It seems like a crazy dream: to end extreme poverty in my lifetime. But it’s a dream that has legs. One that has thought and passion and possibility behind it – so much so that it’s moving from heads and hearts into action.
Sure, I’m an idealist. Perhaps that makes it possible for me to imagine a world where kids go to school instead of factories, where families eat dinner together instead of ignoring their hunger pains and where wages are earned and paid and saved.
But I’m also a scholar – and I have seen evidence that suggests that we are on the right track. Since 1990, the percentage of people living below the extreme poverty line (defined as $1.25/day) has been cut in half. Poverty is still an enormous problem for over a billion people worldwide, but 700 million fewer people lived in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990. There is hope in this data. But there is also a call to action.
There are people that love the hopefulness and progress in this data, and consequently think that the work is done. They say, look the world is getting better! We have done our jobs toward eradicating poverty. This attitude is full of optimism, but it runs the risk of mitigating action.
On the other hand, there are those that only see the enormous problem of poverty that still lies ahead of us. They know that 1.2 billion people struggle to eat and provide for their families each day. And they know that there is still so much to be done. But they can also lose sight of the progress – the hope – and f orget that things are moving and changing. Sure, this fight is a slow one, but the global poverty situation is improving.
And so I’m choosing both. Hope and action. A recognition that we have made progress, while also knowing that there is so much left to do. And with this view, I see three big things that will help us move the needle even more.
1. Creativity and Innovation. We have to look forward and get creative. We have come up with some great tools, but they can always be improved. We shouldn’t operate in a rut – and we should be very wary of doing things the way they’ve always been done without first asking if there might be a better way. And we should do a lot less dictating and a lot more listening – because innovation can come from anywhere.
2. Effort, dedication and consistency. Sustainable development takes work. It takes constant, unwavering attention and focus. It’s not going to be easy. We can’t invest in communities and run away. We can’t ignore problems when they appear insurmountable. And we can’t get burnt out.
3. Mass participation. Despite what some people might say, there is no one organization or person or theory that has “the answer” to extreme poverty. There are a lot of great concepts that together create sustainable impact. So to truly eliminate extreme poverty, we need everyone to get involved. This means individuals and organizations and governments and agencies. It means water causes partnering with health care programs partnering with local governments partnering with banks. It means people with economic power contributing their skills and resources, and people living in economic poverty providing their talent and effort. It means a global solution to a global problem.
In order to end extreme poverty in our lifetime, we must be consistent and cutting-edge. Dependable and daring. Steady and thoughtful and outlandish and risky. And above all else, we must be together. No one person or organization or cause is going to solve extreme poverty. It’s going to take teamwork and coordination – and it will necessarily require each of us to draw on and contribute our strengths to the cause.
At Opportunity International, we are proud to be a part of the poverty eradication puzzle. Economic empowerment is one critical element of sustainable development, and we have been discovering how to best create impact for over 40 years. Yet we are constantly learning and relearning these three lessons. We strive to innovate by making use of new technologies and responding to the needs identified by our clients. We embody our commitment and dedication by building permanent infrastructure on the ground in the countries in which we work. And we seek out partners – supporters, technicians, staff, volunteers and organizations – who help us do our work more effectively.
We can end extreme poverty in our lifetime. It won’t be easy and it won’t be immediate, but it is possible. We have come a long way, but there is still work to be done – so let’s get to it.