Thursday, October 28, 2010

Celebrating Experts

When we in the West think of people in poverty, we often picture the bloated
bellies of malnourished children and the tears of their helpless mothers, people inflicted
with starvation, disease and despair. We envision conflict and bloodshed, gun-toting
toddlers and their ruthless guerrilla leaders. We pity these people who must desperately
need our wisdom and money. Many think that because we live in a more “sophisticated”
and “developed” part of the world our ways must be superior to theirs. If this is true, we
ought to share our methods for success and resources with the poor to deliver them from
their own ignorance and suffering. It is our responsibility to lift them from their depths
of despair. Easterly calls this “the white man’s burden,” I think of it as being something
more akin to ethnocentrism.

The world has seen decades of unproductive aid, much of which has caused
more damage than good. This savior attitude is not an effective way to address poverty
alleviation and development. When we embrace a top-down stance on development, we
perpetuate a great lie, assuming that human beings are innately stupid. We negate the
dignity and personal worth of those we claim we are trying to help, teaching them that
they are incapable and doomed to fail without our input.

I believe it’s time for a new perspective. Rather than entering an environment
imposing all the “right” answers, I see development as a means of helping people to
recognize their own potential, building human capacity while encouraging community
solutions. Contrary to popular belief, people in poverty are generally not in poverty
because they choose to be, but rather because they lack the opportunities to pull
themselves out. Development should seek to open doors that have previously been shut,
embracing local solutions while building skills and self-reliance among community
members rather than dictating what should be done.

Helping to connect skilled artisans throughout the developing world, Elevita aims to do just that--provide opportunities for hardworking, talented people so that they can pull themselves out of poverty. Development work needs to be participatory and empowering in its nature. It should seek to nourish self-reliance, allowing people to come up with their own solutions. Supporting local businesses, Elevita aims to do the same thing by providing a market for gifted artisans so that they can accomplish their own goals. Elevita embraces the expertise of local people in their own development, recognizing that it is the people who know best their own dreams and desires, their strengths as well as their limits.

In the words of the great Dr. Yunus, “Each of us has much more hidden inside us
than we have had a chance to explore. Unless we create an environment that enables us
to discover the limits of our potential, we will never know what we have inside of us.”
Let us work together to create these environments of which Dr. Yunus speaks, to create
opportunities where all can learn what is really inside of them and discover their limitless

In Ghana, West Africa local experts batik beautiful fabrics

They start by first creating stamps out of sponges, often incorporating symbols such as Gye Nyame which means "Except God" or Sankofa which alludes to learning from the past

The sponge is then dipped into paraffin wax and pressed firmly onto the fabric, creating an intricate pattern
Next the fabric is dyed...
and then boiled to melt off the wax
Finally the fabric is hung to dry and the fabric is finished

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stepping Back And Taking Two New Views

As I have watched and participated in the start-up of Elevita, I have been struck by many realizations. Two of these realizations are as follows. One of Elevita's goals is to constructively address a basic problem: members of our species are not able to live out their lives because their time here on earth is cut short because of the poverty they experience. For me, there is a very profound disconnect inherent to this fact about our species. The disconnect is that almost anyone who has studied the issues related to poverty agrees that there is not a shortage of resources. There is enough food. There is enough medical care. The problem, and I realize that I am simplifying a very complex set of issues, is that we choose, as a species, to not work out the policy and distribution mechanisms that would make food and healthcare available to all.

The second realization is that governments are less and less able to take the steps necessary to help our species alleviate the poverty that influences so many people. I am not going to speculate about why this is. While Elevita is a non-profit, it functions through markets. It buys from companies. It sells through market-based mechanisms.

My sense is that if our species is likely to ameliorate the influences of poverty in the next few generations, the main driver of this change will be that we accept that markets are the main driver of economic change and innovation. I congratulate Elevita for accepting this basic assumption and applaud the fabulous efforts of those who have helped build this entity and those who are supporting its development.

Monday, October 11, 2010

There Is A Need

I had the remarkable opportunity to spend a month in India this summer. Before I left, I prepared myself for what I thought I would see there. I have seen other developing countries and the poverty that is rampant there, so my immediate assumption was that India would be the same.

But nothing could have been more wrong. India has poverty, but at a scale that is very unimaginable before you see it. In 2003, the United Nations Human Development Report cited India as being the home for more hungry people than anywhere else in the world, and that is including if you connect all of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Quite frankly, it wasn't something I was ready for. To see the hungry faces of children, mothers, and father shook me to the core. It wasn't just devastating, it was something that needed addressing.

That is why I got involved with Elevita. While I was in India, I gave what I could to shaking hands attached to hungry mouths. But now that I am home I need somewhat to stay connected to that. To address a need that is so great, it can not go ignored in my life. Elevita provides an opportunity to take actions, that though small as parts, can make great changes as a whole.