Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ending Extreme Poverty

"Do you think it is possible to end extreme poverty in the next 30 years? If so how?"

It took two days of car trips, charter planes, and precipitous dirt roads winding through mountains and cliffs, and walking, to reach the indigenous towns in the middle of Oaxaca, Mexico. We spent days working in the villages, but it felt like we were tying to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding. The more we helped, the more people needed help. After a week it struck me with dismay that what I was doing was the same thing someone else was going to be repeating in less than a month, with the same people in the same places.

What frustrated me the most was seeing thousands of dollars being poured into the villages surrounding our base, yet, the result was hundreds of people now dependent on our aid. Villages were being torn apart with bitter family feuds and village elders struggled to maintain control despite the growing political influence of the people who worked at our base. There was a growing cultural upheaval within the villages because of those who associated with us and adopted our ways and beliefs.

I came to realize that after years of work in poor countries around the globe, I had missed something vital. Everything I was doing, what WE were doing, was obviously not working. Despite billions of dollars being poured into humanitarian projects, the poor keep getting poorer. I realized I had been so busy trying to fix these people’s world with pills and books and lectures, I failed to see exactly what their world was. I missed seeing these people as individuals instead of statistics and trends and demographics. We were coming in and saying to these people that they need to change everything they are doing to reach standards of health and wellbeing that are completely out of context with the lives they had always been living.

Ending extreme poverty is not something that can be solved with a silver bullet. What works in Mexico is not what works in the United States, or India, or even Cuba. These cultures are unique and the people are unique too. It will require a radical change in how we administer aid. This is not just a problem that we can throw money at through organizations like Save the Children and Kiva. We can’t just send hundreds of military personnel as armed humanitarians and expect them to tear down and rebuild everything from scratch. Nor can we continue to administer aid programs costing millions of dollars or more without making sure our programs are evidence-based and results oriented. We need to find a common ground between the people in the field and the academics that research and study poverty. The solution is working with people, one-on-one and village by village. The solutions will most likely be the same solutions we already have, but the difference is the delivery system. A delivery system designed around better information communication and a person-oriented approach.

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