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.

The Moneylender in Microlender’s Clothing

When Dr. Muhammad Yunus first went into the villages of Bangladesh to study the causes of poverty up close, he found the people oppressed by loan sharks or as he calls them “moneylenders.”

Dr. Yunus’ model involved lending small sums of money to women in self-motivating, self-regulating groups of women for the purpose of creating sustainable income. His approach has improved the lives of millions of people around the world. The model became known as “microfinance.” One key success factor in his model is that the lender’s primary goal is not to earn a profit; instead the first goal is to lift women from poverty.

Dr. Yunus’ approach became so large and successful that it attracted the attention of corporate, banking and political interests around the world – most of which do not have the cause of ending poverty as their priority, but rather see profit potential in lending to the world’s poorest. These interests now dominate the microlending landscape. They have usurped the term “microfinance.” The most egregious of them are big, sophisticated, well-financed and powerfully marketed versions of the moneylenders that Dr. Yunus fought so hard against.

I have called on Grameen Foundation and other anti-poverty leaders to create a new, legally protected term for the kind of microfinance that is designed to end poverty, and to develop an international certifying body that will let philanthropists, foundations and social entrepreneurs have a clear picture of what groups are practicing anti-poverty driven microfinance. Minimum standards and practices would be developed by this international body and would evolve as our knowledge, tools and methods evolve.

In the absence of a branded term, those in my circle who work in anti-poverty driven microfinance have begun to call it “Microfinance Plus.” Microfinance Plus implies the following to us:

– The lender is either not for profit, of if it is a for profit institution (which is required by law to engage in lending in some countries) then the lender is owned almost exclusively either by a not-for-profit or by the clients of the lender themselves. Another way to think about it: the lender’s profits are not for the enrichment of anyone except the poor.

– Although failure to pay loans may impact a borrower’s ability to borrow again, the lender never punishes a borrower for failure to pay. Another way to think about this: a borrower’s financial situation is not to be made worse by having taken a loan, whether repaid or not.

– Money is only loaned for purposes of investment (for example business, education, home, and so on) and the borrower must demonstrate a plan for repayment. Loans are never given for paying back other debt or for purposes that do not increase the borrower’s ability to improve her financial situation.

– The lender, whether itself or through partners, actively works with its clients to eliminate the drivers of poverty in borrowers’ lives. These drivers are different in various parts of the world, so each lender creates its own approach. Some common drivers of poverty that are currently addressed by Microfinance Plus institutions are: lack of affordable clean water, lack of basic health education, malnutrition, illiteracy, chronic illness, lack of affordable childcare, and cultural or political oppression. There are many more. Each organization addresses its local needs.

It is imperative that the anti-poverty driven microfinance industry move quickly to create a protected term and a certification process, because without it we cannot drive large capital flows into Microfinance Plus institutions. Companies like my business Soap Hope (which invests all its profits into Microfinance Plus institutions) and philanthropic donors and investors need a simple and reliable way to identify these groups and to hold them accountable. By making the investment to define and certify what qualifies as anti-poverty microfinance, our industry will be able to grow the number of people served under Dr. Yunus’ original intent.

– Salah Boukadoum

Stay in touch with me:
salah@soaphope.com
@soaphope
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