How Saturday morning coffees in Anchorage translate into lives saved overseas

This is a column about people being better than you think, having great power to do good, and solving problems you thought could never be solved. I found some of them a block from my house.

But before I tell that story, I have to set the stage, because the world I am going to describe in this column is upside-down compared to what most people think. Or perhaps the other way around — it's right-way-up and our habits of hopelessness are upside-down.

The truth is, world poverty has reached an all-time low. World literacy has reached an all-time high. Health is improving in the poorest countries.

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who frequently writes about global poverty, recently declared 2017 the best year in human history, as each day hundreds of thousands of people gained access to clean water, electricity and the resources to improve their lives.

Kristof wrote, "As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch."

This didn't happen by accident. Modern agriculture, economic development and education all helped.

Good people made it happen.


[An Anchorage couple worked decades to help African villagers. Other Alaskans decided to help, too.]

In October, I began getting emails from Roger Hudson telling me about a group called "Results." He invited me to come for breakfast on a Saturday morning. I was skeptical, but he lives one cul-de-sac over from mine. I'm always happy to meet a neighbor.

The table was piled with pastries, scrambled eggs, a thermos of coffee and other goodies. A half-dozen folks, mostly older, gathered around, with a laptop. It was cozy, like a regular gathering of hobbyists.

Then the laptop emitted a voice from Washington, D.C., talking about the details of co-sponsors, congressional riders and international donor conferences. We learned, along with others at home gatherings around the U.S., about legislation to promote education for the world's poorest girls.

Hudson has been at this since 1980, when he happened to join a conference call with an activist who had the idea to start Results as a national grassroots network.

The idea is simple.

Average Americans are spectacularly rich compared to people who live in extreme poverty, which is defined as earning less than $2 a day. We can save lives with less money than most of us carry in our wallets.

But as rich as we are, our government is incomparably richer.

"You can use our democracy here in the United States to make use of the wealth and power we get by the luck of our birth," Hudson said. "The table's all set for us, all we have to do is work the levers of government and we can help our fellow humans all over the planet. It seems like a no-brainer."

Our Anchorage coffee klatch held even more influence than most, because we Alaskans are few and have two senators and a congressman of our very own.

The math is simple. Our senators have just as much power as California's, but there are 56 Californians for every Alaskan. That makes each Alaskan 56 times more powerful.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said he tries to meet with every Alaskan who visits his Washington, D.C., office. Californians can have trouble getting meetings with their senators' staffs. Sullivan said his staff is on guard for groups that add token Alaskans just to get onto his datebook.

Hudson and his wife, Mary Martin, make use of those personal meetings to advocate for the world's poor.

"They come down on their own dime and they're just passionate, they're very convincing," Sullivan said.

Rep. Don Young recorded a video for the tiny Anchorage group, calling Hudson and Martin dear friends whose work is refreshingly positive and effective — not just talk.

That's part of their strategy, to work positively and to push only for legislation that has a chance to pass.

"I think I've responded every time Roger and Mary have come back to talk to me," Young said. "It sounds a little strange for a Republican, I'll tell you that, but it is an effort I believe is justified."


Young has repeatedly been a lead sponsor or signatory on letters and resolutions addressing poverty, health or education in the developing world, and helps gather support from other Republicans too, Hudson said.

Poverty and caring don't have to be partisan. Christian leaders persuaded President George W. Bush to advance a historic AIDS program for Africa that saved millions of lives. Democrats supported it in Congress, Bill Gates and George Soros contributed, and the program continued into the Obama years.

In 2007, as assistant secretary of state, Sullivan negotiated at the G-8 summit in Germany for the other seven nations present to collectively match the U.S. contribution to the program.

Basic health efforts have saved the lives of 100 million children since 1990. But the total cost of all humanitarian foreign aid by the U.S. — disaster relief, food, health, refugee assistance — is well under 1 percent of the budget. The amount is too small to notice in your taxes.

Some Christians say we should tithe — give a tenth of our income. Most of us give something to charity. Giving and caring for others is a basic component of our humanity. Psychologists say giving brings more life satisfaction than spending the same amount on ourselves.

But as Alaskans, we can have a huge impact by giving only our voices. For the cost of speaking up, we can end suffering and save lives.

"If no one else is taking care of it, it might as well be you. It's been a huge benefit to my life," Hudson said. "It's been a gift and privilege."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.