Good intentions are not good enough. Everyone wants to see extreme poverty alleviated, but too often, well-meaning do-gooders believe that good intentions and their carefully crafted solutions are sufficient. But poverty is more than just a material issue; the poor are more than a set of problems to solve.
I turned 60 a couple years ago. I hadn’t struggled with starting milestone decades before, but the decade with a 6-handle felt different. It meant I was entering the fourth quarter, and there wasn’t going to be overtime.
What changed the most was a newfound, palpable sense of urgency to focus on the things I said I would do but hadn’t. The big things. The things that needed to get done.
One of those things was writing this book about my journey to start a paradigm-shifting solution to extreme poverty.
When we started 410 Bridge in 2006, we knew we wouldn’t be successful without the generous support from this side of the bridge. What wasn’t so obvious at the time, but quickly became clear, was that while Western support was essential, it wasn’t enough. If we were really going to make a difference, we needed to change the paradigm of how the West engaged the poor. This book plays an important role in that. It tells the story of how 410 Bridge came to be and lays out an approach to extreme poverty that doesn’t see the poor and as a set of problems to be solved – a water, education, economic, or health problem. It sees the poor as the solution to their poverty problem.
One of the most rewarding aspects of our work and writing this book is sharing stories of real impact on real people. I’ve been extremely blessed to meet some incredible people over the years. Their stories of struggle and triumph are why I do what I do.
In my book, I try to convey a fundamental principle – a way of thinking that changes how we engage the poor. That principle was spawned from a question I was asked by a mentor many years ago. He asked, “Do you believe that the poor are the solution to their poverty problem?”
I had to think long and hard about that question because the natural gravitational pull in our work is toward the problems the poor face – water, education, economic empowerment, etc. The lie is that if we solve those problems, we solve the poverty problem. I found that not to be true.
We say it this way… The poor are not a set of problems to be solved. They are the solution to their poverty problem. If we truly embrace that concept, it changes how we engage to help.
A particular story that stands out is the story of Stephen and Sabina. Stephen was a drunkard, a terrible husband, father, and citizen in his community. He had little hope for a better life for his family and spent his days drinking with the other men in his community.
Sabina, relegated to being the sole provider for her family, could make ends meet, especially with Stephen squandering what little she made on alcohol.
The catalyst for their transformation came from a farming training program for Stephen and business training for Sabina. While the training in skills and techniques was important, it wasn’t what helped them break the cycle of poverty. What helped them the most was the worldview shift – the story they were telling themselves to be true. That story…. Their worldview was driving the choices they made, and the choices they made drove the actions they took. They are an amazing couple with an amazing story.
Something unexpected I learned from this project is how it ends (spoiler alert!)
We employ 100% indigenous staff in all the countries where we work. These are the folks on the front lines doing the hard work. I asked them to imagine being in a room filled with Western donors. These donors had the capacity to help – both time and money – and they wanted to make a real difference. How would they finish these two sentences if they could tell them anything?
If you really want to help, start ______________
If you really want to help, stop ______________
Their answers are raw and convicting. If we really want to help, we would be well-served to listen to what they say.
Written by Kurt Kandler
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“But poverty is more than just a material issue; the poor are more than a set of problems to solve.”
Well written! Touching.
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