Tag Archives: global poverty

In pursuit of ‘boring’

One of my favorite parts of Room to Read was the statement that the organization’s goal is to create, around the world, schools so ‘normal’ that “no documentary film crew would want to cover them, because they are so boring” (p. 114).

And I love that.

Sometimes, at least in my practice, there is a pull of the ‘exotic’, a fascination, almost, with the pains and the hardships that my clients experience, that can feel uncomfortably like voyeurism. And we take such pride in helping clients to change their lives that it feels amazing, almost miraculous.

But they deserve justice, not gawking.

And we need scale and systems change, not rare miracles in a sea of tragedy.

So what would it look like, in your work and in mine, if we normalized the lives of the communities we served so much that there’s really ‘nothing to see here’?

And what would it feel like if that goal was an animating value and driving vision of our work? If we were striving, always, to make sure that our clients’ lives could unfold in the mundane ways that we know we find comforting and that, indeed, we rely on?

And, taking the boring concept even further, what difference would it make if truly transformational and extraordinarily excellent nonprofit organizations were not, at all, extraordinary, but, instead, completely expected, ‘ordinary’, and boring, in every way?

If stories like that were a dime a dozen, and organizations like that were on every street corner?

I am ready to be bored.


What we can(‘t) ignore

My summer course, Poverty in the Global Economy, started this week.

Perhaps unlike most faculty, I really like teaching in the summer. I feel like students are a little less tense about grades, maybe, in June, and the longer class periods allow us uninterrupted time to study topics in detail.

And I appreciate the opportunity to journey with students, pushing their knowledge beyond their comfort level and, more importantly, helping them to integrate these new understandings into their social work practice.

It should be another rewarding month.

One of the books that I read as I prepared this particular course was Creating Room to Read, the founder’s memoir about leaving his corporate job to start a global charity focused on increasing literacy in the developing world.

One of the reflections that struck me was this:

There are social problems–crippling, devastating, completely unjust social problems–that we don’t really even see.

Like 200 million girls not going to school, largely because they are girls (p. 21).

And that has me thinking about visibility and proximity, about why global poverty is such a literally foreign concept to my students, even when they are fairly familiar with much of the U.S. social policy context, and about what it means for our chances of combating these social ills, this fact that we don’t really perceive them.

It can’t be, I don’t believe, just an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing. Not for my students, many of whom are very concerned about homeless veterans or victims of sex trafficking, for example, even if they don’t have much personal contact with those populations.

It can’t be pure access to information, since we have more information at our disposal, about global poverty or anything else, than we can possibly comprehend.

So is it a function of the scale the problem and the scope of our potential response, and how we avert our eyes from that which we find overwhelming? Is it a willful ignorance, not because we don’t care but because we are trying to cope with limited resources and an abundance of pressing needs? Is it a self-conscious desire not to intrude upon others’ realities, in an effort to avoid harmful paternalism? Is it an emotional allegiance to those we perceive as being ‘like’ us, and a greater distancing from those we do not?

One of the foundations of this summer course is the idea of interdependence and the reality that we are affected, in ways immediately visible and distantly imagined, by these problems we studiously ignore. From terrorist attacks to infectious disease to environmental strains to shared prosperity and the promise of gender equality, what we don’t attend to elsewhere has a way of coming home.

My students and I will spend our June not ignoring those 200 million girls, or the women who die in childbirth, or the highly unfair trade rules that the United States negotiated for itself.

We’ll fix our eyes on what is often unseen, listen to voices seldom heard, and attend to action regularly left undone.

What are you doing this summer?

Did you hear the one about the social worker and the WTO?

This week, I’m starting my class on poverty in the global economy (it’s tons of fun–a month-long crash course in global economics with BSW students!) and reflecting on a book that my husband actually recommended I read, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.

One of the ‘dead ideas’ that the author contends is hindering our search for policy solutions to the real challenges we face is the belief that ‘free trade’ is always an economic good and, indeed, the equation of our current model of corporate-driven globalization with a free trade system.

The truth is, of course, that our global economic structures today, with free trade zones where labor laws are sparse and enforcement even rarer, and with nearly unfettered travel of capital around the globe, without corresponding movement of people, and with very little corporate accountability to any national–or even international–good, is bound to create winners and losers.

That means that it’s a good for some, and a threat to others, and that we need not only an economic system but a public commons that recognizes that and accounts for it.

For many of my students, this class is their first exposure to, well, almost everything we talk about in class: the connection between NAFTA and Mexican immigration rates, the linkage between pharmaceutical patents and the high lethality of HIV in the developing world, International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity packages and the privatization trend that has swept the world (including the U.S.).

The purpose of the class, the way I teach it, is to help social work students, who will spend most of their practice focused on social problems within a U.S. context, understand how small our planet really is today, and why, then, the way that multinational corporations behave, or that multinational economic agreements are structured, matter to, say, Kansans.

The challenge, sometimes, and the book talks about this some, too, is not not fall into a reactionary protectionism, which would simply replace one dead idea (all globalism=progress) with another (we can seal off our own economy).

Instead, the answer is justice.

What’s good for one can really be good for all, if we choose the right goods.

If we build real protections into our economy–a solid safety net, meaningful access to retraining for displaced workers, strong labor unions that make work pay–then we won’t be tempted by protectionism.

If we build alliances across national divisions, we can create people power sufficient to check the excesses of global capital.

If we open our minds to new ways of structuring economies, we can resist the pull of a dead idea.

And it starts, at least for me, with 5 1/2 hours of connecting the dots on a June afternoon.

Admitting Failure

One of my oldest son’s favorite family games is “let’s talk about Mommy’s bad decisions.”

Yes, seriously.

It started from a comment I made once in disciplining him, about how bad choices have consequences, and even Mommy and Daddy have discovered that through our own mistakes.

As is perhaps to be expected, he really latched onto that concept (although, somehow, it’s the idea of Mommy’s bad decisions that have captured his imagination, much more than Daddy’s!), and so the aftermath of his own disciplinary consequences often includes a recitation of Mommy’s bad decisions.

Speeding tickets are some of his favorites; I think he likes the imagery of the flashing lights.

I thought of Sam, and how obvious it is that he’s learning from these mistakes (and how much he delights in knowing that he’s not alone in making them!) when I read about this relatively new website: Admitting Failure.

It was started to help those in the development community learn about each other’s failures, own and move on from their own, and create a climate in which failures are acknowledged as a path to greater innovation and excellence, with the understanding that people’s lives are literally at stake.

Here’s what they say about why the site is important:
“Competition for financial support in the aid sector has resulted in a ‘worst practice’ – secrecy. This site and those who support it are attempting to correct that error, and create a best practice of openness, transparency and honesty. We’re all in this together. We’re on the same side in the fight against poverty, inequality and unnecessary suffering in too many forms. Let’s admit our failures to find greater successes.”

You can submit your own failure to the site (failures are rated based on users’ perceptions of the honesty and insight shared by the fail-er), browse others’ failures, and discuss failure itself, and the role it plays in progress, with others engaged in similar work.

I think it’s pretty awesome, and I have so many ideas for how a similar culture of openness about failure could make a difference in the social service world, too, where we certainly fail, and where we certainly have a lot to learn from those failures.

We have a lot of collective knowledge, for example, about what hasn’t worked in preventing teenage pregnancies, or helping adolescents avoid drugs, or fighting poverty in single-mother households, or getting low-income neighborhoods mobilized for civic engagement. We just aren’t doing that much to share those failures, and to even sort of celebrate them–not in a “yay, we failed!” way, but in a “we can own this and become better for it” way.

The other day, my son got distracted while playing his computer game and ran out of time to help me with a cooking project he’d been looking forward to. He wailed, and then he said, “that’s kind of like when you overslept, Mommy, and you were late to work and got in trouble” (for the record, it was in 1994). I told him he was right, and I offered to set the kitchen timer the next time.

We fail.

And we learn.

And, if we’re lucky, others fail. And they share.

And then we learn, too.

Approach fads with caution

This is NOT a post bashing microfinance. AT ALL. In fact, I’m spending most of my Christmas money (thanks, Great-Grandpa George, for the $50 every year!) on KIVA loans to women entrepreneurs in Latin America. I believe very strongly that there is ample evidence of how supporting women entrepreneurs, especially in group settings where there is also support for education, connection to markets, collective bargaining for supplies, and other assistance, not only makes a difference in their individual lives but transforms the trajectories of entire generations.

As fate would have it, one of my students chose Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus’ book about the evolution of the Grameen Bank model for microfinance for the poor, so I read it last fall at the same time that some controversy was erupting around Kiva and other microfinance organizations’ tactics to appeal for donations. For the most part, I think that those criticisms are unfortunate; they center around the idea that Kiva pitches to donors that their contribution/loan will benefit a specific, featured individual, when really the loans are disbursed according to a larger giving strategy (the same thing that disillusions some who contribute to those child ‘sponsorship’ programs). I guess I understand the disappointment on the part of the donors, kind of, but I also understand where Kiva’s coming from–a need to balance donors’ motivations, which are overwhelmingly based on a perceived personal connection to those in need, with a giving strategy that will maximize impact. Personally, the impact that the organizations to which I give have on the problems I care about matters far more than how ‘efficiently’ or ‘directly’ they invest my money. I give, ultimately, not because I expect it to make such a difference in my life, but because I want to solve problems.

And microlending does that. The best microlending organizations have created a new paradigm for poverty eradication and have, in the process, taught us a lot about the importance of rethinking, believing in those we serve, investing in women, and dreaming big even while starting very small. Grameen, in particular, has shown that people in poverty already have skills that they can use to improve their lives (how’s that for strengths perspective?)–they skip the financial management and skills training classes that many anti-poverty programs have long clung to.

They have vigorously opposed any efforts to dilute their mission by offering services to nonpoor individuals, showing instead that they can make their operations sustainable without bringing in those who start with more advantages. Social workers could learn a lot from this; as Yunus says at one point in his book, anytime we bring in those who aren’t poor to programs that were intended for those who are, the poor will be crowded out. Social work organizations, I believe, must avoid this kind of mission drift wherever it threatens.

They’ve integrated the personal and political; one of my favorite things about the Grameen story is about how it has transformed the electoral participation of the poor in Bangadesh–Grameen borrowers have been elected to office in surprising numbers and have also changed the conversation during elections there.

And they’ve worked their way through liberal (“you’re giving opium to the poor, so that they won’t revolt”), conservative (“lending to women destroys traditional family dynamics”), and more pragmatic (“they’ll never pay you back”–this is my favorite, “they’ll pay back more than in traditional aid programs, which is not at all!”) critiques to make a real difference in extreme poverty among people in much of the world.

So, then, why the ‘caution’ as the post title suggests? Well, it’s just that, we who want to change the world often get desperate. We’re desperate for anything that will work, anything that shows promise of being better than what we’ve tried and failed, anything that might be the silver bullet that has eluded us for so long. And that quest for the magic solution can lead us to blindly pursue worthy interventions that are then misapplied, oversold, and, in fact, used as excuses to dismantle some of the other, perhaps less popular, investments that have long served those in need.

I believe that microlending has become such a fad, and some of the data in Half the Sky and another book I read last fall, The Blue Sweater, prompted me to do some research that confirms that fear. We know that microfinance doesn’t work as well in Africa as in other parts of the world–the markets aren’t as well developed, health crises (particularly rampant HIV/AIDS) increase delinquencies, the high interest rates can become untenable when businesses are less profitable. Not everyone is an entrepreneur; I, for example, would make a pretty horrible businesswoman, I know. Microfinance can’t undo all of the underlying inequalities–the lack of infrastructure that, itself, is a major barrier to business; lack of educational opportunities (although microfinance can help individual families take better advantage of the opportunities that exist); and those same health disparities. And it’s not a panacea for gender oppression, either; access to credit absolutely increases a woman’s standing in her family and her community, but women are almost always still disadvantaged in the marketplace and at home, expected to run the business and take care of children and the house. And, finally and perhaps most seriously, microfinance contributes to the commodification of social goods, the idea that the marketplace can, in fact, solve all that ails us (although, if you read Yunus’ work, he’s clear that he does not see the world, or economics, this way). This can lead to a further erosion of the role of government in the provision of social goods, and to placing a price on anything of social value.

The lesson for me, as I both make a KIVA loan and shudder a little bit at every announcement of a new microloan program somewhere else, is not only that we need to always preserve some healthy skepticism for that which is hailed as “the next new thing.” Even more fundamentally, it’s that we need to absorb what is perhaps the most valuable lesson of the microfinance movement (a term, by the way, that more accurately encapsulates the idea that people in poverty need savings devices as well as loans)–that we must listen to and respect and always begin with those we intend to help. If we do that, they’ll tell us that loans won’t solve everything, that they need other kinds of help too, but that lending programs can play a role in the dreams that some of them have for their lives. And they’ll show us how else we can work together. And we’ll be making policy and building programs not based on what’s hot, but on what’s right, for those who deserve the fish today, and the fishing rod for tomorrow, and the clean river with managed fish habitat for generations to come.