What happens when you stress about money?
There is a story about sugarcane farmers in India – a group of researchers tested their IQ after harvest when they had money, then again a few months later right before the harvest. The difference was that they scored nearly 10 points less when tested right before the harvest. They simply had less mental energy to focus on the test.
That is the impact of poverty and financial insecurity. It is mentally overwhelming. Poverty places a huge burden on each person’s finite mental bandwidth which creates tunnel vision as well as decreases cognitive function. All of this makes it harder to focus on anything beyond the current problem, to problem solve, resist impulses or think long-term.
It’s not that the sugarcane farmers lacked intelligence or became dumber, it was because of the circumstances they were in on the day they were tested.
This is a good reason we don’t talk about “poor families”, but instead “families living in poverty” – because their identity is not that they are poor, that is just their current context.
This phenomenon is the same everywhere in the world. Poverty has a crippling effect and stops people from reaching their full God given potential. It’s the reason that God’s heart is always for those trapped in the poverty cycle. We must keep working to overcome it.
Often people will have a particular area in the developing world that they are passionate about. So when they give money they will allocate it to that country or region.
Others may not have that connection and they will request that their funds be assigned to where the greatest need is.
With so much need in the world, how can anyone possibly suggest that one area is a priority over another?
It’s a difficult call.
Low income is one factor when it comes to poverty, but so is a lack of access to basic services, like clean drinking water, toilets, health and education, and vulnerability shocks, like illness, death or even festivals.
Opportunity International targets rural or under-served areas where poverty is high but the overall economic and political environment are stable. We also look for signs of development such as roads or markets in those areas of need. There is a tension between recognising the great need and also being able to genuinely create a positive impact and measure success over time. It’s vital to track and feedback on the projects that are being funded.
The greatest need is constantly shifting in our world as new events take place that cause poverty related issues, but also as more and more families work their way out of poverty. That’s the good news – today’s areas of greatest need will not be the same in the future because of the work that is being done.
One of the greatest issues in our world, is the amount people living in extreme poverty.
One of the other great issues of our time is the impact of extreme wealth. They are two sides of the same coin.
People often talk about the great needs of the poor, but poverty has more than one definition.
There is such a thing as too much creating poverty. We call it the poverty of the non-poor.
This kind of poverty, where there is excess, creates greed, corruption, health issues from too much food, and slavery to the idea of a bigger and better house, a newer car, a faster boat.
Somewhere in the middle of nothing and excess there is a balance where we are neither a slave to survival nor a slave to possessions. The wisdom of Proverbs chapter 30 offers a prayer which says “Give me neither poverty nor riches, Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name.”
Overcoming poverty of the non-poor requires generosity; learning to master the excess and become skilled at giving money away.
How much do you spend on administration?
You know the question, you have possibly asked it before. How much of a donation to a charity gets spent on the programs and how much gets spent on staff and other back end costs. It’s a question I hear frequently about the organisation I work for and for every other not for profit in existence. It’s an important question because we need to be open about this, but it can’t be the only question we ask.
A colleague of mine, many years ago would ask people if they were needing life saving surgery would the most important question to the surgeon be about how much they charged or would it be about their success rate? Of course the response was that the success rate was the main thing people are interested in.
There are many organisations that people donate to that are quite literally saving lives around the world and how often do we ask about the success rate they have?
There needs to be a balance between the two, naturally, but the success rate should be just as, if not more important, than the administration rate.
Effectiveness in the work a not for profit does is not just about keeping costs low, it’s about having the greatest positive impact on our world.
If it was easy anyone could do it. If it was easy, it would already be done wouldn’t it?
Certain things in life are difficult, usually because the problems that we face day to day are not easily fixed and are multifaceted. Be they relational, financial, spiritual, emotional, life is a complex combination of joys and difficulties. Stuff is tough. That’s okay.
This is just as true when it comes to poverty. It is a complicated, multifaceted issue, which is also man made. We have created this construct which puts many people into a place where they don’t have enough to survive.
Whilst we have made significant headway in the fight against poverty over the last 40 years, there is still a way to go until we have overcome it. And I have to admit, there are times when I get so frustrated at the sight of many people, mothers, fathers, children, still trying to survive. But just because it is difficult to overcome, doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should stop fighting. Because the people that we are fighting for are worth it. So we continue to take one step at a time.
Like the American author Mary Anne Radmacher says:
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.‘
Once you stop learning, you start dying, according to Albert Einstein. Others would suggest that if you stop learning, you stop growing, or leading or teaching, or any number of things. Suffice to say, many people would consider that learning something new daily is as important as breathing. It is a natural part of life, to be curious and ask questions.
One thing that I have discovered is that the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know. Every time I finished a level of study, be it a University degree or a short course in something I always ended up with more questions than answers. The process would open up my eyes to more of what I didn’t know about. It’s one of life’s great contradictions, the more you learn the more you learn about how much you don’t know – but it doesn’t mean we stop.
For me, learning creates understanding and it is one of the best tools we have in the fight against poverty.
Once a mother in India, for example, learns that she has options, the ability to choose for herself what kind of business she can run or how many children to have, that she has the right to have an opinion or to learn a new skill, this initiates a social change and creates opportunity for her and her family to flourish. It changes her mindset and creates a whole new realm of what is possible.
It’s the ability to understand something today that you didn’t know existed yesterday which creates a place where people can begin to imagine what was previously unimaginable. That is the power of learning something new.
Extreme Poverty is defined as anyone living on less than about $2 a day. We still have hundreds of millions of people in that situation which is horrific and no one should ever have to go through it.
I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I would try to calculate what I could with $2 per day to see if there is a way that I could survive. Surely you can make anything work, if you budget well enough, were frugal with spending, survival would be possible. Extreme poverty can’t be that difficult. Can it?
Not only is that a harsh way to look at it, but my thinking also had a fundamental flaw. One of the most difficult aspects of life for those living in extreme poverty is the unpredictable manner in which they earn an income. Whilst in Australia, most of us know what our next pay check is going to be, when it will arrive in our bank account and how we can access it. In places like India for example, many work in unregulated areas and do so irregularly. They may earn $20 on day ten which averages out to $2 a day. Meaning that they don’t literally receive $2 every single day. It’s not neat and tidy and it makes budgeting and increasing financial security impossible.
There are many organisations, including Opportunity International, who are fighting against this and creating a way for people to earn a regular income to increase their financial security, making life just that little bit easier.
When you work in an industry for a while there are usually a number of words or phrases that become the flavour of the month or year or decade. Almost cliché like.
In an office environment I would hear ‘going forward’ regularly, or ‘synergy’ or ‘touch base’, ‘circle back’, ‘think outside the square’, ‘reinvent the wheel’…I could go on. Don’t get me started on the acronyms. Oh yes, the acronyms, mostly the TLA’s (three letter acronyms), there is COB (Close of Business), ROI (Return on Investment) FTE (Full Time Employee), ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival – should that not be ETOA?) or my favourite BAU (Business As Usual).
One word that gets overused and under appreciated is transformation. It sounds great but doesn’t necessarily carry with it specific meaning, thus it has become a fancy word that people use when are talking about change. But it’s much more than that.
From an International Development perspective, we talk about transformation in the lives of those living in poverty and it is helpful to define what that actually is. It is more than just change or transition, it is taking something and creating into something completely different.
Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, the goal of development is to transform the lives of those living in poverty, which can bring sickness, hopelessness, and disempowerment, into lives that are highlighted by nutrition and health, a sense of hope and a future, and an empowerment to make decisions of their own behalf.
Transformation is a complete change into something new. Not just a better version of what was, but a brand new thing that didn’t exist before.
Now that’s a lofty goal, and one worth striving for.
Some things can be measured easily. When there are numerical values involved it is simple to compare. Like the size of your bank balance today compared to last week, you can tell the difference just by looking at it.
But measuring someone’s personal growth for example, when the indicators are not as tangible, and it requires some sort of gut feel, can be a little difficult.
It’s the same situation when we measure people’s journey out of poverty. Opportunity International provides small loans to mothers living in poverty and we measure the impact that has on the women and their family over time. The amount of money they earn is one indicator that can show they are leaving poverty behind, but there are so many other elements, like nutrition, sanitation, education, access to information and how hopeful they feel.
Some of this can be measured numerically, and some can’t. Not all elements improve at the same rate or at the same time, so how do you measure the impact?
Often it comes down to the individual. When they recognise they have the ability to make decisions on their own behalf, decisions that can change the lives of them and their families, this shows a level of empowerment which usually means that other elements are improving as well.
People are complex and cannot be measured by numerical values alone to discover what growth is happening.
How are you empowering those around you?
What do you consider to be the worlds greatest resource. There is much debate about the value of certain items – would it be oil, gold, iron ore, lithium perhaps, what about water, air and sunshine? Ice cream? All seem to be pretty important, some more than others but which is the greatest resource available to us?
I don’t think it’s any of these. For me, it has to be people. We are told that there are now nearly 8 billion people on the planet. That is almost 8 billion resources, but more than that, individuals that carry with them such great value and incredible capacity. With 10% of the global population still living in extreme poverty then that is at least 10% that are not being able to reach their full, God given potential. When that happens, not only do the individuals miss out, but the rest of the world misses out on their creativity, ideas and ingenuity.
There is a question that haunts me.
“What if the cure to cancer was trapped in the mind of a child who hasn’t received an education yet?”
To me that talks about potential, of what is possible yet not accessible because not everyone is able to make their contribution. The sad thing is that there is so much that we can do to facilitate that and it starts with small actions. Little things that will go a long way to empowering those living in poverty.
We have some difficult issues as a world, but if we could get the most out of every person, I have no doubt we could overcome all of them.