As a masters’ student in development economics, I learned the technical requirements developing economies need to achieve “parity” to advance out of poverty. Simply put I gained the basic understanding around what it means to ‘have’ and what it means to ‘have not’. Success in development is often defined academically by improving current standards of living and economic health, although the baselines from which these incremental changes are measured differ depending on the region and community.
Development economists spend their careers shifting paradigms and building financial infrastructure, including determining what incentives will help the impoverished achieve a level of income that extends beyond their basic needs. In crafting the appropriate interventions, the fundamentals of economics, including comparative advantage, scenario optimization and basic market theories, often overshadow the more human elements of what poor communities grapple with every day to sustain a living or how they define their own success and contentment. For example a smallholder farmer working toward his/her next harvest may be unable to think about whether his/her time is better used making honey when his/her family lives hand to mouth. Who is a development expert to come in and tell him/her to change his/her ways because they studied a theory around income diversification in a building 6,000 miles away?
In that vein, I found myself in a rich and uncharted conversation with the head of an organization that provides farmer technical assistance to rural, very poor communities. For the sake of this example let’s call his nonprofit, ABC.org. Our discussion turned to a conversation he had with a woman who was interviewed as part of ABC.org’s ongoing monitoring and evaluation. She was elated to report that her income had improved over the last year thanks to the help of ABC.org’s assistance and her family was able to save a bit of money for the future. Certainly that sounds like success in the most basic economic terms. Isn't sustainability defined as being better off tomorrow than today?
Then she asked a question: “When will I have enough money to buy a car?” In principal, this is not a silly question. Yet this woman barely had a roof over her head. Her family was considered among the poorest in her country and had virtually enough food to eat to ward off disease and malnutrition. Surely a car seems like a pretty far off scenario for her. The head of ABC.org was taken aback by this question and felt almost discouraged. “Why put so much work into ensuring a future for this family when all the woman wants is a car?” he said. “Is the Western culture so pervasive that a car is the ultimate sign of success?” This left me questioning a couple of things:
Development is a massive business, and thousands of nonprofits work with budgets in the billions thanks to grants from governments, foundations and companies to improve the status quo in developing countries. When the money is spent and efforts have ceased, how will we know if we have been successful? Will we know when those who are living on $1 a day can afford to buy a car?
Ultimately it is up to the individuals themselves to determine what propels them to strive for more, to work harder, to identify the challenges they must overcome to live a better life. Some may be content without much, simply the basics. “Parity” may never be reached since there will always be someone who is better off than his or her neighbor. This does not mean that our efforts are for naught. It simply means that those of us working in development economics should be focused on helping the underserved find their value and contentment. That may be the best definition of success after all.
When my kids (ages 5 and 3) asked me if we could host a lemonade stand in our neighborhood during their summer break, I thought it would be a great opportunity to teach them a lesson in basic economics. Testing a bit of supply and demand theory, we tried a few lemonade stands first, getting a feel for pricing and purchasing. Our sale was a grand success and the kids brought in $33 in gross profit. Having determined in advance that we would give a portion of our profits to charity, I found that our little economic lesson also allowed me to teach my children the basics about philanthropy.
"What's a charity?" they both asked. It felt difficult to explain, and I weighed my words carefully. My children have seen homeless men and women on the street, asking for money, food, etc. Each time we give money and each time my husband and I carefully try to explain why it is that some people go without the basics that we are so fortunate to have: a bed to sleep in, food to eat, and toys to play with. So in explaining charity I had to explain that a portion of our lemonade sales should go help these men, women and children that go without. Knowing that both my husband and I work in a space of philanthropy (my husband with veterans, and I with developing economy communities), my oldest son asked if my husband and I work for charities. I explained that while we do not work 'for' charities, we work for people that need our help as charities do too. That seemed to quell his curiosity. Hoping that my words sank in, we moved onto what our conversations generally revolve around these days: baseball.
This week, I was reminded to revisit our lemonade lessons when I read an article posted by Melinda Gates' twitter feed written by Paul Sullivan at the New York Times. The article, "Learning Young the Gift of Helping Others" explained how giving back is becoming a more ingrained value in our family routines, and that children are increasingly learning the importance of philanthropy at younger ages. Sure the priority placed on giving back comes from the parent, but more and more children are making decisions about charitable giving and volunteerism on their own. Couple that with an education system that is building curriculum around philanthropy increasingly into its plans, and young children are apt to surpass their parents in charitable giving over the next few decades.
Personally I feel that giving back is incredibly rewarding, which is why I have built my career around the notion that every little bit I can give, I will. Although I try and make the distinction between outright charity and the need to build new economic development frameworks in places that are suffering from poverty and an overall lack of worth. The paradox of teaching a man (or woman) to fish is to me the most critical lesson to be had in philanthropy. One can give a man or woman endless supplies of fish, but until s/he learns the skill of fishing for him/herself, the fish will eventually run out. Therefore in teaching our children the lesson of giving back, it is equally as important to teach the lesson of knowledge share, patience, kindness, empathy and dedication to a cause as it is to teach the value of a donation. For underserved populations to thrive and achieve economic stability, providing resources is necessary, but providing a framework for those resources to lead to success is even more.
My children and I have yet to deliver our lemonade sales to a charity. I am weighing our options quite carefully and frankly want my children to find the right fit. As we were driving to camp this morning, dancing and singing loudly to our morning songs, my youngest son stopped as soon as he spotted a man on the street holding a sign and asking for money. He asked me if that man had a bed to sleep in, food to eat or toys to play with. I answered that he may not. Both my sons paused for a minute. I could almost hear their brains churning with the thought about what it would be like to not sleep in a warm bed, eat food for each meal or have toys to play with. That feeling of empathy is the greatest gift I can give as a parent, a woman and professional. Hopefully it means that as we determine where our lemonade money would be best utilized, not only am I teaching my children the critical importance of charity, I am teaching them the role we can play in helping others learn the skills they need to fish.
For more inspiration, watch this video from the brilliant minds at Nice and Serious which gave me the impetus to write this article.