Hein (fub) wrote,

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On alleviating poverty

I have been thinking about poverty, technology and how the two are connected -- and my own role and responsibility in this. And as always when I am thinking about global and social issues, I went to the site of the TED conference to find inspiring and informative talks on these subjects -- and through these talks form my own opinion. This entry is the culmination of about a week of pondering. It may be a bit rambling, but since many concepts are connected (at least in my head), this is to be expected.

As I wrote about earlier, we invested through Kiva -- and later that day, we decided to do one loan per month through Kiva. We're also going to 'recycle' the backpayments into new loans. But would this really make a difference on a grander scale? And if it does, what things are you going to invest in?
I had to think back to 2008, when TNJ celebrated its 20-year anniversary. Customers, partners and employees were encouraged to donate to ICT4Kids, a charity project by the computer and information science department of the University of Nijmegen. Through this project, the students help with providing computer services to the poor -- this time in South Africa. The case they made for choosing that area was pretty convincing: with more computer skills, people have a better chance of a job, which will elevate their neighbourhoods. Iqbal Quadir makes another interesting point in this TED talk: communication technology is a productivity tool, which helps people generate more income.

So, I think I want to invest in providing (access to) communication services to their community, which will help with employment, education and communication. And it also ties in quite nicely with my own life: communication is what we do at TNJ.

Mr. Quadir also makes an interesting point: alleviating poverty should be done from the bottom up, because with empowered citizens, the government has to provide more freedom and better civil rights. But aid to the government empowers the government and does not much for the citizens.
I have seen the same thing in the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which we visited when we were in Japan. The museum shows life during the Tokugawa Shogunate (the so-called 'Edo period', when Tokyo was still called Edo) and immediately after the Meiji Restoration (in 1867), when Japan entered the modern world. During the Shogunate, the citizens did not have that many rights, and the samurai decided what happened. There was heavy censorship, and criticism on the Shogunate was not allowed: we saw a woodblock print that depicted a scene that could be explained as critical to the Shogunate, and the publisher was forced to destroy the blocks.
But due to some stupid decisions from the government (which were deeply routed in tradition), the samurai became more and more impoverished and the citizens became richer and richer. They sent their sons and daughters to schools, and became more and more educated and inquisitive to the world outside of their immediate neighbourhood. And with an empowered citizenry, the Shogunate felt their power slipping away gradually. In the end, the tide could not be turned, and Japan turned into a democracy. (OK, there were external triggers, but I believe those merely hastened the inevitable by a small margin.)

Another point that Mr. Quadir makes, is that companies drive the GNP, not the government of a country. Entrepeneurs add value to their community: not only through access to goods and services, but also because of employment. Through a rather harsh period in my life, I have found that I myself lack the entrepeneurial spirit that is necessary to succeed as owner of a company. But because there is somebody who does, me and klik both have an interesting job that provides for all of our needs. Entrepeneurs are to be admired. Some fail, some succeed, all add something to the spirit of a community.

So, I want to invest in projects by entrepeneurs.

We tend to think about 'poor' countries in terms of farmers trying to eke out a meagre living from infertile, dried out soil. But that is far from reality. Has Rosling, a statician, shows in this TED talk that poor countries are doing much better in social aspects than the 'rich' countries when they were as poor as the poor countries are now. For instance, while Chile is lagging far behind in GNP to the US, the child mortality rate is at the same level as it was in the US in 1950!
Economic development is not a goal, it is a means to get more choice, more freedom and a better future for your children. And the 'poor' countries are doing better than we were, when we were at the same level of economic development. So that's good, but we need to find a way to capitalise on those human resources to elevate the communities. And that ties in nicely with the idea of investing in the projects of entrepeneurs. Note that Mr. Rosling specifically mentions microcredit as a way to better the situation of 'poor' people. Microcredit works.

So, I want to invest in the form of microcredit.

However, I want my loan to be used responsible. If I loan someone a sum of money, I want them to treat their project seriously. Empowerment also means being responsible with your resources: you can't be truly independent when you can't generate your own income. Only when you are seen as a business partner, as a human being who has choices and obligations, can you fully participate in the economic system and gain that independence. Accountability scores high for me.
Jacqueline Novogratz tells the story of Jane in this TED talk, and two offhand remarks struck a chord with me. Jane got a loan for a sewing machine, which made her an entrepeneur, but she also had to show that she had the resources to pay the loan back. Jane is moving into a nice apartment, but she had to show that she could pay back the mortgage before getting it.
Treating 'poor' people as helpless and dependent will not fix their situation. They have to fix their situations themselves -- and by 'fixing' I mean gaining economic independance. We are not donating through Kiva, we are investing. Kiva has a lot of tools and information to make an informed decision about the financial structures that are present to support the loan. There's also a highly polished interactive filtering system at KivaBank.org (which unfortunately requires Silverlight), to help make the right choice.

But I also like the human aspect of Kiva. Because there are actual people loaning this sum to the entrepeneur (and they know that), it is as if I personally can support someone else in bettering their own situation. You just don't get that if you invest through a semi-faceless investment bank (though if the alternative is not investing at all, it's better than nothing!). Kiva provides that personal aspect to us.

So, I want to invest through a responsible system like Kiva, which keeps the whole chain accountable.

I haven't really finished thinking about this, but everything I see indicates that investing has a really positive, empowering impact -- which will allow the citizens of 'poor' countries attain more freedom and choice. For us, doing that through Kiva seems a really good option.
Tags: kiva, society

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