The Power of Bicycles

Two international aid organizations work to provide reliable  transportation to communities in need.

By Bonni Curran, MD

How do you measure success?

If you are living in a world that is ravaged by war, poverty, monumental devastation and unthinkable separation—as are women in many developing countries—the steps to success form a much more basic pyramid than you or I might imagine:  Survive;  feed yourself and your children;  create a safe home, a safe community; envision a future.

How do you facilitate a recovery?

Simplify. You work with what you have, with what you know. You get creative.  You build with one eye to immediacy and one to sustainability.

If you’re fortunate, you are provided with tools to aid in your efforts. In 2005, SRAM Corp., a manufacturer of bicycle components, and Trek Bicycle formed World Bicycle Relief (WBR) in response to the catastrophic December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Their goal?  “To provide access to independence and livelihood through The Power of Bicycles”. Though the idea is seemingly simple, the results of their efforts have been dramatic. By providing transportation that enables people to get to work, to get to school, and to get medicine and help more rapidly to those in need.  Leah Missbach Day, a founder of the project, describes the bicycles as “fuel on the flames of recovery.”

Now, with Project Zambia, World Bicycle Relief has turned their efforts to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Working not only to deliver bicycles and to train local field mechanics, the organization is also providing bicycles to caregivers, enabling these volunteers and disease-prevention educators to reach vulnerable households.  In addition, WBR is providing 50,000 middle-school children access to education via a bicycle—all of which is accelerating the drive to eradicate HIV.

The simple bicycle is evolving into a key factor in recovery and enterprise in many diverse situations.  In Southern Sudan, the most recent civil war lasted twenty years, leading to the displacement of an estimated four million people, the deaths of over two million, and the rape of at least two million women and girls. The Women for Women International (WFWI)-sponsored Southern Sudan Bicycle Project—part of the organization’s Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (a three-year income-generating pilot program that aims to teach over 3,000 women to grow and market traditional and higher-value crops) is bringing renewed hope.

The economic, environmental, and educational benefits of getting bicycles to this farming cooperative seem clear. Green transportation will enable women to more easily and safely get to the cooperative, help to get produce to market in a timely and inexpensive way, easing the enormous burden of mothers who take care of their families and homes while still earning an income and keeping their children in school.

Though the immediate economic benefits of bicycle subsidies are clear, what may be more difficult to define are the elements of empowerment, self confidence and hope that something as simple as a bicycle can inspire. Professional cyclist Rebecca Rusch, the reigning World Solo 24HR Champion and ultra endurance athlete, is a supporter of both projects. She says it’s easy able to see the transformative potential that bicycles have: “I have watched sports invigorate women and girls around the globe. I have witnessed women of all ages discover their physical strength and mental fortitude when they learn to ride a bike.”

It is painful to think about the grief and loss that women experience in countries ravaged by war and natural disaster. The choices these women have been compelled to make and the horrific sacrifices they have had to endure are unimaginable.  Now imagine how small changes and empowering tools—like bicycles—can literally mean the difference between life and death, and how just a bit more can mean not just survival but hope.  Try to imagine success as the ability to provide for yourself and your family. Try to imagine how feeling strong and confident in the face of your daily challenges would alter your vision of the future.  These are the differences that projects like World Bicycle Relief and the WFWI Southern Sudan Bicycle Project make possible.