The rock stars are absolutely right


“Giving a feckless person money,” goes the Chinese proverb, “is like pelting a stray dog with dumplings.”

Nonetheless, I give money to panhandlers.

Yes, I know it’s hardly sound philanthropy, but I have personal motivations for saying “yes,” when a stranger approaches me on the street with an outstetched hand and a pathetic plea.

In the mid-1990s, I worked at a newspaper office in downtown Newark, home to a great museum, amazing urban architecture and some of the most expert panhandlers ever to tug a cuff.

Each lunch hour, I would stroll along Newark’s Broad and Market streets. In the course of the hour—every single day—I heard at least one mournful request for a few dollars for bus fare or gas money so someone could get back home, or a few dollars for something to eat.

Each time, there was that stark moment of drama that, to me, had nothing to do with money.

A fellow human being has humbled himself to ask me for help. I have two choices. I can say ‘no,’ which means that either I don’t care that he needs help or that I believe he is lying about his need, or I can say ‘yes,’ and, in the doing, validate his worth as a human being.

There is, of course, an excellent–even probable–chance that the drama amounts to simple rookery. And do you know what? I’m OK with that. To me, the risk of being duped is worth my desire to think well of strangers.

But that philosophy is poisonous on a large scale. All around the world, communities have been severely damaged by misguided or foolish philanthropy.

A drought creates a famine and outsiders rush in with free food. The drought persists and the free food continues until it spans a generation. What began as charity becomes a powerfully debilitating presence in the community.

Instead of a hand up, the charity disempowers its recipients with the constant and overwhelming message: you can’t help yourself.

At a conference in Nairobi, Kenya, descriptions of the damage done by this philanthropic approach were openly shared by one of its heaviest offenders—World Vision.

Before I heard these stories, World Vision had been one of my favorite charities. After having heard them, it is my favorite charity.

In the 50 years it has existed, World Vision has gone from pouring food and money into poverty-stricken areas, to developing a practical, systematic and efficient process for answering the needs of the world’s poor by helping the poor help themselves.

You’ve heard the rock stars and celebrities say we have the ability to end poverty in our lifetime?

Well, we do. But you will have to adjust your definition of poverty.

After spending nearly five years working in Newark, NJ, I thought I knew poverty.

Hell, I myself grew up in a dirt poor area of southern Indiana. I thought I knew poverty personally.

Then I went to Africa.

None of what follows is meant to denigrate need in our country. We do have serious poverty in the United States.

But the poverty that exists in other countries is beyond our comprehension.

This is a poverty that kills in their first year half of all children born.

PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF A woman hauls river water to her home in the Kembatta Tembarro area of Ethiopia. Home plumbing is practically nonexistent here. This is a poverty where children spend their days hauling water from rivers to their homes instead of going to school.
PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF | A woman hauls river water to her home in the Kembatta Tembarro area of Ethiopia. Home plumbing is practically nonexistent here. This is a poverty where children spend their days hauling water from rivers to their homes instead of going to school.

This is a poverty where illnesses and diseases—virtually eradicated in our world—constantly sap the energy, resources and spirit of people.

Polio? Cholera? Dysentery? Malaria? TB? Small pox? They are all there.

This is a poverty where a simple complication in pregnancy often spells death for mother and child. Where pregnant women in need of medical attention must walk or be carried miles to the nearest clinic.

This is the poverty we can erase.

Here’s how:

To whatever degree possible, enlist the involvement of the people in need. Share with them the issues and strategic goals, then allow them to choose the priorities and tactics. Then, they maintain their sense of self-determination, pride, worth and confidence in their abilities.

Show them the basics of sanitation and help them quickly employ them. This step and the next, by themselves, can reverse infant mortality rates and reinvigorate communities. For poor areas, the simple installation of sanitary grates for toilets would be a huge, cheap improvement in peoples lives.

Show them the value of clean water and then help them create wells and water storage facilities. Locate these public wells and water facilities at schools so that children can get the water they need for their families AND get an education.

Provide training and facilitate the delivery of basic vaccines for common, preventable diseases. Chronic sickness saps the energy of peope and prevents them from caring for themselves and their families.

Provide training and basic resources to focus communities on education for children and adults. Literacy, agricultural sciences and basic business practices are not beyond any people. They plant seeds that transform people and communities.

Will these practices work perfectly? No, there will be some failures.

Will any money be wasted? You bet. We’re talking about human beings. Whenever we are involved, things always get messy.

But on the whole, wherever these steps are employed, we can reclaim communities that have endured generations of poverty.

It really is just that simple.