Numbers Are Important.

I love a good story. If I can lose myself in and engage with someone’s journey, that speaks powerfully to me. But, in saying that, often we can underestimate the numbers behind each individual story.

For example, our recent history of the fight against poverty.

In 1970, we are told that there were 60,000 children under the age of 5, around the world, who died every single day, due to basic illness, malnutrition and other easily curable diseases. 60,000. It is unimaginable and heartbreaking; how could such a reality exist? I’m so grateful that at the time, people were motivated to act, and join those who were already taking action.

Fast forward 20 years to 1990, the figure was closer to 33,000 a day.

Another 20 years on, in 2010, it was down to 22,000.

Today that number is around 16,000 per day. Still unimaginable and heartbreaking, but it is a phenomenal improvement. Especially when you take into consideration the population explosion.

Globally, the population was at 3.6 billion people in 1970, which grew to 5.3 billion in 1990 and then 7.3 billion in 2015. The growth over the last 45 years has skyrocketed but the number of children under the age of 5 who are dying every single day has plummeted.

In other terms, it looks like this, 10% of the global population currently live in extreme poverty. 45 years ago it was over 60%, 12 years ago, it was 21% of the global population in extreme poverty. Generosity is winning.

We are making a difference. We are getting somewhere. I didn’t wake up this morning and discover poverty, as a world we have been fighting it for decades, centuries. We still have a way to go but we are in a much better place than we were – we just need to keep going.

As we get closer to the end of financial year, there has never been a better time to fight the injustice of poverty than right now. Opportunity International Australia provides mothers in India, Indonesia and the Philippines with small loans to build  businesses, put food on the table, send their kids to school, and work their way out of poverty. Be part of a hand up. A gift as small as $70 can be life-changing.

Tension

How do we function as people after seeing some of the things this world has to offer? Many have seen such devastation and experienced trauma beyond what can be articulated. For some it is a daily experience, for others it is an occasional glimpse which jolts the brain for a while.

In relation to poverty, we all know it exists but when we are not confronted with it regularly it is so far removed from our daily life that it has little to no impact on our thought process. If you have ever travelled to a developing country and been exposed to those living in extreme poverty, or spent time with the homeless in Australia, then no doubt you will be struck by the contradiction that we live in each day. I recently spent some time in the Philippines and I was confronted by the gut-wrenching conditions that people find themselves in. I walked through a few slums and something within me disconnected. For me to continue to function in that moment, surrounded by one of the things that I hate most, I held my breath and kept walking, lest I stop and become so overwhelmed by the devastation that I emotionally journey to a place that I can’t make it back from. That was my coping mechanism; I’m not proud of it but that’s what happened.

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In retrospect one of the hardest things to comprehend was this…

Poverty begets poverty. It sounds strange but it’s true. One of the main causes of poverty is…wait for it, poverty. If you are poor and don’t have enough food to eat today, it is most likely that tomorrow you will be poor and won’t have enough food to eat. Poverty is perpetually keeping people from working their way out of poverty.

It’s not just physical symptoms either. Poverty removes any sense of self-worth, any idea of what could be possible if the situation changed, any hope and dreams of what life could be like. It is the cruellest of task masters which only allows you to focus on survival for today, takes you hostage and keeps you captive in your current reality. How can you hope if your experience has never given you anything to hope for? How can you dream if you have never been taught to?

This is what life looks like for 767 million people living on less than $1.90 a day. Can you imagine what could happen if all of these people were empowered to reach their full potential. We have all witnessed the force of one or two people who are thriving and creating an amazing life for themselves and others around them. Imagine that multiplied by 767 million.

If we are honest with ourselves, we would all recognise that any success that we have achieved in life has only come about because someone invested in us and allowed us to believe that we could. Be it a parent, relative, teacher, peer, etc. For many it would most likely be more than one person, in fact a number of people at different times. Not to mention the head start of receiving nutrition, education and an opportunity for recreation. All of this adds up to a great head start, which is what we can offer to those living in poverty.

Poverty begets poverty, unless a hand up is given.

Would We Give if it Wasn’t Tax Deductible?

There is a short answer, a longer answer and a philosophical answer…

The short answer is “Yes and No”.

Yes we would but it probably wouldn’t be as much. Giving to organisations that provide a tax deduction financially assists those who are giving. People would prefer that not-for-profit organisations get their hard earned money rather than it ending up in the hands of the government through paying tax.

The Longer Answer

The longer answer is to do with the structure the Australian government puts into place. The Federal Government desires that its citizens make philanthropic donations to not-for-profit organisations because many of those organisations exist to complement existing government agencies or they can even fill gaps which government agencies are unable to get to. In short, the Australian Government likes it when we give and want us to do so. As a result, there are many organisations which are Deductible Gift Recipients, meaning that when we donate to them we can receive a tax deduction. To become a Deductible Gift Recipient an organisation must go through an application process and fulfil a list of requirements e.g. must have an ABN, be located in Australia and must fall within a Deductible Gift Recipient category

You can find a full Australian list here.

The benefit to us as citizens and donors is that we can be sure that when we donate to one of these organisations, they have been vetted by a government agency to ensure that they are legitimate. They aren’t perfect and we still have a responsibility to do our own research before we give but we can rest assured that the government is aware of the organisation and what they are involved in. Plus, there’s the tax deduction – that’s another benefit.

The Philosophical Answer

This answer is to do with selfless acts, and as with most philosophical discussion the answer is neither ‘yes’ or ‘no’. People wrestle with and debate the idea of acting in a completely selfless way; doing something good for someone without getting anything in return (whatever ‘something good’ means – this is up for debate itself, but for now let’s just sit with the definition of an action from one person designed for the benefit of another). The real question that gets asked is ‘if we get something in return for doing something good, does it cancel out the good that has been done?’

It doesn’t take very long to figure out that there is no such thing as a completely selfless act (perhaps apart from that time when God came to earth and died for us – but I think that even He received some benefit as a result… maybe that’s a topic for another time), because we get some sort of benefit from any good thing that we do. Whether it is a thank you, a smile, an award, a tax deduction, recognition or even just a good feeling. You can’t stop it. And if you could, the amount of effort required to ensure that you received no benefit from something good that you would be so exorbitant that it would make your life miserable. It all comes down to motivation – why we do good things for other people.

We want to do good for others for a variety of reasons – we might have a heart for a certain demographic of people because we have similar experiences, or we feel a responsibility to help, or our faith might drive us, or a desire to impress others, or it is something we do offset the guilt felt in other areas of life, or it is to feel good about ourselves. In reality, I think it can be all of the above at the same time. People are complex with conscious and subconscious motivations and it’s good to seek to find out why we do the things that we do, but I don’t think we will ever fully understand ourselves, not in the short term anyway. So it is a good idea to keep doing good things for people as we journey through our self-discovery. It is okay to get a benefit along the way…so make a tax deductible donation before June 30…

www.opportunity.org.au

 

But I want to build a house!

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Old, over-used Proverb

There is this story about a guy who is hiking through a forest and he comes across this beautiful and fast flowing river. As he stops to admire the scene and take in the moment, he spots something in the water bobbing up and down, struggling against the current. He sees this small helpless figure being thrown about by the strength of the water, going under and popping up to gasp for air before going under again. The hiker drops all his baggage and dives into the water. As he swims towards the figure, he discovers it is a small kitten and he reaches out to grab it just as it is about to go under for the last time. He pulls the kitten close to his chest and swims back to the shore, and lovingly places the gasping kitten safely on solid ground.

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Whilst sitting in the joy of this rescue and lovingly looking at the thankful kitten in front of him, he spots more movement in the corner of his eye. He looks to see another kitten struggling, just like the one he rescued. So without thinking he dives back in to retrieve it. In a déjà vu type moment, just as the kitten is about to go under for the last time his hand reaches out and saves it. But he doesn’t get all the way back to the shore before he spots another kitten rushing past him, then another, and then another. Soon enough the hiker is spending all his time and energy rescuing poor, helpless kittens from drowning in this awful river. So much so, that he doesn’t notice that 50 meters upstream there is a guy throwing kittens into the river.

The desire to help is strong. That is a good thing. Often our response is, instead of giving money, to fly overseas and be drawn into offering physical help to fulfil practical needs of those who seem to be much worse off than we are. There is so much need and we want the help we give to be immediate and practical. Although, often immediate and practical responses are not entirely useful, and can create bigger problems in the long term.

But we have this need, this desire to do good. There is something about getting stuck in and making a difference with your own two hands. I have heard people say “I just want to travel to poor countries and build a house”, “I want to start an orphanage”, “I want to dig a well”, “I want to see poverty with my own eyes”. The heart behind these statements is good. I applaud that response – by all means, travel, see the devastation that poverty creates and let it change your life and the lives of those around you.

For many, though, it can become more about the experience than the benefit for those living in poverty. Think about it for a moment… We want to get our hands dirty and feel like we are making a difference. So we travel to developing countries, connect with some people and build a house or a school or visit an orphanage to hug some children, take some selfies with kids who have different coloured skin and beautiful smiles. But there is no shortage of man-power in poorer countries. Often they have huge populations, so why do we think that when we go and build a house, or paint a building, or dig a well, we are fixing poverty?

There has to be a better way. We need to change the way we think about poverty instead of always thinking of it in terms of “aid” – which is a response to an immediate need, usually after a natural or man-made disaster or some sort of epidemic which has caused widespread destruction. This usually brings about an appeal and will lead to supplies of blankets, food, medicine and other necessities being dropped into a country to assist in their time of greatest need. Often people want to go and help out to give out the blankets, to be on the ground. This is pulling kittens out of the river. We connect with that. We love the feeling of rescuing people. It makes us feel good. And so it should. But this is only one part in the spectrum of need, which is the most commonly known, but there is so much more to be done when it comes to development and aid. The other areas can include education, advocacy in seeking policy change at a governmental level and agricultural development.

Take the cat story. It’s true that we need to rescue the cats, and often this immediate need can be met by someone who has the means to travel and volunteer some time. But mostly, we need to train cats to swim so that they can rescue themselves. We also need to stop those who are throwing the cats in the river, train other cats about the dangers of being thrown in the river and train those future cat throwers as to why it is a bad idea to abuse cats.

But most importantly, we need to train cats to be trainers so they can help their own species. I know it sounds a little ridiculous and it’s not the perfect analogy. Yes, we need people to be on the ground and help at times of great devastation, but if we are going to create lasting change, mostly we need to assist those living in poverty and suffering other injustices to be educated and empowered so they can work their way out of poverty. We need to find ways of advocating for them and using our influence to provide a level playing field for all people lest we end up in the river rescuing cats and become overwhelmed by the sheer volume and eventually drown in cat fur. Enough of the cat story.

Here are the main causes of poverty:

The Poverty Cycle– being poor and not having enough food to eat, causes you to stay poor and not have enough food to eat.

Low Investment in Agriculture – high transport costs, scarce storage facilities and unreliable water supplies leads to less food being produced and shipped, and higher prices.

Climate Change & Weather Phenomenon – disasters on the increase leads to food production on the decrease. This always hits the developing world the hardest.

War & Displacement – it’s hard to grow food when you are fighting for your freedom or fleeing for your life.

Unstable Markets – price spikes can make buying food impossible for many families.

Food Wastage – we produce enough food to feed everyone, but one-third of all that we produce is wasted.

To be blunt, travelling overseas to practically help those in need is not going to fix the issue or even make the tiniest dent in it. It may assist the person right in front of you, although, for how long and how effective it will be is anyone’s guess (and the topic of the next post…stay tuned!).

The real change that comes as a result of a short-term trip is in the individual who does the travelling. They can be overwhelmed by the reality of poverty and it can change their life for the better, and as a result the lives of those living in poverty (if that internal change leads to action for the benefit of others). And that’s okay. Let’s call it for what it is. But let’s not damage those living in poverty in the process.

There are plenty of stories from people who have travelled on a mission trip to go and build a house or paint a building, only for it to be touched up and fixed by the locals after the travellers had left. It was more for the people who were visiting and what they would get out of it than it was for the people they were ‘helping’.

Then there is the story of a mission trip to help some people in an area to clear some land, but the travellers didn’t know how to do it as well as the local people, and it turned out that the locals just wanted some white faces in a photo in an attempt to get some funding from the government to help boost tourism. They were helping, but not in the way that they thought they were.

You may have heard the term ‘orphanage tourism’ where orphanages are set up in developing countries with kids (who may or may not be orphans in homes) who are kept in squalid conditions sometimes to guilt tourists who come to visit to give money. It’s a money-making scam that hurts the children we are trying to help.

These are just a few stories of what happens when we travel to the developing world on a short-term basis to rescue the poor. It’s still good to travel and see the positive changes that we are working towards, but perhaps we should recognise that often the money we spend on travel could be more effectively put to use by organisations who save kittens as their profession (sorry – no more cats I promise).