and what was at stake.”
Peter Belden’s epiphany came in the spring of his junior year at Palo Alto High School, when Ms. Mayo showed a film about population growth in her U.S. history class. As she turned the projector off and the classroom’s lights back on, a light bulb flipped on in Belden’s head as well.
“It just clicked for me that rapid population growth affected so many of the other issues I care about,” said Belden. “Until then, I’d been interested in various social and environmental issues, but seeing that movie convinced me that the ability to avoid an unwanted pregnancy affects both individuals and the planet. On the individual level, it may mean that a woman can finish school and that her children are less likely to grow up in poverty. But on a much larger scale, the ability to avoid an unwanted pregnancy also reduces population growth, which puts less pressure on the environment and creates fewer demands for limited resources. This affects whole communities and whole countries; it really affects the entire planet.”
Helping to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies has been Belden’s mission for nearly 20 years now. He has spent the past eight at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where he is a program officer in the Global Development and Population Program and is approaching the end of his term. (All Hewlett Foundation Program Officers must leave the Foundation after eight years.)
Belden has also emerged as an enthusiastic champion of storytelling—women sharing their personal abortion experiences—as an effective means of reducing stigma and ultimately changing hearts and minds on abortion.
Tall and lanky with red hair and a constant smile, Belden is an expert on birth control methods like IUDs and implants. He is known in the field for evangelizing about opportunities such as increasing access to the most effective form of emergency contraception, the copper IUD. As a program officer, Belden has made grants to support a range of interventions—some of them quite experimental—aimed at reducing unplanned pregnancy. For example, one study seeks to evaluate whether the copper IUD can effectively prevent pregnancy for women who have had unprotected sex in the previous 5-14 days. This would be a major improvement over emergency contraceptive pills, which are effective only up to five days after unprotected sex. Another study grew out of the finding that some women said they would be more likely to use an IUD if they could remove it themselves when they wanted to start a family. The project is testing whether women are able to remove their own IUDs and whether that makes the method more attractive to potential users.
A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled a grant Belden initiated. The grant supports Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s efforts to encourage health centers to offer the copper IUD to women seeking the morning-after pill, also known as emergency contraception.
His portfolio includes a study, also mentioned in the New York Times, conducted by researcher Kate Cockrill at the University of California, San Francisco, in which 14 women’s book clubs each read a non-fiction book about women’s pregnancies. Cockrill found that reading the book inspired almost all of the women in the clubs who had had abortions to share their own experiences with abortion, and that hearing these women tell their stories made the others in that group more supportive of abortion.
Last year, another one of Belden’s grantees, Exhale, organized a bus tour in which volunteers traveled the country talking about their personal abortion experiences on college campuses and in churches, as a means of promoting conversation and understanding.
“We weren’t exactly sure what to expect,” said Exhale Executive Director Aspen Baker. “We agreed that whether it worked or not, we would at least learn something we didn’t know before. I think it’s fair to say that in terms of the turnout, the enthusiasm of the response, and the really full conversations and engagement between women that resulted from the tours, it far surpassed our expectations.
Belden’s work is informed by direct experience in family planning. Prior to joining the Foundation, he managed a Planned Parenthood health center in San Mateo, California.
“Once a week,” he recalled, “the center had drop-in hours for teens. Sometimes thirty would show up, but due to staffing and funding constraints, we could only serve half that number. So we’d give the other half condoms and ask them to come back another time, but without being able to really give them the more effective birth control many of them wanted. Or a woman might come in on another day and say ‘I want birth control pills,’ and we’d say ‘Great, here they are,’ and send her on her way. It’s good to be fast, but I now realize there is a better way. Women seeking the pill may not realize that there are safe and easy-to-use options, like IUDs and implants, that are much more effective than the pill. And a recent large study found that women are much more satisfied with their IUD than with the pill.”
Belden credits the film he saw in Ms. Mayo’s history class for sparking his interest in family planning. Immediately after class, he rushed up to Ms. Mayo, and with an earnestness available only to a 17-year-old, said. “I have heard my calling: I have to work on this.”
His suggestion at the time? A class project to install condom vending machines in the high school.
The high school principal would later tell his mother that they didn’t want to discourage him by responding with an immediate “no,” but school administrators also had serious reservations about selling condoms on campus. He persisted though, eventually arranging a meeting between school administrators and some condom vendors he had found.
“To me this was about improving health, helping teens stay in school. It was wholesome. The school might be on board with that,” Belden said. “But when the condom salespeople started talking, it was clear they were just after money. The conversation moved from health and staying in school, to money and sex—and my heart sank.”
The vending machine idea failed, but Belden was hooked. “One of the great things about the Hewlett Foundation is that we focus on goals and outcomes,” he said. “It’s not enough to just change a policy or deliver a program. What was the measureable impact? Did we actually change behavior?”
Said Exhale’s Baker of her work with him: “Were it not for Peter’s vision and almost single-minded focus on outcomes, I doubt we could have pulled the bus tour off. And that would be a tremendous loss not only to Exhale but to the field as a whole”