Stop Talking About The Poor

  • “I’m looking at the best models out there for using business to solve social problems.”
  • “This is so hard – I’ve been looking for the right organization to work with for almost a year. I don’t want to waste my time working on something that won’t really make a difference.”
  • “One day, I hope to get involved in ending poverty, so I’m studying as much as I can today.”

These are a few of the things I’ve been told by people in the last month who have e-mailed and called because they are passionate about social entrepreneurship and microfinance.

I hate to be the one to break it to them, but talking with other people about helping the poor does not help the poor. While you are talking, they are still hungry.

If you want to discover the best model for combining business and social problems, the very first thing you should do is start a business to solve social problems, or go work for one – right now. Then you will learn what is really involved in a social enterprise. I can tell you from experience, you will be throwing out almost all the ideas and opinions you have about the matter until you do it yourself.

If you want to find the best organization to work with, go work for any organization that is focused on changing any life besides your own – right now. During the year you have been carefully avoiding wasting your time, you have wasted a year.

If you are studying as much as you can today, you have forgotten that while you are studying the problem, a child has missed her opportunity to go to school, so the cycle of poverty is being extended an entire generation in her family. Why are you studying to work on the problem later? The problem is now – work on it right now, and you will learn more than any book could ever teach you.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk, reflect, or study. But I have noticed there are too many people who are mostly talking, reflecting and studying. Ask yourself now, am I spending more time talking about changing the world than I am actually working on it? If so, I suggest correcting that imbalance – now.

Stop looking for the perfect way to participate. Go do anything for those in extreme poverty, anywhere – not for you, for them. Not a conference – first provide a meal. Not a study – first send money for medicine. Not a meeting – first fund a water well.

Raise money for Grameen Foundation. Volunteer with Women For Women. Buy a scarf from WORN. Fund a Bank of Hope at Esperanza International. Donate services to CitySquare. Start a weekend business that funds microloans.

Stop talking about it, and do it.

It’s not enough to teach a man to fish (or, Poverty is a Process)

Almost everyone knowns the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But what good is teaching a woman to fish if she cannot afford a fishing pole? If her children are sick and she cannot leave them? If a middleman buys her fish for a pittance and keeps all the profit, because she cannot determine the market price?

Most people view poverty as a problem, as a situation. But poverty is actually a process. The many intertwined aspects of the poverty process are self-reinforcing. In order to end the process, many simultaneous individual problems need to be addressed at the same time.

Think about a 28-year-old woman in Africa who is currently trapped in the process of poverty:

Unlike us, she was not taught to read. Did you ever learn anything from a book? Do you remember every recipe you will ever make? Do you ever use a list to remember what to do? Have you ever read how to repair something, or how to use a medicine?

Our friend cannot learn anything except what she experiences directly in person. She must remember everything important in her head. There is no to-do list, no planning. No recipes. No new food preservation technique unless she can remember exactly how to do it when shown. She certainly cannot make any written agreement with a buyer of goods. If her children need three medicines, she will need to remember the dosage and timing of each one by the color and shape of the pill. Can you do all this?

Unlike us, she was not taught how to do basic math. “How much feed can I afford to buy to raise my livestock, given the amount of time it takes to mature them and the price at the market?” “Given the cost of this thread and dye, how much do I have to be able to sell these shawls for to make it profitable?” It is almost impossible to operate the simplest trade without some basic math skills.

Unlike us, she does not have water nearby. Have you ever been thirsty for a few hours? Do you remember how slow you become, how tired it makes you , how it becomes difficult to think and the mood it puts you in?

Our friend cannot fetch water because it is 2 hours away, and she must be with her baby, prepare food and tend to her family’s other needs. So her two oldest sons, perhaps 8 and 10, walk with containers to fetch water for the family. It takes 2 hours to get there, and it takes 3 hours to get back. Have you ever carried water? It is heavy. The boys make this trip 3 times weekly. This trip is one of the main reasons they are not in school. They, like their mother, will not learn to read and write, perpetuating the poverty process.

There are many other dimensions to the poverty process. Chronic illness, climate change, political unrest and many other forces can create instability that makes it difficult to thrive.

Because there are so many interacting factors that work to keep people in poverty, many attempts to address poverty fail. If there are five or six intertwined problems and a program only addresses one or two, the program won’t work.

One of the most powerful tools for addressing all the elements of poverty comes in the form of nonprofit microfinance institutions. In the absence of an industry term, in my group we call it “Microfinance Plus.” Microfinance Plus institutions deploy programs that enable the local population to address all their poverty drivers. They provide small loans to women who use the capital to fund a personal business, like making something to sell at market, opening a kiosk, raising livestock, and yes even fishing. But these loans are also tied to antipoverty programs like literacy training, math skills, healthcare education, schools, and highly local needs like how to preserve an abundant local food or how to avoid a particular local pathogen.

They also provide the intangible but critical ingredient of human support – also known as “hope.” In many areas, poverty has been present for so long and is so profound that the people need to hear about the possibility for a different and better future for themselves and their children, in order to kick-start the process of working toward that future in a new way.

Now we can see that our old proverb doesn’t give us the outcome we want: the end of the process of poverty. “Teach a woman to read and to do basic math; provide her with affordable sources of clean drinking water, basic healthcare, and business training; give her human support and respect; and enable her children to go to school.” Then you don’t need to feed her for a lifetime. She can do that for herself and her family, just as we do.