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Changing lives two wheels at a time

Keith Oberg: Bikes for the World
Keith Oberg, SAIS '77, left his job with a U.S.-based Latin American development organization more than a decade ago to start Bikes for the World. The non-profit has shipped more than 40,000 bicycles to countries including Barbados, Costa Rica, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Namibia, Panama and Uganda. Photo: Renee Fischer

 

The key to unlocking a brighter future for a schoolgirl in Ghana, or helping a Namibian volunteer health worker deliver care, or giving a jump start to a fledgling entrepreneur in Panama might just be collecting dust in your basement or garage. That key is a humble, unused bicycle - and if you can get it to Keith Oberg and his non-profit organization Bikes for the World, he'll handle the rest.

"A bicycle is basically a productive asset for a working person," says Keith, whose organization has shipped more than 40,000 bicycles to countries including Barbados, Costa Rica, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Namibia, Panama and Uganda. "It provides access to school, to health services, and to work. So a bike can make the difference between holding a job and not having a job. Between attending school and having to drop out."

Keith had been working toward a career in the U.S. Foreign Service when he enrolled in the Nitze School for Advanced International Studies in 1975; loans and scholarship assistance proved crucial in his decision to come to SAIS. "I feel very appreciative that people who didn't know me invested in me," he says today. "In our society, having people and institutions that invest in people who show promise, who invest in the common good, is a tremendous thing."

Keith chose SAIS because of its policy-oriented approach to international development - a philosophy that matched his own evolving views on how best to provide assistance to developing nations. In fact, just two months from graduation, he turned down his acceptance into the Foreign Service and focused on working for private, U.S.-based Latin American development organizations. In 1999, he took a leave of absence from the InterAmerican Foundation to become director of Bikes for the World.

Keith and his organization learned that bicycles do more than let kids make faster trips to school (and stay in school for more years), or get adults to work more reliably. "Overseas, not only does the bicycle that we ship over there get somebody to work, but fixing up the bike provides jobs skills and employment," he says. "In a society where labor is plentiful, giving people mobility encourages entrepreneurship and personal responsibility. Over time, it could encourage self respect and stop fatalism. It changes people's attitudes, sometimes in dramatic ways."

Bikes for the World is also changing lives here at home. By partnering with youth organizations in Montgomery County, Keith cultivates a passion for helping those around the world. Local children are provided service-learning opportunities in his shop, fixing and preparing bikes to be shipped overseas.

"Kid's learn something about bikes - something they can relate to - but they also learn about helping people overseas," Keith said. "They get some perspective on poverty and they also learn about recycling and reuse. There is a lot of educational value in what we do with young people."

Bikes for the World is a clear example of how the lessons Keith learned at SAIS can have a stunning, positive impact. "Here in the U.S., anything that's 'used' has very, very little value," he explains. "The whole concept of taking something that - and this goes back to economic theory which we studied at SAIS - doesn't have much value here in this country and getting it to a place where it does have value, where it can be productive - that's really the exciting concept to me."

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