Monday, June 1, 2009

How do we solve poverty?!?

I recently read a book entitled "In the River They Swim".  It's a collection of essays from many of the world's leading development experts.  The essays don't offer the solution to global poverty, nor do they explain how to solve corruption or improve entrepreneurship. Some of the essays speak of failure or personal difficulty in adjusting to cultures, learning to respect another viewpoint or attempting to improve a situation.  

So often we are offered THE solution to poverty.  We need to double aid to certain countries, we need to cancel debts, we need to all go over there and spend our time helping out.  Notice how it's all about US? YOU? ME?  What the development experts have realised, and what their essays are discussing, is that not one of us has THE solution.

The solution doesn't exist!  What WE can do, is to speak with people living in different circumstances, we can figure out what is holding them back from creating opportunities or taking advantage of existing opportunities, we can offer education, our experience, we can help them to think through the situation.  Ultimately, we are only guides. It is up to us to observe, to learn, to offer assistance; it is up to those living in the situation to act.

To read essay after essay written by brilliant people, with decades of experience - who, looking through their resumes, have concretely changed hundreds and thousands of lives for the better through their work, and to have those people admit that they don't have the solution is eye opening.  If only we could all have the humility to realise our limitations and to offer what resources and knowledge we do have to those who are capable of alleviating poverty in ways that I and you never can.

In my own travels, I speak with youth who are incredibly capable, passionate and dedicated to improving their societies.  I am continuously asked, "what can we do to improve?" At first, I answered I didn't know, because I didn't know their societies, their culture, what opportunities they had, the difficulties with which they were faced. I was clueless.  Now, I answer that I don't know, because the more I learn the less I am able to offer some quick solution. There are so many areas that need focus, and it will take each person within the society using their strengths and skills to make it better. In the meantime, it will take a very few people working very hard to inspire others to join them.

How encouraging for me, and for everyone working on these issues to read examples of what has worked in different places all over the world - sometimes in the most impossible situations where no one thought there was any hope for improvement.  On top of that, how encouraging to know that I can continue to learn and work with people all over the world and that I will never have the answer.  What is important is that we observe, listen, begin - and when we fail we adjust and try again.  

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