Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Solution to Poverty?

In the past year my view of global poverty has changed dramatically. It all began when I read the book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan. The book later became central to my online course in cultural transformation, and I added insights gained from research into the micro-credit revolution. So, what big new thing have I discovered?

My big new idea began from the first pages of the book. Dr. Prahalad begins with what should be obvious, but isn't. The poor are people too, with all the aspirations and capabilities of adult human beings. They are, in fact, as clever and in many ways, more resourceful than the rest of us. They have to be to survive. We need to begin to treat them this way.

In point of fact, we either patronize them or denigrate them. They are not helpless nor are they lazy. They will do whatever it takes to stay alive and care for their families. Because so many are so poor, they have no access to many of the things we take for granted such as a bank account, licenses, and permits. Most of them face deep prejudice and are considered outcasts or aliens. They have no choice but to operate outside the formal regulations of the law and the economy. They build their homes/shelters out of whatever materials are available, they drink whatever water they have access to, and they basically live hand to mouth.

It is also important to realize that the vast majority (2/3rd's) of the world's population lives on less than $1,500.00 per year, and as many as 3 billion people live on less than $2 per day. The people I described above, who live on one or two meals a day, and who are just surviving make up 1/2 of the world's population. Those numbers are staggering, and they make our complaints about recession and the shrinking middle class sound petty and petulant.

The good news is that something is being done about it. The bad news is that up until the last few decades not much of it was very effective. The UN, the World Bank, and countless NGO's poured billions of dollars into the economies of the developing world, only to have most of the money stolen or given to grandiose infrastructure projects that helped the political leadership but did nothing to help the poor. Even those programs that directly targeted poor communities failed because of their patronizing approach. As Dr. Prahalad explained, these programs viewed, "The poor are wards of the state." (p. xi, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid) In other words, bureaucratic solutions will never solve personal problems, and poverty is extremely personal.

The problem of third world poverty is being addressed in another way by a different group of leaders. These leaders are taking the more personal approach and the results are amazing. As one of my new heroine's, Ingrid Munro explained it, the poor can not be helped by charity. Charity keeps people poor because it communicates that they cannot help themselves and must live in dependence upon their benefactors. Ingrid Munro's solution has been to give the poor a ladder by which they may climb out of poverty by their own efforts. The ladder has several rungs. It begins with community and relationship that encourages and provides accountability. Everywhere that microcredit has succeeded it is built upon a foundation of small community based groups. The next rung is the development of the personal disciplines of saving and delayed gratification. Once a person has learned to save, they are helped to develop a business/entrepreneurial plan. Finally, the member is enabled to take out a small loan to fund their plan.

Ingrid and the members continued to support one another, to help one another, and to speak into each other's lives. In just 15 years, her organization has helped lift 130,000 former beggars and thieves out of poverty.

This, then, is my new paradigm. We must not patronize the poor. We must treat them as viable and capable adults. They need training, encouragement to eliminate wasteful and destructive habits (drinking, drugs, gambling, etc.), and personal support for the positive habits of saving and paying back the microcredit loans or for finding and keeping a job.

One of the reasons that government is so ineffective in this process is that it is inately impersonal. Microcredit, wherever it is practiced in the world, is built on the foundation of small groups with a coach or mentor that connects the group to the lending institution and provides the instruction and guidance that makes the group successful. The larger the governing body, the less capable it is of this level of community and personal involvement. Even in the U.S. this small group and community based approach to microcredit and microenterprise is showing remarkable benefit. There is an organization in Seattle that is doing amazing things in helping people receive the type of coaching, encouragement, and accountability to climb the ladder out of poverty.

I am actually reluctant to call this a "new" understanding because it so confirms by own view of personal and Christian responsibility. It is new however in that it involves real programs that have originated in the last 30 years that are making a tremendous difference in people's lives around the world. As we enter a new year, may we look for ways to help or to become involved in some of these amazing efforts to lift the poorest people of the world out of unimaginable poverty. There are any number of Christian organizations that are involved in these efforts that are worthy of our support, these organizations include World Vision, Step Ahead, and the Chalmers Group. May God show us ways to get personally involved in these kinds of life changing activities.

Have a happy and blessed New Year.

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