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I have been fortunate enough to work for a major international NGO for the past nine-plus years. We are focused on eradicating poverty at the systemic level — by addressing the social, economic, and political structures that perpetuate poverty and injustice. I’ve learned a LOT about how complex, interlocking and interdependent systems create and perpetuate poverty, as well as how to change those systems.

Another thing I’ve learned — which is reflected in this article — is that poor people are anything but stupid. The choices they may make seem “bad” to us who make those same choices under very different circumstances. To people living in poverty, those choices are very rational and carefully reasoned. Scarcity is certainly part of it, as well as the resulting stress, lack of nutrition, and lack of education. These are all relevant. But it is also a mindset — a consciousness — that prevents most people living in poverty from realizing there’s even an alternative, or strategies for getting out of it.

Once communities are introduced to these strategies, and have some hope for permanent change, they are as ingenious as anyone at taking the reins and solving their own problems. I highly recommend the book Poor Economics, by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. It’s rich with data and a compelling narrative exploring their years of field research into how the minds of people living in poverty work and reason. It’s fascinating and eye-opening. (They also have a website: http://pooreconomics.com.)

What’s wrong with most approaches to poverty intervention is that they treat symptoms rather than underlying, endemic, systemic causes. It’s very popular in the nonprofit world to raise money for a specific thing — a school in Tanzania, or textbooks for kids in Nicaragua — and those are worthwhile things to do, and in some cases they may even change a few lives for the better. Rarely does one ask, “Why is there no school in that community?” “Why do these children not have books?” “Why is there no clean water?” It quickly starts to feel hopeless once you start to unravel the probable causes, but make no mistake: It’s not by choice.

If there’s one thing I have come to believe almost religiously since working in this field, it’s that empowering people to claim their human rights and helping them to understand what those rights are and how to use them unlocks amazing potential that is otherwise dormant and untapped. If people are poor, it’s usually because their poverty is benefiting someone else. They may have a vague understanding of that, but little awareness of how to change it. Show them how to change it, and they will.

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