Parashat Va'et'hanan

The Smallest of Peoples

On the brink of entering the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people that being fewer in numbers is no reason to shirk responsibilities.

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In contrast, some smaller organizations have had success in fighting the biggest problems. The not-for-profit organization Population Services International found a way to provide insecticide-treated bed nets to people in Malawi. With just a small amount of financial investment, they managed to increase the percentage of children sleeping under nets by almost seven-fold. The bed nets help prevent people from getting bitten by malarial mosquitoes while they sleep, thus helping decrease the rates of malaria, a major killer in Africa.

Far from being a disadvantage, a small size can sometimes be an asset in international development work. Small local organizations often have more connections to the community and more grassroots knowledge of the problems they are trying to solve. A World Health Organization officer living in Geneva cannot possibly have the same kind of day-to-day knowledge of the health needs of people in Burma as a Burmese community leader. Smaller organizations also can avoid some of the bureaucracy that plagues larger organizations.

A quick glance at the World Bank’s website reveals a complex organizational structure with no less than 38 major units, with dozens of other internal and external stakeholders. A compact organization can focus its attention and resources on achieving concrete results. Large international aid organizations do have money and power that small homegrown groups are not easily able to access. However, their size and stature sometimes hinders their ability to make progress.

The successes of small organizations can encourage us if ever we become overwhelmed by the problems of the world. While we might at times feel powerless, our challenge is to take the resources we do have and use them in the best way possible. By thinking creatively, we can turn our deficiencies into assets. As Moses reminds the Israelites, God built a relationship with the Jewish people despite their small size and lack of resources. We too could use the reminder that size doesn’t matter. Irrespective of our background or the size of the challenges we face, we all have the power and the responsibility to help build the Promised Land.

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Pamela Katz is the Education Associate at American Jewish World Service. She has a B.A. in history from Yale University. She has spent time in Japan, India, and Central America, and is an alumna of an AJWS Alternative Break to El Salvador.