Everyone knows the classic joke about the man who complains, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” and the doctor says, “Well don’t do that.”
Think about it for a second – why is that funny to us?
The doctor’s advice is actually completely practical. But we all understand the doctor is ignoring the actual problem, and that makes it funny.
So – have you heard the one about the poor villager and the cause marketing business? The villager says, “We have no opportunity.” The business says, “Here, have these shoes.”
This time, it’s not funny. Not only is the problem being ignored, the prescription is creating side effects.
The reason people are without shoes is because they are in poverty. Shoelessness is, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” Dumping shoes on the problem is, “Don’t do that.” A real doctor – and a real social entrepreneur – will spend time to understand the root cause, and work with the patient to cure the condition.
Social entrepreneurs have a natural impulse to help others. But when you take large-scale actions, it’s important to look at the side effects of your activity.
What are the side effects when you give away masses of shoes in a poor area?
– What happens to the people who make shoes in the region? What about the people who make the leather or fabric for them? The people who bring them to the village to sell?
– What happens to a child when she wears shoes for six months and then outgrows them, and there is no replacement?
– If only half the children in a village receive free shoes, what is the impact on the other half?
Real, sustainable solutions to poverty focus on empowerment – which in practice means information and access to basic resources. If a social entrepreneur wants to make a healthy impact, she focuses on sustainable ways to increase access to water, nutrition, education, healthcare, capital, employment, and legal rights – the necessary foundations for sustainable prosperity. A family with access to these foundations will buy their own shoes – the right shoes for them, at the right time for them.
It’s important to follow our impulse to help others. It’s also important to be wise about how we go about providing that help. To address the right problems. To use tools of empowerment, so that those in the grip of poverty can stand up their own lives and their own communities. No joke.