Monday, October 18, 2010

Discussions with Jacqueline Novogratz: Global citizens and the relativity of poverty

Whites often claim that Africans in South Africa were better off than Africans in the rest of the continent. Our complaint, I said, was not that we were poor by comparison with the people in the rest of Africa, but that we were poor by comparison with the whites in our country.
-Nelson Mandela

Why would you go work abroad when there’s plenty of poverty here in the US?
This is a question I’ve heard dozens of times, and – despite how tired I might get hearing it – the reality is that it's a great question. A question to which my answer has actually evolved over time. 

When I began working full time in development, I would have naively argued that there’s no way anyone could compare, say, a single mother living in the States – even in a place like the Queensbridge projects – to the HIV widows that I worked with in the Mathare and Kibera slums. McDonalds for dinner versus one meal of maize and beans every two days just didn’t compare.

But after a year in Kenya and South Africa, I came to a number of related realizations: that poverty really is relative. That Nelson Mandela was right. And that when a single mother in NY shares the same street as hedge fund billionaires, poverty to her might feel the same as poverty feels to the women in Kenya.

This past week, the Acumen Fellows and I had the opportunity to talk with Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen’s CEO, about a number of issues, including this notion of the relativity of poverty.
We discussed countries such as Kenya, who were much happier before they were infiltrated with forces from the west that forever captured their perception of happiness. No longer was the simple idea of, say, a united family and a decent living as appealing, given that the benchmark wasn’t their neighbor in Nairobi but their neighbors in New York, North Hollywood, the suburbs of New Haven, and any other city/town on TV.

Jacqueline identified this as a phenomenon where we are all global citizens, interconnected in a world where our actions (and inactions) have infinite and often unforeseen consequences on our global neighbors.  

Mario + Jacqueline, cooking on our retreat
Given this reality, it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of success and happiness in western culture has penetrated the developing world. What should be surprising, however, is that the information swap isn’t reciprocal. Specifically, it should be surprising (and disappointing) that although Kenya knows so much about the US, Americans know so embarrassingly little about Kenya. 

Which returns to my earlier point: imagine if Americans really understood Kenya. If we knew that a mother might spend 25% of her life collecting water, or that the average family makes less than $2 a day, or that 1 child out of every 8 won’t make it to her 5th birthday. And then imagine if we knew, and internalized, that there are billions of other mothers and families in hundreds of other countries that are even worse off than Kenya.
If that was the case, and we really understood the realities that our global neighbors faced, would not the lady in the Queensbridge project view the wealth and opportunities that she has much differently? Yes, she’ll still be poor compared to the hedge fund billionaire, but that will no longer be her only benchmark.

Kitchen clean up w/me + Chika
Am I suggesting that we should ignore the needs of those in our own country? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that the mother in the Queens project has an easy life? Clearly not. What I am suggesting, however, is that if we really are global citizens, then the notion that poverty is relative should eventually become irrelevant. By making an effort to understand our global neighbors, to understand their struggles (and blessings), we will not only learn from them but will also develop an entirely new perspective on the circumstances and opportunities we’ve been given.

P.S. Helping share these stories is a significant part of what this blog is about!

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