Poverty is not just food and money

Some may know that this week, I was invited to become a part of the Global Poverty Ambassadors Programme, an international initiative, where 150 people, myself included, from all over the world are rained to inspire people from rich countries to start or continue to support developing countres, with a view to eliminating poverty in our lifetimes.  I am looking forward to working with GPP and I believe strongly in their message that we can eliminate poverty in our lifetime.

We were privileged to be in the presence of legends Bill Gates and Prof Hans Rosling, a statistican and facts animateur who inspired us all and somewhat stole the show with his animated graphics – which you can see for yourself here – which demonstrated the enormous improvements seen in world living standards throughout every country since 1961.  The fastest mover was apparently Thailand, but a more measured improver was Tanzania, near neighbour to Uganda, where the Butterfly Project is based.

While I believe that Prof Rosling is correct – poverty has been severely impacted in my lifetime – the feeling on the ground is often quite different.  His advice was that there has been a wholesale reduction in the births of children per family, but we have seen very little evidence of this in remote rural Uganda, where population is expected to increase by 80% in the next 20 years.  Nor had the remote communities I visited in Rural Nigeria ever been visited by anyone giving advice on birth control, agricultural development or any other form of aid or advice.  Do the facts lie?  I don’t think so, but there is certainly a skew towards those living in urban areas, which often represent the highest concentrations of population.

Bill Gates and some of the Ambassadors

Bill Gates, who I admire very much for his efforts to persuade on the rebalancing of world wealth, focused on two of his current projects – improved strains of cassava, which are disease-resistant, and eradication of polio.  The news on polio is very good, though you could sense the exasperation in his voice at the cost of eradication in these final ten countries, especially Northern Nigeria, where locals have been resistant to the prevention medicine, sometimes, I suspect, exploitatively so.

His focus on cassava is also well-founded, as it is such an important crop to stave off famine and poor weather reduction in productivity.  But as he was speaking, I was thinking that our experience is that some children we know at the Chrysalis Centre don’t really like to eat cassava, some even actively dislike it.  This will be an effective strategy, but I would like to see more work put into reducing the “poverty of experience” that people living in these rural areas have to endure.  Imagine a life of identical food every day, such that it becomes a routine, like washing or digging, not something to look forward to.  Has anyone given thought to the impact of a life of identical days, with no change, nothing to appreciate, no stimulation of the brain, other than perhaps a rural teacher speaking of dubious credentials teaching in local language?

This past year, we have given experience of life to rural children through our Butterfly North Programme and I don’t think any we have worked would feel now that a diet of posho beans and cassava is adequate for children’s development.  While they might tolerate it, new foods are important to encourage the growing of different types of crops and even marketing and entrepreneurial thinking.

This leads onto another area not touched on by Prof Rosling and Bill Gates and I would like to have heard them speak about – the development of vision in rural communities.  There are many opportunities to work in these communities to develop a vision development programme such as the Butterfly Project, which chooses children who are prepared to represent their areas and to help develop confidence and vision in their village areas.  People living in villages simply cannot develop “vision” in their environment, unless they are a freak of nature or, as we are proposing, have stimulating contact with the outside world and a desire to help their communities.

Almost every child has a talent, even if it is simply being good at hula hoops

While rural villages do approach their everday living in slightly different ways, dependent upon their location and sometimes on their local assets, the ability to develop a distinctive uniqueness is not there.  Crops are similar, culture is similar, even dwellings are similar and this is because of a lack of inspiration.  While I agree that eventually this inspiration will come naturally with the elimination of poverty, it seems to me we have we have lost an opportunity to speed the process of development in unique ways, through ignoring the potential within each village to direct its own future.  The talented young people are its future, so why ignore the chance to inspire them, just because we want predictable results from our efforts?  Why not inspire them to assist the change we want?

No one at the gathering yesterday was suggesting that those living in poverty are just numbers for our analyses, so I would like to see much more investment which values these communities for their uniqueness and intrinsic capability.  In other words I would like to see strategies that treat people living in poverty as equals.  If USA children deserve mental stimuli, then so do African children.  If we have a rule on child labour for British children, then the strategies we employ in Africa should also consider these core values.  We know the importance of dance festivals in African communities and how they can inspire positive activity and good relationships.  We know that activities for children – art, football tournaments, games and intellectual activities – can change the life of children almost overnight, as they realise their own potential.

I don’t believe we can develop unique solutions for each village cost effectively, so why not empower them to determine their own desired solutions?  If given a choice and avoid formulaic approaches villages can then choose, when they have a desire to develop forestry or even orchards and will work inspirationally to see these different solutions succeed and the enthusiasm to learn how to put their vision into practice?

So, when we think of poverty, think on the invisible poverty of starvation of stimulation, creativity and inspiration, that we all take for granted and think how you are considering people living in poverty as equals, so they can have the confidence to raise themselves up, not just rely on continuous aid.

In March, the Ambassadors will be available to give the “1.4 Billion Reasons” presentation to anyone interested and I’d be happy to be your presenter, if you are interested in having a presentation in your area – UK only, though!

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