Getting Better vs. Getting Out

While taking a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Subsistence Marketplaces, I watched a cut-down version of the movie Shakti Rising ( The movie portrays a woman who manages to start a small business with the help of fellow women in her village, and despite the problems presented by her husband. It is a feel-good movie that is designed to depict the way poor people are expected to pull themselves out of poverty. At one point, the main characters stands up and makes an impassioned speech, urging the rest of the women of the village to stop waiting for someone to help them, instead they must help themselves.

This is a good message and a very true statement – poor people must participate in their own journey out of poverty. The movie does a very good job of depicting that journey in a way that illustrates many of the activities poor people all over the world are told to emulate. What the movie does not address is the fact that the main character and her family are not moved out of poverty, but merely removed from the brink of homelessness and potential death.

There is a significant difference between getting better and getting out. Networking with people in poverty, making friends and professional contacts with people who are not in poverty, landing a minimum wage job and starting a business that pay just enough to keep the family fed all lead to improvements on what came before, but they do not fully address the needs of the people living in those situations.

Sometimes a person gets lucky. He or she lands a good job or starts a business that takes off. These success stories are both cause for celebration and caution, because they are rare. More often than not, these activities will get changes started and help a person move in the right direction, but without additional resources and opportunities, the process inevitably falls short. In the end, the individual or family does not jump into the middle class, instead they just move up a step or two within the lower class.

Getting out requires more than networking. There is a long list of resources needed by poor people everywhere. Things like access to education, reliable public transportation, clean water, good quality and affordable food, affordable housing, accessible health care… The list goes on and on. The problem is that these things are not cheap and simply giving them away is not realistic. Providing people with the necessities must, somehow, be done within a sustainable framework, so that these individuals can care for themselves, without handouts from non-profits, NGOs or government agencies.

Teaching a man to fish has no value in the desert. Invariably, someone will recite the old adage: “…teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Again, this philosophy has inherent value and providing good quality and accessible education to people in poverty is an absolute necessity. However, an education alone will not draw a person out of poverty. Having an advanced degree does not guarantee a job, much less a good paying job. Being an expert welder is of no use when the local factory closes its doors or pulls up roots and moves all manufacturing to another country.

Dependence on handouts is neither desirable nor helpful. Simply providing people handouts and covering bare-minimum needs for a lifetime also does very little to get people out of poverty and into an economically sustainable situation. These things are necessary and there are times when people must rely upon them, but providing a helping hand during an emergency and fostering helplessness are two different things.

Self-sustaining economic cycles are key. A scenario that would truly change the landscape of poverty over the long-term is one that creates an economic, environmental and social cycle that is fully self-sufficient.

Using the movie Shakti Rising as an example, if the village moved its focus away from starting businesses that make money (mostly through the sale of items outside of the village) and onto the work the needed to be done within the village:

  1. The people had farms and knew farming, yet the community was struggling to find enough food to feed themselves.
  2. The women were constantly worrying about paying for the education and weddings of their children, while making items that others purchased for use at weddings.

In addition to the items presented in the (shortened version) of the movie, there are other common issues, such as:

  1. Accessing and paying for energy resources (e.g.: heat, cooking, electronic equipment, etc).
  2. Accessing and paying for health care.
  3. Accessing and paying for education.
  4. Accessing and paying for public transportation.

If we approach all of these problems as a village issue that must be (eventually) addressed by members of that particular community, then it becomes a matter of work distribution. This concept is partially addressed in the movie through the main character seeking out and identifying something that people want, and building a business around that one item. Take that basic concept and apply it t the group, as a whole.

Eventually (ideally), the village will host a variety of businesses that serve the needs of the people within the village. They would be able to supply themselves with food, clothing, energy, education and health care without assistance from the government or other outside entities. Some examples of ways such a scenario might look:

  1. A collection of small businesses that supply to each other and to the families in the area. The businesses specifically focus on the basic needs of the community and make meeting those needs a top priority.
  2. Self-sustaining energy training, along with new resources installed in homes and businesses. During the installation of these technologies/resources, the locals were trained in maintaining, and even building from scratch, the items installed. Solar panels are wonderful until they break down, but some basic training in how solar energy works, and participation in solar-based recycling projects (e.g.: heating water in plastic bottles), can provide the skills necessary to not only repair the technology but replace it with something else in an emergency.
  3. A local doctor whose primary job is serving the people in this village, monitoring the general health of the village and communicating with health agencies or other doctors when necessary.

The network of businesses, all of which are focused on serving the village first, would support one another economically and socially. The right number and variety of businesses would create a self-sustaining economic web that could remain resilient during economic downturns and natural disasters.

Purposely providing or seeking out practical education or training, based on the village needs, provides both income possibilities and increased self-sufficiency. Because a limited number of people who have the aptitude and opportunity to pursue medical training, so the village could expect to have a doctor and a nurse at the most. However, every able bodied adult could learn the basic science behind solar power and the basic skills needed to maintain solar panels. If solar power were introduced in the village, then this kind of common knowledge would be both logical and necessary, while advanced knowledge and the skills needed to truly repair a damaged solar panel would be something one or two people might be able to pursue.

Another aspect of self-sufficiency is the reduction of waste. The skills needed can (should?) include teaching people how to use all of the items at hand to meet basic needs, create products that can be sold, and reduce the possibility of disease-causing and environment-destroying filth. An example that is more appropriate to households in the USA is biofuel. It is possible to create diesel fuel out of used vegetable oil. This fuel can be used to run a car, heat a home or run gardening/farming equipment. However, most families throw away used vegetable oil and pay for fuel. Installing the equipment, providing the training and allowing access to the tools necessary to not only create biofuel but also to repair the equipment, not only reduces costs – it creates a self-sustaining cycle.

Ultimately, what is most important, is establishing a cycle of self-sustaining economics built around the basic needs of the people living in a very specific, and relatively small community. As long as the participants always maintained a culture of inter-support and a conscious focus on making the needs of the village a top priority, the cycle remains strong. This strength provides the members of the community with the ability to pursue additional opportunities outside the community.

The village cannot reach this point without outside help. The government, non-profits, NGOs and community members all must play a part. Money and resources needed to get to the point of self-sufficiency would come, primarily, from the outside, however, if the project were done properly, the involvement would immediately start to back off, once the village had reached the point where self-sufficiency were possible.  Eventually, assistance would be completely removed and the village would return to be an entity working together to survive, but the economic and resource cycle established to address the community needs would have moved beyond a subsistence existence.

In short: poverty is a cycle. Changing the nature of the cycle and the resources contained within that cycle, allows us to use the cyclical nature of economic status to our advantage.

Also, we must never assume that the establishment of a working cycle removes the possibility for the need of assistance in the future. Ultimately, social services are necessary. The objective is to reduce the need for assistance to those individuals and situations who are facing an emergency situation, instead of an emergency life. Aggressively address the cycles of poverty and, eventually, it will be possible, to focus assistance efforts on the people facing (hopefully) uncommon emergency situations.

(C) Adora Myers 2014

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