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The Solution to Poverty

Miss the previous update? Read it here.

I’ve discovered the solution to poverty on the grassroots level—for myself at least. It’s been discovered by others — and others helped me discover it — but through my work this year in India at the leprosy community, it’s particularly become clear.

I say on the grassroots level because poverty, of the financial sort, is unlikely to be solved anytime soon on the macro level—on the level of governments and economies. Perhaps though, with enough change on the person-to-person level, higher, more entrenched orders could transform as well.

The solution is not difficult to implement and is not bound to any geographic location—it is universally applicable. Let's check it out.

What is Poverty?

The concept of poverty is not 100% tied to your level of income. I’ve met high earners with comfortable lifestyles who seemed poor. Poor in the sense they carried high levels of anxiety, were unhappy, and found it difficult to be generous.

Conversely, I know families living in slum communities who survive on less than $100/month who are happy, generous, and untroubled.

At the root, the state of being poor, is more an attitude than it is a financial bracket. It’s a belief in scarcity, i.e., that there isn’t enough.

* * *

Life in the slum is hard.

The state of being poor, is more an attitude than it is a financial bracket.

You are living in a crudely constructed room, likely with several members of your family, all sleeping on a concrete or dirt floor. Your tenement is susceptible to the elements, does not hold up well against heavy rain. Will leak. Will get hot. Maybe you have electricity, maybe you don’t.

When you open the door to meet the world, you wonder if your home will be there at the end of the day, knowing a government bulldozer could come unannounced and tear it down. You wonder if you and your family are going to eat this day. Every day you earn (around $1/day), you eat. If you don’t earn, you don’t eat. If you don’t eat, you won’t sleep soundly, which makes the next day even harder.

slum-house

There is no sanitation system to remove waste. There is no drainage system to keep water from stagnating. Waste piles up and mixes with rain and household water and creates open sewers in your community. Malaria, Cholera and various viral infections are common, and you’ve seen children die from them. Money for doctors and medication may not be there.

You watch your neighbors turn to crime, drugs, alcohol, and prostitution.

You rue the fact your children are unable to receive a quality education, if any at all, almost guaranteeing the next generation will remain in poverty.

You watch government officials drive by in chauffeured, luxury cars and wonder why they aren’t stopping to help. You’ve witnessed or been on the receiving end of overt acts of corruption.

There isn’t enough, you say to yourself. Enough compassion. Enough love. Enough money. Enough food. Enough hope. Enough of anything to believe in.

Obviously, you have every reason to give up, stop caring, and let your life and environment go to waste. What’s the point of trying to improve anything when up against forces like this?

* * *

In the previous article about my work this year at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh in India, I wrote, “It’s actually not hard, practically speaking, to improve conditions in a slum. Able bodies are there. Cleaning supplies are there. Time is there. What’s hard is finding those willing to do it, those who care enough to act.”

We can never be fully corrupted, no matter how dire the situation.

That’s precisely what is so special about this community. There are a number of those individuals who care enough and are willing to work on improving their living conditions, even though there are many others who don’t share the same values, even though there are indications that any good work they do in the community will be quickly canceled out by those who litter, spit, don't use a toilet, etc.

The thing is — and this is a big part of the solution to poverty — even in the most hopeless of slum environments, you’re going to find people who care and want to work on improving the conditions of their community.

How do I know? First, I’ve seen it firsthand in four different countries. Number two, it’s because we all have hearts that want to do the right thing at the core. We can never be fully corrupted, no matter how dire the situation, and sometimes, specifically, it is because the situation is so dire that we flourish.

What you want to do as social worker, helping hand, or volunteer is find these people and encourage them, train them, and give them the tools they need to do the work they feel called to do.

Local Leadership

Members of a youth leadership group in action at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh.

Members of a youth leadership group in action at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh.

Admittedly, living conditions in our community of leprosy patients and their family members are not as harsh as conditions I’ve seen elsewhere. The kids are going to school. There are no open sewers, though the compound is not without its fair share of sanitation issues.

Despite having a number of beggars earning less than $1/day, nobody is routinely missing meals. Not everybody is living in tiny, one room homes. We have support from the local government and powerful, well resourced NGOs.

Despite these relatively favorable circumstances for a slum area community, the resignation and lack of care has, historically, been an issue here owing to the residents’ low level of education and income, belief they are low class members of society, and the unkind treatment they receive from others for either having the leprosy disease or for having family members with it.

It’s not uncommon for me to see people sleeping on the same floor in proximity to fresh animal waste or who let filthy areas of the compound go unswept for days. Littering and spitting, mostly among males, is common and also symptomatic, to me, of a resigned lack of care.

* * *

What I’ve done for the 17 or so months I’ve been living here, on the surface, doesn’t look like much or anything out of the ordinary. If you were to visit, you’d see me out sweeping with everybody else, fetching water, playing with kids, having meals, conducting meetings here and there, etc.

Through these routine activities however, relationships have formed—strong ones, close to familial. It is specifically because of these relationships, which have created trust, love, and respect that I’ve been able to start successful community development initiatives, like building a children’s playground, starting a vegetable garden, and community-wide days of sanitation.

More importantly, perhaps, these relationships have allowed values to be transferred. If I wasn’t respected or trusted, then any values I have to share would equally not find open arms.

(Creating this kind of trust would be another key to solving the poverty mindset.)

In 2011, with little development experience or understanding of the dynamics of poverty, I still had the sense to focus on a talented group of young kids to help develop their natural leadership skills and caring characters, with the idea to plant seeds for future leaders inside of the community, noticing strong leadership was absent for the reasons mentioned above.

It was a good hunch and a successful experiment and, as I reported last time, had the interesting effect of inspiring a separate group, made up of young adults, to form when I was in Africa last year, who are following a similar kind of mission. It’s this new group that has been my focus this year.

Change is now coming from within the community on its own.

The major difference between the two is age—the new group is older, mostly in their late teens to early 20s. Their practical influence in the community is greater, which clearly threw the opportunity into focus. With a little organization, support, and encouragement, they could be the cause for a virtuous cycle of change that could transform the community from the inside-out. In a way, solving the poverty mentality.

The members start taking their education more seriously. They take charge of sanitation problems in the community. They adopt good habits and values. Some, eventually, become community leaders. Then, they share their habits and values forward with the younger generation. The younger generation grows up with these habits and values and repeats the cycle.

All that’s needed to get the wheel spinning is a catalyzing spark, which is what I’ve been able to provide.

How to Inspire Leadership

The catalyzing spark that propels the virtuous cycle of change happens through genuine inspiration.

I have helped others to care more because of how deeply I care. I care about humanity. I care about Nature. And I’ve willingly donated my life to the service of these things.

With students at the Brosis School in Nairobi during  a clean up effort.

With students at the Brosis School in Nairobi during  a clean up effort.

To others, the dedication appears as sacrifice, though it’s the exact opposite. By in large, I do not want for myself. I own very few things. I have no fixed residence. Greatest of all, in my heart, I know all is well and I don't worry for the most part because I trust in something Divine and feel connected to it.

I spare this personal detail because I've come to understand it’s who you are and your conscious understanding of who you are that inspires others to be the change—it awakens their own truth, which in my experience, usually will have some service component involved.

For the most part, it's not anything you say or do that inspires leadership, nor your credentials or accomplishments. These things are more impressive than they are inspirational.

Results

The slum environment gives people good reason to stop caring and not do what they know is right. I don't know many people who would say it's OK to do nothing about trash piling up in the place you live that is endangering the lives of children, yet that's exactly what happens.

A motivated, pioneering few — like our youth leadership group — can serve as a wake up call to the whole and give others who were teetering the motivation to do the right thing.

Every week, I sit with the six or so leaders of the group, who are like the nucleus of it. There is time for meditation. Honest talk about community or personal matters, is encouraged. If compelled, I’ll give some tip or relevant insight about leadership or the work we’re doing.

These leaders then sit (without me) and guide a larger group in very much the same way, in a kind of ripple out system.

Youth leaders making brooms by hand.

Youth leaders making brooms by hand.

The results I’ve observed in the four and a half months we’ve been working together are fairly substantial. The core group of leaders I sit with have become more energized and are generally recognized as go to people for solutions, as if they were staff of the community.

The first couple of meetings my team had with the larger group were filled with giggles and cross talk while somebody was presenting, indicating a lack of seriousness. Not nearly as much anymore. Telling also is that the size of the group has grown from around 20 members to around 35 now.

Most telling to me is knowing when I step away from the community again, while things won’t be run with quite the same level of care or attention to detail, there is a foundation in place, in the form of this youth leadership group, with its own momentum and way of doing things that will continue on despite my absence and encouragement.

Change is now coming from within the community on its own.

To me, at least, it’s inspiring because of how uncommon a movement like this is within a slum area, especially a marginalized leprosy colony. It’s uncommon, even, in affluent areas. It’s an example of what’s possible when a group gets together and starts to care, despite legitimate, demotivating and demoralizing challenges.

Continue to next update about this year's work a the leprosy community.