The University of Pennsylvania did an experiment where students were given $5 for fill out of short survey and then shown two flyers from Save the Children asking them for a donation. The first flyer detailed the global poverty problem with 3 million children in Malawi facing malnutrition along with drought in Zambia and 11 million needed immediate food assistance in Ethiopia. This flyer raised on average $1.16 from the students. A second flyer had a picture of a 7 year old girl from Mali who is poor, uneducated, facing severe hunger, etc. This flyer raised on average $2.83.
This experiment highlighted the overwhelming feeling we can get with large issues like global poverty. We can all agree that poverty effects a billion plus people on this planet but the enormity of poverty makes us feel helpless. Conversely, when we are able to put a face to the problem and emotionally connect to an individual we feel like we can make a difference. This is natural and no reason to think people who act differently but there is one important problem. Taking on poverty one-by-one will never solve poverty.
Last year the University of Chicago published an article in the Journal of Political Economy stating that while official numbers are hard to come by, roughly 9 million children are being sponsored worldwide. This is great until we look at the numbers released by the World Health Organization which show that 100 to 140 million children are Vitamin A deficient, 2 billion people are iron deficient, and over 700 million are iodine deficient resulting in at least 50 million with mental impairments just due to the lack of iodine. Now that is only a few issues and shows exactly why we become overwhelmed with poverty and that hopeless feeling starts to sink in as it is obvious that even the best organizations barely make a dent in the real problem.
Now don’t go pulling your child sponsorships or stop giving. That is not the message at all. My dad actually told me yesterday he is sponsoring a child in Rwanda through Compassion International (who I personally would recommend for child sponsorship) and I think that is awesome. It is not my dad’s fault or anyone else’s for the unambitious options presented in front of them. People care about the poor and genuinely want to make a difference but let’s be honest, you are presented with crap options.
The fault lies in the people who give you these options who are often themselves overwhelmed with the full picture of poverty. The problem is too big therefore we limit what we believe is possible and focus on something that we know we can attain rather than have the belief that something bigger is possible. Many people start with the notion that poverty is too big and therefore they change what success means. “I can’t help a million kids so I am going to help 50 and the world will be better for it” so the logic goes. It is incredible how easy it can be to ignore what you are saying now to. The 999,950 kids who that person doesn’t help have real faces, real stories, and real troubles but we feel happy that we were able to help 50 kids and ignore the rest.
Non-profits and NGOs are structurally challenged to be able to scale. After all they are largely donor driven and fighting over the same pot of money that does expand. Business on the other hand does not have those constraints, yet so often businesses trying to “do good” experience the same overwhelming feeling that poverty gives us. They want to stay small and see change with their own eyes. They still want to employ and serve the poorest of the poor even though the costs of doing so to the business may outweigh the benefits. Again, this sounds great until we acknowledge by staying small and not expanding we are saying to the millions who we don’t employ and serve that we don’t have a solution for you. We are deciding to remain ignorant of the fact that people outside or organization are hurting and we can do something about it. The definition of success in socially driven businesses turns into what the owners can personally see. They set the bar low so they know they can achieve it.
It is a tragedy seeing people in Africa who are been excessively marginalized and faced more problems than we can possible imagine. Organizations like Save the Children or Compassion International and others can and should exist to serve them. But isn’t it also a tragedy seen able bodied people with God given talents and abilities to job or outlet to apply themselves in? Isn’t it a tragedy that the same people will never see their full potential? Where are the organizations and businesses helping them? We can’t be afraid of the enormity of poverty if we are honest about making a difference. When we don’t see the poor in front of us is it easy to ignore them. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, many people working out here ignore what they don’t think they can solve. There are people with great hearts and intentions out here but we need more ambition. The poor deserve more ambition.