Thursday, July 15, 2010

Impatient Idealism and the War on Poverty: Let's Talk Hope, Not Despair

How do we talk about poverty? It’s something I have been obsessed about a lot as of late. There is this tendency on behalf of us nonprofity do gooders, and yes that is a scientific term, to paint a very bleak picture. Stats seem to be a favorite tool of ours. Post some depressing statistic over an even more depressing photo and suddenly we have our pitch for why caring about poverty and the people who live in it should matter more than say, Lindsay Lohan or learning where LeBron chooses to play ball next year.

People don’t invest long term in response to the depressing, they just don’t. And who can blame them? The human heart is not looking for punishing blow after blow. People get burnt out on bad news. Our focus shifts: why focus on stuff that truly hurts to internalize when we can focus on a world of reality TV that is anything but real?

And that’s exactly why we need a new framework for how we communicate about poverty. Our stereotype of the poor as hopeless and helpless is at best, often misinformed, at worst, patronizing.

And so I’d like you to imagine a new way of addressing poverty. A photo that highlights the beauty, possibility, and the resilience that is typical of so many of the people in Latin America and other parts of the developing world that speak to the real reality of so many: entrepreneurial people, primarily women, who are ready to make a change in their lives and those of their children and community. Instead of unconquerable despair we focus a bit more intentionally on untapped and eager potential. Doing so empowers a community, it empowers women, and it empowers us to pass by a world consumed by junk consumption for something more authentically life giving.

I am not saying this should be the way we communicate about things all the time. The reality of AIDS in Africa, education in the inner city, and so many other issues is that once in a while must speak to the great disparity. But what I believe is that we error when the message is so focused on that, with almost no messaging around potential and hope! This new communication works!

Don’t believe me- look at what Kiva is doing. They connect people like you and me to entrepreneurs on the ground in the developing world. You read their story, see a real photo of them, and “loan”, yes loan, $25 (or more) to help them start a business. Money is pooled amongst other lenders like you and suddenly you are invested in kinship without ever leaving your living room. Kiva started in 2005 and already has made loans to 378,862 people totaling $147,673,750. Over 80% are women and the repayment rate: 98.27%. These numbers are as of July 14, 2010. Other groups like Inventure Fund are taking their own approach to the microfinance craze and experimenting with some really cool ideas to bring out the best in investors, entrepreneurs, and the community.

Poverty sucks. I doubt you will find much disagreement. It is romanticized only by fools. But having been on the ground, what upsets me aside from this unnecessary poverty is the fact that we are failing the people living in this context in other ways when we fail to share stories of success in the battle against poverty. But don’t take my word for it, take 30 seconds to watch a video from “The Living Proof Project” from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: evidence impatient idealism can improve the world.

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