Backdoor Humanitarianism


Here’s what I believe: If you plan for the most vulnerable, the world works better for everyone. Organize a busy street so a deaf child with a physical disability can cross it safely and suddenly you’ve got a street safe enough for an elderly person who moves slowly or a pregnant woman with a heavy briefcase or a harried father with three small kids in tow. That’s how it works. Plan for the most vulnerable. Watch the fun.

Pawan Sinha, a remarkable person who recently visited the small city in North India where I live, is a neuroscientist at MIT. His special interest is visual learning and how the brain recognizes what it sees. Many scientists stay inside their laboratories and study their data. And God bless them. They make important discoveries, and some of them even change the way we live. But Pawan Sinha isn’t one of those. Back in 2003, while he was visiting family in New Delhi, a four-year-old blind child approached his car to beg. “I’m not an ophthalmologist,” he told me, “but even I could tell that she had cataracts. They were operable. Her blindness could have been cured.”

Here’s what makes Pawan remarkable. He didn’t just start raising money to operate on every kid with curable blindness he could find. He thought about his training and what he was good at, and he came up with an ingenious idea so breathtakingly simple it makes everyone who hears it wonder, “Why didn’t I...

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.