Five years ago when I entered graduate school at UCSD I knew I was there for different reasons than everyone else. Like many in my graduate program I was passionate about eradicating poverty but what was different was how I wanted to do it. Even before I entered the program I knew that there were two options for those interested in international development. Either you go work for a non-profit or go after highly prized and competitive positions in the Foreign Service or other government organizations. Neither of those two paths appealed to me. Not because there isn’t interesting work to be done or because the salary might not be enough. It can down to the simple fact that the cumulative efforts of all these organizations has amounted to very little.
Billions upon billions of dollars have been sent over to Africa, yet what is there to show for it? Small successes are there but nothing has fundamentally changed. What was harder for me to get past was that there is little desire within these organizations to change and adapt. How do you constructively criticize people when they are building schools and health clinics for the poor? We hear all the time about how is organization is transforming the lives of so many yet Africa is in the exact same place as when Westerners starting helping them. If all the rosy pictures portrayed by these same organizations were true than we would have more to show for it than smiling pictures of aid recipients. While these people are well intentioned, when it comes down to it they are only interested in results if it comes their way. Rather than stepping back to re-evaluate, they dig in their heels and bunker down.
While I am not fully against international aid, it is clear that it is not the solution. (China has received no international aid yet has lifted 400 million people out of extreme poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa has received billions in aid and the number of people living in extreme poverty has increased.) Each year in the US, roughly 2% of our gross national income is donated to nonprofits. That figure hasn’t changed since it has been measured. All nonprofits are essentially fighting over the same pot of money that will only get bigger if wealth is created elsewhere. My thought has always been, what about the other 98%? Wealth can be created so why is this area dominated by people only looking to redistribute wealth instead of creating it?
Looking at the situation from another angle, consumers are hungry for products that capture the value of the people who are producing it. Virtually all products are produced outside of the United States by the very sample people and communities that aid is often directed towards. Business offers a far more efficient and democratic process to direct benefits to people in need. Since the aftermath of the anti-sweatshop movement, businesses have embarked on a process removing themselves from direct contact to these production facilities in order to reduce their risk for something going wrong. Today, we desire a reversal of that. We want products that reflect all of our needs and desires beyond the physical utility of a product. We want products that have a face to them. Products that sell an idea. An idea that the product goes beyond serving the consumer’s physical needs but their spiritual and social needs as well.
In order to do that it requires businesses to have a presence working directly with those in need. Rather than contracting with production facilities in developing countries, businesses need to be vertically integrated so that they have direct contact with the poor. Only then can companies capitalize on the potential that exists in helping those in need. And only then can we move from trying to “do good” to achieving results. Constructing the environment for the poor to thrive is far more than aid but building the institutions that allow people to fulfill their potential.
It has been these guiding principles that have sent me on my journey these past few years. While working full time for the past three years I am been networking constantly to find the right opportunity to pursue this passion of mine. After multiple trips to Mexico and my most recent trip to East Africa I have finally found an opportunity to sink my teeth into.
About a month ago I accepted a position as the Director of Business with 31 Bits. 31 Bits is a socially driven company in Gulu, Uganda that hires disadvantaged women to produce jewelry to be sold in the United States. More than simply producing jewelry, 31 Bits does a variety of work in Uganda to impact the community beyond creating jobs to produce a product to be sold in the United States. The company embodies the desire to connect American consumers to the enrichment of a poor community in Africa and does it through (among other things) a 5-year woman empowerment program while employing the women to produce a quality product.
This Sunday, September 28th, I will be moving to northern Uganda to manage the finances of the production facility of 31 Bits. In this role I will have a variety of tasks from conducting bank reconciliations to serving in some HR responsibilities. Roughly 200 people (virtually all local Ugandans) are employed in the facility and the company has shown consistent growth year over year.
In addition to these daily duties, I plan to be involved in helping to define what it means for 31 Bits to pursue social impact in a for profit business. 31 Bits does a lot of great things but also has a lot in their model that does not directly add to what the business does. While they are a for profit company, much of what they do can be considered charity. The legal status of a company does not change how the poor perceive their actions. My biggest concern prior to applying was the mentality that often comes with socially driven work. As rich Americans we often step into a community subconsciously thinking we know what is best for them rather than spending the time to analyze, learn, and simply ask them. We shouldn’t engage with the poor to help them but to work with them. They don’t need our help. They need dignity and respect. Engaging them in business treats them as equals where all individuals have something to contribute.
What set 31 Bits apart after multiple discussions with the company’s founder was the understanding that difficult decisions need to be made because people are better off in the end. The simple and easy solutions are almost never the right ones. The desire to find solutions to poverty and the constant learning that is occurring within the business is incredibly rare in this field. It is the perfect environment for someone like myself to step into with both my background in business and development. I will ask questions and challenge the status quo because the situation of the poor demands it. I don’t have all the answers but in a constructive environment like 31 Bits I am confident to find them.