THE BLOG
10/10/2014 01:08 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

Incentivizing Goodwill: A Lesson from Africa for America

A few mornings ago, the CDC predicted a worst-case scenario for the Ebola outbreak: 1.4 million cases in 4 months. Now, on the streets, and televisions, and social media sites of America, we hear a rising sense of panic about the one case in Dallas and our safety, yet the real site of terror continues to be in Africa.

On "The Brian Lehrer Show" the other morning, several native-African Americans called in, from Sierra Leone to Liberia, largely to plea to the American government to focus efforts on the hotbed of the outbreak. Said one caller from Liberia: "People are dying because of lack of hope, lack of care... hope right now for Liberia is if America can get there sooner, rather than later." The calls were heartbreaking--Lehrer was at a (rare) loss for words.

The problem is complex: West African governments are notorious for deep corruption, and when medical supplies are being held hostage in port for profit (as in Sierra Leone last week), it is clear that U.S. aid can't swoop in and fix everything.

I am also wary of the idea of America as an international hero. It's a trope for young white Americans to paper their Facebook pages with pictures of themselves embracing or otherwise surrounded by impoverished African children. Don't misunderstand me: social media can be a great vehicle for social justice and human rights efforts. But I also have witnessed the ubiquitous well-timed photo ops with the smiling little locals--on the way to the resort or the safari.

It reminds me of the Chris Rock joke: "I was on safari with my family, taking pictures of the animals... and I felt great, until I looked over at another jeep, and I saw a bunch of white people taking pictures of me."

Of course, Rock is an American who enjoys a high level of (earned) privilege, but it illustrates the chasm between "white" America and the "black" world--here and abroad. Our understanding of Africa and her problems sometimes comes with a heavy dose of gawking, exoticism, and pity, rather than real empathy.

In this vein, our assistance in Africa--as most all assistance--comes with a price tag. While we like to think that our empathy for our fellow human beings--even those that don't look like us--as solidly intact, we usually want a reward at the end. Whether that award is monetary or in the form of online accolades, we like our heroism to be compensated.

Self-interest can be a great combatant of our most noble tendencies. It can also be a great motivator.

I recently have come across an inspiring model of how to reach across cultural boundaries for this kind of egalitarian good: The Kibera School for Girls in Kenya. And the model isn't purely altruistic; it takes human nature into account--it has embraced incentivized good will.

The source of my information actually did come from the Facebook wall of an American friend of mine, who is on their board in New York, and she isn't the self-congratulatory type. I began to read the story and was blown away not only by the success and spirit of the school, but the founders' shrewd means of incentivizing the whole community to commit to the health, education, and safety of these girls. The organization's palpable sincerity also combatted some of my own skepticism and assumptions regarding the do-gooders of privilege on social media.

Kennedy Odede, the co-founder of the school, grew up in the Kibera slum, with an acute awareness of the plight of the women in his community brought into sharp relief by the rape and resultant pregnancy of his 16-year-old sister. He met his wife and co-founder Jessica Posner, a native Coloradoan, when she was studying abroad, and together they established Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) and the Kibera School for Girls.

There are nearly 2 million people living in Kibera, a slum the size of Central Park. Boys are twice as likely to attend school as girls, and 27% of the students at the girls school (age 10 and under) have been victims of sexual assault. While the women of the community have been supportive since the school's nascence, the men of Kibera were initially hesitant and skeptical.

Here is that dogged self-interest again: why would these men want to lose their wives and daughters, cooks, housekeepers, bedfellows, and in some cases, victims, to a life potentially without them?

In response to this fracture, Kennedy and Jess incorporated community services into the school: public lavatories, clean water, and medical services. The only payment required for the school is that a family member prepares and serves food twice a week.

Through these incentives, they have made an impact on the men of the community, too: encouraging them to see these young women as more than sexual objects or domestic servants. Kennedy and Jess are also emblematic of the kind of relationship America and Africa need to embrace for the better of both parties. Jess helped Kennedy access the benefits of Western education by assisting him in getting a full scholarship to Wesleyan (her alma mater), and he introduced her to the lifeblood of Kibera--the people. The couple now calls Kibera home and the community family.

Clearly, problems of massive scale like Ebola can't be remedied by offering public toilets (though hospitals in Liberia could certainly benefit from the basics). But Kennedy, Jess, and their team have recognized how to forge partnerships through social media and on the ground. And they've done so without the pane of rose-colored glass: they have incentivized goodwill.

This week, a government-partnered agency began offering $10,000 to medical workers to work for 21 days in Ebola Treatment Units in West Africa. I think it's a step in the right direction, but honestly, the price tag seems too low for the job. If we are going to acknowledge the need for motivation, and the stakes are this high, we can't afford to be cheap.

And this ethos of goodwill motivation can apply not only to biological diseases in Africa, but social ills in America. As a person from Appalachia now living in Harlem, I see a place for the U.S. to consider how we might model schools into community centers and raise not only young women who know their value, but young men who recognize it, too. How can we incentivize education about sexual assault and sexual health, so that our young people work together to address problems that plague us here, not just abroad?

We need to find it in our hearts to cross cultural and gendered lines to address the literal and metaphorical diseases plaguing us at home. And if we haven't yet found it our hearts, maybe we can find it in our pockets.

This weekend, SHOFCO is holding an event in New York for awareness and fundraising for the Kibera School for Girls called "The Day of the Girl." Thankfully, in Manhattan, we aren't wanting for basic necessities. But the donation to the school does come with brunch, which I've found to be quite the motivator for New Yorkers. And happily, it's sold out.