It’s easy to grapple with poverty when the only time we have to think about it is while watching cute African kids play soccer in World Cup ads or deciding what color of TOMS to buy.
Poverty has been neatly glamorized by the commercialization of philanthropy, sold in large part to millennials like me. Adorable children and farmers with white toothy smiles adorn glossy literature and flashy websites encouraging us to donate. Celeb-humanitarians Bono and Angeline Jolie pose next to jeeps and bush planes in developing-world vistas for Louis Vuitton ads. Conscious-consumer products allow us to believe that the $13.00 bag of fair-trade coffee we buy at Whole Foods was sourced from a justly-compensated farmer and the water bottle we pick up at the checkout counter will help build wells in West Africa. Both the attractive commercial solutions and poverty itself have been packaged for our polite consumption and ease of mind.
In high school, I wore an Invisible Children bracelet, partly because it looked cool and partly because I was disturbed by what I learned about child soldiers at a Youth and Government conference. In college, I changed my profile picture and bought a t-shirt following the devastating 2010 earthquake that hit Haiti. I thought my occasional $10.00-$20.00 contribution and obligatory Facebook posts were making a difference, and I could feel better knowing that I was doing my part. I essentially thought of poverty as a problem that could be solved, if only for a few more bake sales and retweets.
The reality is that poverty is complicated – “rocket science,” in the words of Richard Stearns, president of the international aid organization World Vision:
Poverty, whether here in America or abroad, is one of the oldest and most complex problems plaguing the human race. It is tangled in social, cultural, economic, political, ethnic, geographic, and spiritual factors that challenge even the most skilled experts. Simple solutions just don’t work, and well-meaning amateurs can not only waste valuable resources but even cause unintended harm in their efforts.
But we live in a fast-paced, instant-gratification world that moves at the speed of Twitter, and popular culture seems able to get on board only with solutions that are easily digestible and seemingly complete. We love serving up tidy answers to amazingly complex problems to nip in the bud lines of compassionate, critical, and difficult thinking. Even in the development industry, which is supposedly filled with poverty experts and humanitarians, trendy methodologies and technologies are announced at yearly conferences and then abandoned with the Next Big Thing.
Shortly after I graduated from college in 2011, I moved to Haiti to work at a microfinance bank. We work with thousands of women throughout rural Haiti helping them start small businesses and providing them with the basic education they missed out on as children because they couldn't afford to attend school. Many of our clients live in packed-earth or tin-walled houses in areas that may not have running water or electricity for another 50 years. Disease, chronic illness, and a lack of basic medical care exacerbate many families’ situations, and a breadwinner falling ill can drive a family even deeper into poverty. Even once our clients have worked for years to build up assets, taking on larger loans to finance their growing businesses, they still face the threat of increasingly frequent hurricanes that can destroy homes and workplaces overnight, an outcome of living in a country so vulnerable to climate change.
Living in the “Republic of NGOs” has been a bit of a revelation. Thousands of aid workers drive around in white SUVs and sleep in walled compounds, all working on a variety of seemingly uncoordinated projects. Billions have been spent here since 2010; and at a high level, it still doesn’t feel like much has changed. It’s easy to become cynical over beers with friends once you realize that the problems you’re trying to help solve go far beyond your initial comprehension and are often overwhelming.
As bleak as the challenges Haitians face and the global ‘poverty problem’ may sometimes seem, they are anything but hopeless. The advent of rigorous field research and randomized control trials at organizations like MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, for instance, are changing the way we think about poverty. A program that my organization runs with the global health NGO Partners in Health is designed to serve women on the margins of Haitian society — those too impoverished to take out an initial micro-loan of just $25.00. It has shown dramatic results in key areas like food security and children’s school attendance. In East Africa, One Acre Fund has developed a program that doubles the output of smallholder farms through a hybrid microfinance and technical-assistance model. These innovations have taken years to develop, and there’s no guarantee that they would work beyond their existing scope. The ability to scale initiatives like these to regional and global levels is the next great challenge.
Access to information about what’s going on in the world and our ability to say and do something about it has never been greater. It’s an amazing time to be someone who cares, but we have to understand that simply caring is not enough. Raising awareness does not equal effective action. If the millennial generation is going to be the one that demands basic human rights for every person, eradicates senseless mortality from treatable diseases, and nurses the environment we live in back to life, we’re going to have to meet poverty head-on, with all of its complexities and implications. We’re going to have to develop the humility to accept that poverty doesn’t have a quick fix; it’s a political and economic Rubik’s Cube that predates Adam Smith.
Tomorrow, billions of people will get by on less than half of what your Starbucks cost this morning. No fancy t-shirt is going to change that, but combining the critical thinking that the poverty puzzle demands with empathy for the poor is a worthwhile first step.