In Uganda, rural girls hoping to complete their high school education (thereby expanding their life options) might never achieve their goals because the school is just too far away. In Honduras, a family’s livelihood may depend on the parents’ ability to get transportation to their workplace. In some parts of the world, getting to school, or to work, or to a doctor or hospital means a long, long walk.
That’s where Keith Oberg, a resident of ISH in 1975-76, and his organization Bikes for the World come in. Bikes for the World (BfW), a sponsored project of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, was founded, according to its mission statement, to “assist poor people overseas become more productive through providing affordable bicycles for personal transport to work, school, and health services….helping the poor earn more, learn more, and live more healthy lives.”
The organization accomplishes its mission by working with local groups – churches, service clubs and local businesses – to collect used bikes and then pack them to be sent to countries in Latin America and Africa. At the receiving end are experienced local nongovernmental associations with whom BfW has a relationship. They will, in turn, distribute the bikes to individual beneficiaries. Volunteers provide most of the manpower, but there are, of course, shipping costs: trucking the bikes to Baltimore, shipping on container ships out of the Baltimore port, and paying couriers to deliver documents. These costs are covered in part by the receiving organizations, in part by donations ($5 or more) by the people donating the bikes, and with many small individual donations.
A side benefit of the program, in Keith’s estimation, is that it introduces the concept of global service to Americans who might not otherwise know how to participate. More than 600 volunteers run collection events, screen out bikes that are too old, and help dismantle and pack the bikes for distribution.
When Keith, an American, enrolled in 1975 at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., he thought he was headed for the diplomatic service. In fact, while at SAIS, he took the State Department exam and was offered an appointment to the Foreign Service. At the same time, however, he was coming to realize that his heart was in development work. One reason was a graduate internship with the Inter-American Foundation, a grants-making organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1970 to support community self-help programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a result, at the last moment he declined the invitation from the State Department, eventually completing his internship with the Inter-American Foundation and earning his Master’s degree in International Studies, with a focus on Latin American studies.
After a stint with the National Cooperative Business Association, the trade association for U.S. cooperative businesses (agricultural cooperatives and rural electric cooperatives, for example), he returned as a career employee to the Inter-American Foundation, using his program, language, and cultural skills to visit potential and actual projects in Latin America, acting as a liaison between these and the foundation.
Having commuted to school and work for many years, Keith naturally became interested in the possibility of supplying used bikes to countries where, Keith says, “having a bike is equivalent to having a car.” Beginning on a volunteer basis, Keith organized the Washington area operations of a bicycle collecting and shipping agency, Pedals for Progress, becoming its vice-president and Washington DC Coordinator, and then became director of Bikes for the World when it organized independently in 2005.
A native of upstate New York and graduate of Middlebury College, Keith knew when he came to Washington, a new city for him, he wanted to be part of a community, and because of his academic and professional interests, he was drawn to an international community. That’s what brought him to ISH. He was, in fact, one of six ISH students in the SAIS master’s program that year, and he says that ISH met all of his expectations and more. That he met his wife, Jessica Mott (summer ’76) at the House is certainly a contributing factor in his affection for the House. Jessica, an American who works as an economist at the World Bank, specializing in natural resource management, has also spent her professional life in an international environment.
Residents of ISH seem particularly attuned to the needs of poor and underserved populations around the world. Keith is one ISH alumnus who has turned that sensitivity into a life’s work. He would welcome the participation of other ISH alumni. “We are always looking for good participating programs overseas,” he says, “and we would welcome nominations.” For more information, visit the website at www.bikesfortheworld.org.