Effectively eliminating extreme poverty around the globe will require collective action – collaboration unlike anything we’ve seen in the past. That’s not hard to figure out given the depth of the problem. But could our thinking about poverty be part of the problem?
Hear me out. I’m not saying poverty is our (the West’s) fault, but have some of our actions over the past few decades created an unhealthy dependency on our resources and our solutions? The underserved world is comprised of capable, intelligent, hard-working men and women. But have our assistance efforts always recognized this?
I got a good dose of international policy during my undergraduate career, from the theory of international dynamics to the politics of decision-making. My goal was to finish school and then go spend some time in the underserved world, getting to know the people with the hope of better understanding the context of the local culture. That’s what I did. After graduating, I spent time in several nations, working on projects and interacting with the people. I learned a vital lesson during that time.
The underserved world is nothing like what I’d read about in textbooks. It was real, it was raw, and it was full of amazing individuals. My focus had been policy, which has its place, but somehow it felt like I’d missed something – I’d missed the people.
That experience, that time spent exploring and discovering, was transformational for me. I realized my own ideas about poverty and about development had been missing a crucial element: the people. My ideas were about what I could do for them. I didn’t take into account their ideas, their creativity, and their solutions. I began to realize the most elements missing in the underserved world weren’t tangible resources, but opportunities.
I made an effort to get to know and listen to some of the people I interacted with in their local contexts. I heard their stories and their dreams. I found out they didn’t want things to be handed to them, but instead wanted to be empowered to find their own solutions. They wanted to take responsibility for their own development. This was not something I’d spent a lot of time considering.
Quite frankly, everything I’d learned and read about until then was about us “doing” for them. It wasn’t about local capacity, but about Western agendas. My perspective was shaken.
From that time on, I’ve seen my role in development as being one of a supporter, not a director. I chose to focus my graduate studies and then my career on the people, not just the data, the faces, not just the facts. Development should be about building local capacity, sharing ideas, and creating opportunity. Providing handouts and creating projects from our homes and offices in the West without local input should become things of the past.
Aid seekers need to become opportunity takers. We can help. We can remember that poverty is about people – capable, creative people who want the chance to be responsible for their own futures. Opportunity creation should be the focus of every project we pursue, every program we help create. Extreme poverty can be eliminated. Opportunity will make the difference.