Jeffrey Sachs is calling upon Jews to focus their charitable giving on the world’s poor. More than most Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon the global-minded professor has cause to believe that land can be improved, diseases eradicated, and isolated communities brought into the world community.
Lance Laifer believes people will mobilize to fight malaria if they have more information.
In an oped published in this newspaper in March ‘006, Sachs noted that "the U.N. Millenium Project has shown how investments on the order of $110 per person per year can make the difference [between] life and death, and poverty trap versus economic development, for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people." And, he says, we can eliminate malaria, which kills between 1 million and 3 million people each year, many of them children.
Some local people have taken Sachs’ words to heart. Englewood resident and hedge fund manager Lance Laifer said he heard the professor speak about these issues a year and a half ago on the Charlie Rose show, and he was "shocked and outraged" by what he heard. Since that time, he has struggled to raise awareness, and funds, for the fight to end malaria.
Laifer who, as he spoke to this newspaper last week, was preparing to leave for Ghana to check on the progress of a clinic he helped to fund responded to Sachs’ call to action by organizing, with two fellow hedge fund managers, "Hedge Funds vs. Malaria." So far, the group, which contributes to some ‘0 malaria-fighting organizations, has raised about $1 million.
"It’s not how much money is raised," said Laifer, "but how it’s being spent. We need to ensure that it’s being spent wisely."
Laifer said he was astounded when Sachs reported that millions of children a year were dying from malaria but that little was being done to help them.
"He contrasted it with the [much smaller] numbers killed in the tsunami, for which millions of dollars in relief money were raised in a short time," said Laifer, noting that when his daughter became a bat mitzvah, he went online looking for a place to donate $5,000 toward malaria efforts. "I couldn’t find one," he said. "It was incomprehensible."
Through Hedge Funds against Malaria, Laifer has helped fund "malaria-free zones" in five nations Ghana, Kenya, Benin, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast sending over mosquito nets and medication. The clinic in Ghana, organized with the guidance of the Free Africa Foundation (led by economist George Ayittey, a winner of the H.L. Mencken Award in 199′ for his book "Africa Betrayed"), is the first clinic the group has established.
"One of our major challenges will be to get and record the health data for the 50,000 inhabitants it will serve," he said.
Laifer said that he recently created another project, "Madness against Malaria," specifically "to fight donor fatigue," deliberately seeking "an interesting, fun, and entertaining way" to educate people about malaria and raise funds to combat the disease.
"Everyone focuses on the NCAA tournament," he said. "We wanted to take some of the passion" and develop an effective fund-raising mechanism. Between Sept. 1 and Feb. ‘8, people were invited to "put up teams" in the online MAM competition. Laifer said that even his parents got into the spirit, creating a team called "Grandparents against Malaria."
Other local residents have been involved in MAM as well. Richard Dukas of Teaneck is the captain of Team USA, which had raised more than $10,000 by mid-March, putting the team in first place; and Teaneck student Samantha Hod, together with Allison Bernstein of Englewood, helped organize "Battle of the Crews," a hip-hop charity event to raise money for the project.
Sixteen-year-old Samantha, a student at The Frisch School, is no stranger to this kind of fund-raising. Last year, she helped found the International Fast Day Against Malaria, which this year will be held on May 10.
"There were two [MAM] teams with the Israeli flag in the final 3′," noted Laifer, adding that Israeli expertise in fighting malaria a problem faced by the country during the early ‘0th century is in huge demand throughout the world.
Also engaged in the fight against malaria is the Schlussel family of Englewood Richie, Sara, Adeena, Gabi, and Seth. On March 10, Seth, a sixth-grader at the Moriah School, helped organize a tennis fund-raiser for "Nothing But Nets" at the Racquet Club in Tenafly, which donated the court time. The charity raises money for bed nets, which have proved highly effective in protecting children from malaria-carrying mosquitos. The event, which raised $3,000, featured a performance by the band Burnt Ice (seventh-graders Matthew Parker, Ben Eidman, Zach Dicker, and Judah Levy).
For Laifer, there is a poignant Jewish connection in the work he does to combat malaria. "I was brought up with people with numbers on their arms," he said. "I learned that each life is extremely important." Citing the book "Buried by the Times," which describes the poor media coverage of the Holocaust, he said there is a parallel, "with atrocious reporting on malaria."
"I’m embarrassed that before I started this, I didn’t know much about Africa," he said. "I also couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find the names of the children who have died from the disease," he added, noting that the only names he found were of Americans who died after contracting malaria during a visit. Laifer wants to change that by creating a virtual wall of names, much like the wall of victims’ names at Yad Vashem in Israel.
"The American public doesn’t understand," he said, and this lack of information and connection is devastating. But, he believes, citing Hurricane Katrina, "if people focus on an issue, they’ll contribute their last dollar."
To support a team participating in Madness Against Malaria, visit www.madnessagainstmalaria.com. Information on Nothing But Nets can be found at www.nothingbutnets.net. Details about The International Fast Day Against Malaria are available at www.fastagainstmalaria.com.