4 plan African fact-finding safari

October 31, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

What can Baltimore learn from Africa?

The answers should be in by mid-November when four Baltimoreans -- two health professionals and two others involved in grass-roots economic development -- return from a visit to Kenya.

The four, who will leave today for Africa, will tour health and economic development projects there run by the United States Agency for International Development and Catholic Relief Services.

Their trip may be the most concrete result to flow from the decision made last spring by J. Brian Atwood, AID director, to apply the knowledge his agency has accumulated abroad over the years to problems at home.

Amanda Crook, head of a non-profit agency called Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, which helps poor women start businesses, has an idea what she might learn in Africa.

"I'm really hoping to see how peer lending works," she said.

She described peer lending as a financing system popular in African villages in which very low income women pool their money and lend it to each other. "These are women who have no credit. It is very successful in Third World countries, but it has not been replicated in the U.S. very much."

The reason?

"We don't have many very small villages where peer pressure acts as a social collateral. In urban areas we can't keep track of people," and the pressure to repay loans, absent the "social collateral," is weaker.

"We want to find out how it works, how to overcome those problems," she said.

Penny Borenstein, head of the immunization program at the city Health Department, hopes to find in Africa a way to raise Baltimore's child immunization level.

Figures show that only about 55 percent of Baltimore's children under two have all their shots.

The reasons, she said, have to do with the failure of pediatricians to give the shots regularly enough, and the failure of parents, especially younger parents who have never seen a case of polio or diphtheria, to take their children to get them.

"We have an immunization van. We offer services in communities and often times we don't get much of a response," Ms. Borenstein said.

"I think they are probably doing a better job [in Kenya] than we are in mobilizing community thought on the importance of immunization, that they have found a way of convincing parents this is important, to get your shots on a routine basis," she said.

Michael Gaines, who runs a group called the Council for Economic and Business Opportunity, will be looking at AID-sponsored micro-enterprises in Kenya. CEBO trains and finances aspiring small businesses in Baltimore.

He said he is particularly interested in learning how small scale entrepreneurs in Kenya operate within a social context much poorer than here. "In this country we have a safety net -- welfare and unemployment insurance. In developing nations there isn't a formal social security net," he said.

He suspects the absence of such protection might engender a different, maybe even a more helpful, kind of attitude.

Daisy Morris is going to East Africa as a representative of Healthy Start, a quasi-public agency which is trying to bring down infant mortality levels in the worst parts of Baltimore.

Those levels -- 19 deaths per 1,000 live births in Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park -- match or exceed those of many Third World countries.

"It's pretty bad," said Mrs. Morris. "What we would like to see is closer to 9 or 10 percent. Our goal is to reduce the infant mortality rate by 50 percent over the next five years."

And what does she think she might find in Kenya to help her reach that goal?

"They work with dads over in Kenya. We work with young fathers, and part of the things we teach them is to be good parents. To the extent we can talk to other cultures that have a major commitment to using dads to participate in family planning . . . that would be truly great," she said.

For decades AID has helped poor countries design immunization and literacy programs, financed farms and small businesses.

A part of the agency's motivation since its inception sprang from a need to win friends for this country in the Third World in the competition with the former Soviet Union.

With that no longer a factor, a reconsideration of AID's mission was ordered.

In June, a conference was held at Morgan State University, attended by Vice President Al Gore and about 200 health and social workers, people from charities and public officials.

Lee Tawney, an assistant to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, secured a $55,000 grant from the Chesapeake Health Care Foundation.

With it he brought the AID experts back to Baltimore this month for the first of two workshops, and arranged to send the four Baltimoreans to Africa for two weeks.

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