50 Years Ago MLK Said We Had The Resources To End Poverty. So Why Does It Still Exist?

The day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he delivered a Nobel Lecture entitled, The Quest for Peace and Justice, during which he declared, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

Now, more than 50 years later — and after trillions of dollars have been spent — poverty is still a major global problem. In fact, one measure estimates that 30 percent of the world currently lives in poverty. So what happened? If we had the resources to end poverty in 1964, why hasn’t it been abolished by now?

Hundreds of theories could be offered as explanations or excuses, but I think one shortcoming has been our failure to come up with effective solutions, namely because we have not fully understood poverty and why it exists.

We tend to assume that poor people are poor because they lack money. After all, lack of money is a symptom of poverty, and income is often used to diagnose and measure poverty. But poverty is not caused by lack of money; it’s caused by an inability to make a living. That distinction might seem minor, but it’s crucial when designing solutions.

When our assessments of the needs of the poor are based on what we observe at a superficial level, we end up giving the poor what we think they should have — which is not always what they actually need. For example, money, food, and medicine may provide temporary aid, but will not ultimately alleviate poverty. Educating children is a potentially effective strategy for escaping future poverty, but it does not tackle the reason that poverty exists now. Poor people are poor because they lack livelihoods; they lack opportunity for earning sufficient money in order to live. And that lack of opportunity has to do with some fundamental issues.

In my experience, for many of the world’s poor, the biggest problems they face have to do with satisfying basic needs. They lack clean water, they lack shelter and safety, they lack access to electricity, and they lack access to healthcare. Once those needs are met, people are better able to sustain themselves and their families, to find work, have good health, and to pursue education, steady jobs, and even entrepreneurship. When people are given choice and opportunity, they are then better able to meet their higher level human needs for competence, autonomy, and belongingness — pillars of wellbeing. But it all starts with the fundamentals.

It’s that perspective that underlies what our team is working on at Stage 2 Innovations, an invention shop dedicated to finding and developing products aimed at addressing the most pressing problems facing humanity in the areas of energy, water, and health. Our products provide households with the actual resources they say they need — like affordable electricity and clean water suitable for drinking and agriculture — in order to escape the cycle of perpetual poverty and step into opportunities for long-term livelihoods.

This month we will begin deploying our Free Electric bike to villages in rural India that lack access to reliable electricity. Free Electric is a low-cost, easy-to-operate stationary bicycle that, when pedaled for an hour, provides 24 hours worth of electricity — all without pollution and without a utility bill. Access to free electricity at any time of day or night, regardless of the weather, will open up all kinds of opportunities for hundreds of millions of people to improve their lives — in terms of productivity, health, education, and making their own livelihoods. Our goal is to have manufacturing and distribution centers in strategic places around the globe in order to address extreme poverty wherever it exists.

Dr. King’s declaration about having the resources to end poverty is truer now than ever. It’s our duty to spend those resources in ways that reflect our understanding of the problem, and in service of those in need of real solutions.