As a reporter, I've come across humanitarian heroes in places from Afghanistan and Burundi to Somalia, Indonesia and Haiti. One person who made a strong impression was a gutsy South African woman who reached millions of chronically hungry people during the apartheid era. Little known outside of her own country, Ina Perlman founded a charity in 1980 whose purpose was to provide feeding programs and create income-generating projects for impoverished rural people whose suffering was not just forgotten but officially denied.
Under the apartheid system, millions of people were displaced and sent to barren, rural wastelands where soil erosion, drought and mass unemployment were the norm and a social safety net absent. The South African government ignored soaring hunger rates in those regions. Perlman responded by redoubling her efforts to reach vulnerable populations. When she first started out with Operation Hunger she would badger grocery stores for goods and deliver them herself to remote villages.
As a young reporter for The Star -- then South Africa's biggest daily newspaper -- Perlman invited me on field trips in the mid-late 1980s, hoping that coverage of the plight of rural populations would not only expose their terrible living conditions but lead to an influx of donations from compassionate readers.
On one particular trip, we drove for hours on pot-holed gravel roads until reaching Hlakano Sekhweng in the former "homeland" of Lebowa. Perlman described it as one of the most destitute villages she had seen, pointing out classic signs of hunger -- distended bellies, balding children and malnutrition-related diseases such as kwashiorkor and melasmus. Animals were scrawny, crops were withered. A local nurse estimated more than 80 percent of the children suffered from chronic hunger and did not go to school because their parents could not afford uniforms. Unemployment was near 100 percent, with little prospect for making a living to sustain families.
Perlman peppered villagers with questions, took notes and later explained how the people in this village had been "discarded." Their story needed to be told. After the story appeared, money apparently poured in to help relief efforts, even though the underlying causes remained. Photographs that ran with the story by talented Star photographer, Karen Sandison, showed children crying in pain. In one portrait, three boys sat closely together, an empty food pot in front of them. An emaciated man appears in another shot, sitting outside a tiny room he shared with seven other people. There were no beds or blankets and the roof had collapsed. His only shirt gaped at the back from a large tear and he wore tattered shorts. He had a pair of trousers, he told Perlman, which he was keeping for winter.
Described by her family as a "passionate and stubborn fighter for social justice," Perlman died in Knysna, South Africa, on June 28, 2012 at the age of 86. The Nelson Mandela Center of Memory paid tribute to Perlman's role: "We remember her great work on behalf of the poor and how she helped to feed millions of people throughout South Africa," said the centre, adding that Perlman hired Nelson Mandela's daughter Zindzi "during the dark days of apartheid" and helped his former wife Winnie Mandela, too.
Perlman's philosophy was that every bit counts and small changes eventually bring about shifts. By the time she retired from Operation Hunger in 1993, the organization was feeding more than two million people a day and tens of thousands had benefited from self-help projects. Its work continues today.
Working at InterAction, the biggest alliance of U.S.-based NGOs, we see incremental shifts emanating from the work of our nearly 200 members, who are scattered across the world. Those aid workers are armed with the same intense optimism to help struggling communities become more self-sufficient and resilient. And just as Perlman sought and relied on public support for her organization, InterAction members' efforts are largely underwritten by the generosity of the American public.
Last month, when Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. Eastern seaboard and Caribbean nations such as Haiti and Cuba, those supporters came out to lend their support, no matter how small. The same humanitarian champions will be among those to join the #GivingTuesday movement, a philanthropic holiday created by charities to kick off the giving season between Thanksgiving and the New Year. People are encouraged to give back, whether volunteering or making a contribution to a favorite charity. InterAction staff have been collecting food items for a local food kitchen, Martha's Table.
In news reports after she died, Perlman's family said she had an inspirational quote on her wall from the U.S. activist Norman Thomas saying his life had not been spent serving lost causes. "My life has been spent in serving causes not yet won," he said.
That's a philosophy worth repeating on #GivingTuesday.
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.