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A Simple Gift Can Have a Profound Impact

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By Michael Hill

Poverty is a complicated problem, its causes so multiple and interconnected that trying to solve it often seems like an impossible Rubik's Cube of a task.

But finding a solution to poverty is exactly what humanitarian groups like Catholic Relief Services try to do every day. Working in almost 100 countries around the world, CRS targets the poorest of the poor; not just those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but those who are still trying to make it to the bottom rung so they can begin the climb up.

The irony: CRS and others have found that it is often the simplest of solutions that has the most profound effect on this complex problem.

Take the issue of finance. Accumulating capital is almost impossible for those who are living, quite literally, hand to mouth. If they get any money, they spend it on necessities so they find themselves trapped in a whirlpool of great need and small resources. Microfinance institutions have helped make a dent in this but sometimes even their small loans are too much for the extremely poor to consider. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 80 percent of the adult population does not have access to financial institutions.

So CRS is now establishing what can best be described as "savings clubs" that go by the name of Savings and Internal Lending Communities or SILC. Community groups of 15 or 20 or 30 people get together and agree to save a set amount each week. It might be 25 cents. It might be a couple of dollars. They loan this money out to members of the group, establishing their own interest rates. At the end of a year or so, they split up the profits.

It is simple, but profound. With their accumulated capital, SILC members have avoided going into stifling debt due to a bad harvest. They have established businesses -- maybe buying chickens and selling eggs; buying a bull, fattening it up and selling it for a profit; a hair-styling salon. And in the process they have formed a working group that empowers them, that empowers women (74 percent of SILC members), and that empowers communities.

CRS just marked over 1 million SILC members in 35 countries since the program was started in 2006. Together, they have saved over $10 million. A new offshoot trains locals to become Professional Service Providers so they can replicate the SILC program in more communities at a low cost. Watch this video to better understand the important impact of SILC.

For many of us, a vegetable garden is a relaxing diversion as well a welcome source of tasty, fresh produce for our dinner tables. But such a garden can transform the lives of those who struggle to get enough to eat. The Keyhole Garden, named for its shape, is grown on a raised bed made of locally available materials. Its waist-high design makes it easy for those too old to work the fields to maintain. Properly situated, it can provide crops year-round even in cold climates.

For a family whose diet is dominated by a starchy staple crop - corn or cassava or rice - such vitamin and nutrient-rich additions to meals can mean the difference between sickness and health. The garden can also provide produce to sell, income that helps family withstand a bad harvest.

Watch how simple it is to make one of these transformative gardens.

One third of the world's population -- over 2 billion people -- do not have access to sewer systems. They use outhouses. In East Africa, CRS is using a new design to turn this necessity into an asset. It's called the Arborloo and it uses a shallow-pit latrine that when filled becomes the fertilizer for a fruit tree. Like the Keyhole Garden, this tree provides diversity in the diet and a potential source of income.

Over 400,000 of these latrines have been built, serving more than 2 million people. And, since Arboloos come with hand-washing facilities and sanitation education, the program also reduces incidents of deadly intestinal diseases that every year kill more children than HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

This video shows how a $7 investment can make a big difference in the health, nutrition and income of a family that uses an outhouse.

One thing that all three of these programs -- SILC, Keyhole Gardens, Arborloos -- have in common is that they are inexpensive. Large humanitarian organizations like CRS get much of their income from government and other big donors who understandably tend to fund large programs that take tried and true paths. Private donations allow groups like CRS to try the new and innovative.

Whatever the size of your donation on Giving Tuesday, it could help lead to the next important step in solving the complex problem of world poverty.

Your simple gift could have a profound impact.

(This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y, United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday -- which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 -- is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to www.givingtuesday.org to learn more and get involved.