Tag Archives: Poverty

The Inherent Lens

Bias.  It’s what we as human being use to see the world around us, whether we like to admit it or not.  We see the world through the lens of our own experiences.  Sometimes that comes from things that have happened to us.  Sometimes it comes from things we’ve been told.  Often our vision comes from the way we would like to see reality, for our own benefit.  But we are born with the predilection toward bias.  Is it also true about the way we view the poor?

I received the following article from the organization, “Progress Through Business,” a non-profit located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  It was founded by an acquaintance of mine, John Hoffmire, whom I came to know through his advocacy in the ESOP world.  I found the subject and the data of the article provocative, and decided to include it here:

How The Rich View The Poor

The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines, been featured in the November election campaign, and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the relationships between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.

Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.

The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the critique offered by many who want change but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.

Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off portion of the U.S. society.

However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through his or her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?

So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?

A  New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman detailed research on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. I’ll call this research “study one.”

Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.

The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.

The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions”. This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.

If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.

Wealthier members of society may assume that everyone has the same opportunities and that those whose cognitive abilities are less efficient should not receive certain advantages in society because they have not earned them. This attitude, if it exists, is undermined by research that says that many cognitive difficulties are environmentally induced. In other words, those who live in economic stress may be impaired cognitively as a result of the stress caused by consistently living in situations where their economic lives provide bitter choices.

The research, which I will label “study two,” includes an experiment performed at a New Jersey mall and is detailed in a 2013 article written by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, all prominent university researchers. The subjects of the study were confronted with a scenario. They were told that they faced a common financial problem, such as paying for a car repair.

This problem was meant to activate real financial concerns that existed in the participants’ own lives. After thinking about how to come up with the money to make the payment, the subjects were asked to answer common IQ test questions. This research included a component that tested the respondents’ ability to answer questions correctly and quickly while under pressure. After providing a solution to paying for the auto repair, the subjects were asked to disclose their income.

The subjects were assigned either “hard” or “easy” financial situations, with an auto repair cost of $1,500 or $150 respectively.

When contemplating “easy” situations of $150 auto repairs, the poor and the rich answered the IQ test questions correctly at a very similar rate. When the auto repair cost was raised to a “hard” situation of $1,500, the rich performed about the same on the IQ test as they had during the “easy” situation. However, when faced with “hard” situations, the poor experienced a significant drop in the number of questions they answered correctly. This was in line with the researchers’ original hypothesis.

The experiment was then adjusted to include a financial reward of 25 cents for every correct response. Although the poor have a presumably greater need for the money, they still performed worse during “hard” situations than the rich, and earned roughly 18 percent less.

This seems relatively reflective of reality. The researchers go on to explain that the poor earn less not out of incompetency, but because they must allocate mental capacity to problems that are more pressing to them than to the rich.

Remember that the poor performed just as well as the rich when the stakes were low. The difficulty for the poor arose when the payment increased to $1,500, even when they had the ability to make money by answering correctly. Many expenses, which the rich consider minor, become major obstacles for the poor, requiring a significant amount of attention to address. This allocation of attention to pressing concerns may in turn prevent the poor from taking advantage of opportunities (such as earning extra cash in the above study).

Additionally, solving these problems comes at the expense of other basic needs. The researchers cite prior studies showing that the poor “use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents and worse managers of their finances.” According to the study, these troubling behaviors are caused neither by laziness nor incompetence but by decreased capacity brought on by the situations the poor face. This is due to the overwhelming nature of stressful situations, many of which are not nearly as difficult for the rich.

The study’s results provide key insights into the relationship between the rich and the poor. The occurrence of the types of problems discovered in study two should not elicit negative judgments from the rich but rather understanding. The wealthy could be much more interested in the poor, knowing that the personal difficulties in the lives of the poor may have more serious repercussions than situations in their own lives. The resources of the poor, financial and mental, are often already stretched to their limits.

If studies one and two are reflective of the reality of how the rich view poverty-stricken people, and I believe they are, it is a major misperception on the part of the rich to believe that the poor should always be able to recover from setbacks in the same ways as others. And if both of the above studies are true, then less-advantaged individuals’ traits of “keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions” are all the more impressive. Low-income individuals are able to allocate their attention to focus on other people, while the rich do not seem to have this same ability, often depriving the poor of sympathy and understanding.

The studies give us observations and a neurobehaviorialistic view of the relationships between rich and poor. But what else might motivate the lack of demonstrated concern of the wealthy for those less fortunate? Perhaps it is that the rich are so focused on gaining more wealth, status, and contact with other wealthy people that there is little incentive for them to get to know and care for the poor.

So the question arises, how can the rich turn their attention outward and toward those on the opposite end of the social ladder? One way would be for everyone to better understand the role of good fortune and the assistance they have received from others. Many have benefited from those who stand a few rungs up and a few rungs down.

We, of all social classes, could consistently be looking out for those who find upward mobility difficult and we could understand that trials and burdens are taxing, painful and often devastating for those at many points along the socio-economic spectrum, but are especially paralyzing for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. While those who are well off enjoy the comfort of ample financial resources, they could also strive to develop and use their own sense of a “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.”

I say this not only on account of the poor. It seems that many in other social classes are missing out on a special opportunity. I notice at times in our society that many people lack a sense of purpose. Dedication to the poor and a willingness to act on their behalf can bring great value to the life of someone who is willing to serve.

One who certainly showed attention to those less fortunate was the late Nelson Mandela. Leading a nation out of apartheid also meant fighting a war against poverty. Partly due to his work, South Africa began a process leading toward greater development in Africa. Mandela understood that our social interactions are key tools in combating poverty. He described our duty to do our part to help those around us and across the globe when he said:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

We could all benefit from allocating our own financial and mental resources in an outward way, paying special attention to those around us who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Adam Turville

It’s an interesting study and a sobering one.  I wonder what misconceptions others have about me….?

America First

Back in December, I posted here an imagined letter from a Nicaraguan to an acquaintance in the U.S.  The letter was wide-ranging in its topics, a general missive of introduction and inquiry, curiosity and clarification.  It generated an equally-imaginary response just days later from an equally-imagined person in the U.S.    Now our Nicaraguan  “imaginary friend” has written again, with an interesting perspective for those of us in the North.

Buenas dias, mi amigo!

I did not write back to you since December because we have been very busy with the farm.  We do the last of the coffee harvest now.  We also have been working with a research man here in Nicaragua who has been teaching us about changing and improving our farms, with many interesting ideas.  One example is completing a family investment plan (FIP), which is a very complete look at all of the aspects of our producer lives.  The exercise is very detailed and asks us questions about our farms, our families, our futures, everything.  Every member of our family has been helping with this.  So I have not been able to respond to you during these days.

I have wanted to ask you some questions about many of the stories we have heard recently.  During your election, we have heard many times  the call for “America First.”  Some of the people who live in our area became very excited when they first heard this.  They believe that your president intends to help the people in all of Centro America and Sud America!  As Americans, we can hardly believe it, but this what your president has said.

But there are others who say that he did not mean this at all.  The president of our administrative council says that he meant only the United States and that he was going to become even more demanding of other countries to help his people even more.  I told our cooperative members that the U.S. president would not have said “Americans” if he meant just U.S.  I reminded him that we are Americans and that we were Americans even before the U.S.  Many agreed with me but said this is not the way the U.S. president thinks of us.

Then I reminded him about the other saying that is used, “Make America Great Again.”  I told my friends that this was proof that the U.S. president meant us.  The United States has always been a great country of power and money, so there would be no need to become “great again.”  If he meant only U.S., then he would say “greater.”

The U.S. president said that he did not like the CAFTA agreement and that it was a terrible deal.  Of course, we in Nicaragua agree with that!  It has only benefitted the producers in the North.  We are hopeful that it might be considered again to be more fair.  I do not believe that the U.S. president thinks that CAFTA is bad for him, so he must be thinking of us, no?

In Nicaragua, we have lived through many actions from the U.S. that hurt our country and all of Centro America.  It is partly why many of our young people have decided to move away and find a better opportunity.  It seems to us that your president knows this and sees that past policies have not been fair.  Maybe he knows that our countries were once great, too, and now is the time to make them great again.  I hope that is how he thinks to end illegal immigration to his country.

I try to read articles that will explain these stories but it is very hard to understand what the new U.S. policies will be.  So I hope you can write to me and explain what you think is going to happen.  We believe in “America First” and making “America Great Again,” but maybe we don’t understand?

In two weeks we attend another workshop to learn more about the FIP and other tools to help us produce better harvests.  I will ask these questions then but I hope you will write to me with your thinking.

Adios, Su amigo Nicaraguense

I’m not sure whether a response to my Nicaraguan friend will help much in his understanding of evolving policy in the U.S.  Most of it does not make much sense to us in the North, either.  Meanwhile, I was sent a link to YouTube, copied  here, which puts into visual form what our Nica friend was trying to say.  We are not the only Americans, or even the first….

 

 

 

 

 

Last One Standing, Only One Standing

It’s not often that I’ve yielded the blog space here to some other writer or article, but tonight I’m utterly compelled to do so.  The news story, here presented from the Associated Press, speaks for itself.

Below, an Indian woman uses a traditional mud stove in the area in front of her hut in a slum area, outskirts of New Delhi, India, Tuesday, March 1, 2016.

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DAVOS, Switzerland — The gap between the super-rich and the poorest half of the global population is starker than previously thought, with just eight men, from Bill Gates to Michael Bloomberg, owning as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, according to an analysis by Oxfam released Monday.

Presenting its findings on the dawn of the annual gathering of the global political and business elites in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, anti-poverty organization Oxfam says the gap between the very rich and poor is far greater than just a year ago. It’s urging leaders to do more than pay lip-service to the problem.

If not, it warns, public anger against this kind of inequality will continue to grow and lead to more seismic political changes akin to last year’s election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

“It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when 1 in 10 people survive on less than $2 a day,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, who will be attending the meeting in Davos. “Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty; it is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.”

The same report a year earlier said that the richest 62 people on the planet owned as much wealth as the bottom half of the population. However, Oxfam has revised that figure down to eight following new information gathered by Swiss bank Credit Suisse.

Oxfam used Forbes’ billionaires list that was last published in March 2016 to make its headline claim. According to the Forbes list, Microsoft founder Gates is the richest individual with a net worth of $75 billion. The others, in order of ranking, are Amancio Ortega, the Spanish founder of fashion house Inditex, financier Warren Buffett, Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim Helu, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.

Oxfam outlined measures that it hopes will be enacted to help reduce the inequality.

They include higher taxes on wealth and income to ensure a more level playing field and to fund investments in public services and jobs, greater cooperation among governments on ensuring workers are paid decently and the rich don’t dodge their taxes. And business leaders should commit to paying their fair share of taxes and a living wage to employees.

Max Lawson, Oxfam’s policy adviser, urged billionaires to “do the right thing,” and to do “what Bill Gates has called on them to do, which is pay their taxes.”

The ability of the rich to avoid paying their fair share of taxes was vividly exposed last year in the so-called “Panama Papers,” a leaked trove of data that revealed details on offshore accounts that helped individuals shelter their wealth.

“We have a situation where billionaires are paying less tax often than their cleaner or their secretary,” Lawson told The Associated Press. “That’s crazy.”

It’s because of this kind of inequality that trust in institutions has fallen sharply since the global financial crisis of 2008, according to Edelman, one of the world’s biggest marketing firms.

In its own pre-Davos survey of more than 33,000 people across 28 markets, Edelman found the largest-ever drop in trust across government, business, media and even non-governmental organizations. CEO credibility is at an all-time low and government leaders are the least trusted group, according to the survey.

The firm’s 2017 Trust Barometer found that 53 percent of respondents believe the current system has failed them in that it is unfair and offers few hopes for the future, with only 15 percent believing it is working. That belief was evident for both the general population and those with college education.

“The implications of the global trust crisis are deep and wide-ranging,” said Richard Edelman, the firm’s president and CEO. “It began with the Great Recession of 2008, but like the second and third waves of a tsunami, globalization and technological change have further weakened people’s trust in global institutions. The consequence is virulent populism and nationalism as the mass population has taken control away from the elites.” 

Edelman highlighted how “the emergence of a media echo chamber” that reinforces personal beliefs while shutting out opposing views has magnified this “cycle of distrust.” According to the survey, search engines are trusted more as an information tool than traditional news editors, 59 percent to 41 percent.

“People now view media as part of the elite,” said Edelman. “The result is a proclivity for self-referential media and reliance on peers. The lack of trust in media has also given rise to the fake news phenomenon and politicians speaking directly to the masses.”

Edelman said business may be best-placed to help improve trust. Companies need to be transparent and honest with their employees about the changes taking place in the work-place, improve skills and pay fairly, he said.

The online survey was conducted between Oct. 13 and Nov. 16, 2016.

This, readers, lies at the core of nearly all of the unrest and discontent that exists in the world today.  Philosophical disagreements run deep, to be sure, but even behind such issues, there is almost certainly a clash between economic deprivation and overabundance.  It’s an untenable reality, much like the pending impacts of climate change.  In both cases, we collectively will step up to face the problem, or we will become victims of our own inaction.

We’re now down to the top eight wealthiest people in the world, in a game of “last one standing.”  I cannot help but wonder what he/she will do in the face of a fully dispossessed humanity….

Slaves to Custom

Having just finished attending the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, I have to be careful in using language that in any way could diminish the atrocities of modern-day enslavement.  To my embarrassment and astonishment, I have learned that there are approximately 168 million children currently victimized as virtual slaves worldwide.

These are not cases of children working for their parents or relatives for sustenance.  These are kids who are most often abducted, sold and involuntarily subjected to dangerous and demanding work in sex brothels, mines, fields and factories.  They are forced into child prostitution or the labor black market to produce many of the clothes, foods and electronic devices that we in the West use every day.  By comparison, the zika virus is incidental.  The real epidemic facing us as human beings is found in the involuntary servitude of children, some as young as five years old.

The scope and horror of child slavery is so broad as to be nearly invisible to those of us in the West; we have become very good at numbing ourselves from such overwhelming issues, rendering them to statistical status.  But the idea of enslaved young children numbering more than half of the entire U.S. population is a reality to warrant shame for every one of us, and more than enough to summon the resources and resolve of humanity to end this modern holocaust.  And yet, it continues.

The focus of this year’s Peace Prize Forum has prompted me to wonder about how untenable circumstances arise in the first place, and what combination of apathy, ignorance and disinterest is capable of rendering otherwise empathetic human beings into uncaring bystanders.  The transformation is both baffling and fascinating.

I think it must be like the example of the frog and the heated pot of water. Legend has it that if you were to place a frog into a pot of boiling liquid (no frog has been harmed in the writing of this piece), it would immediately jump out to escape the heat.  However, if you were to place the frog into a pot of tepid water and gradually increase the heat, the frog would adapt to the changing temperature so well that it would remain in the water, even to the point where it would succumb to the boiling temperature.

We human beings seem to be very good at accepting our environments and the discomforts that we observe around us.  We have innate senses of right and wrong, but can be maddeningly silent in the face of the most atrocious violations of human rights.  What may begin as an act of desperation can transition to a custom.  What is accepted as a custom may be adopted as a cultural norm.  And cultural norms can evolve to a sovereign practice, an “emperor’s new clothes” ritual, wherein observers recognize the wrong but remain too silent in the face of it.

If we can be tepid in the face of child slavery, we should not wonder at our seeming acceptance of so many other injustices that confront us daily.  The idea that a Nicaraguan producer might have to exist on less than $2 per day will have little resonance in our combined conscience, until we personally are faced with the decisions that a $2 income produces.  The alarm bells of wealth disparity that continue to sound within our global economy will generate little response, until finally, the top 1% controls it all.  We are unlikely to address the plague of gun violence in our society, until one of our own family members is among the next 50 to be destroyed.  We will accept the outrageous insults of politicians and their cronies, until the attacks become focused upon our ethnicity or lifestyle.  We seem to be slaves to the easy acceptance of the warming waters around us, only jumping at the boiling point.

I’m sure there are elements of the human psyche which psychologists could use to explain these tendencies about us.  Maybe we should read about them to better understand the risks and threats to our collective existence.  Our slavery to apathy is filled with consequence, whether we see it or not.  Dante Alighieri, poet extraordinaire of the Middle Ages, even warned us about it in his own time, observing that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who,in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”  Knowing the consequences might be an important thing, before we fall victim to our own nature….

 

The $2 Bill

I spoke before a college social work class last week.  The theme of the discussion was the impact of public policy on the lives of not only U.S. citizens, but also on residents of other countries.   I appreciate sharing the Winds of Peace experience with young people for several reasons: they universally exhibit an interest, they represent the best opportunity for future impact and I can usually recognize “lights turning on” in the face of dramatic stories and photographs that are shared.  What more could a speaker ask?

In this particular class, I tried something new to make a point.  Since the class size was only 15, I decided to distribute brand new $2 bills to each person.  (Thank goodness the class was not immense in size- I might have been forced to reconsider this strategy altogether.) Initially it may have seemed as though I sought to pay the students for their attention and interest, but not even I am desperate (or wealthy) enough to stoop to such a tactic.  Instead, as I explained, the $2 bill was theirs to keep and to reflect upon.  For there are many  for whom that $2 represent an entire day’s wages.                          unnamedThe $2-a-day threshold has been widely referenced when talking about global impoverishment.  Unfortunately, it has been recited often enough that the notion no longer seems to stir the incredulity that it once did; it has become a sad and interesting statistic with less “punch” than it had when we first heard of it.  I wanted the $2 bill to change that, by providing a unique (we don’t see many such bills in circulation anymore) and tangible ($2 in the hand is worth more than words) representation of just how little that amount is.  Then we went on about how some of our own consumption habits influence this state of affairs.

The first reaction of the students was bemusement; perhaps not many guest presenters have left money behind.  But once the bills were in hand, I invited them to consider how their money should be spent, given the realities of everyday needs.  To complicate their deliberations, I also suggested that their dilemma might be even more difficult in real life with the presence of a child or two; the $2 bill is still worth only $2.  There are not many Starbucks coffees to be consumed in that scenario.

When I have spoken about Nicaraguan poverty in the past, some have questioned whether goods are considerably less expensive in Nicaragua than in the U.S.  But by offering a comparison of some common grocery and clothing items in each country, that myth was quickly dispelled in class.  There are no “easy outs” or solutions for this reality.  The fact is that $2 does not come anywhere close to meeting basic living needs, and it’s emotionally disturbing to come face to face with that.   If the students keep the $2 bills for the uniqueness of the denomination, maybe they will also retain the empty feeling they experienced as they contemplated a life of deprivation.

I don’t have enough $2 bills to give away to everyone.  (Do we really need them?)  I can nevertheless invite people to use their own resources to consider what life might be like on $2 a day.  The exercise quickly moves from thinking about which niceties we might be able to do without to a more difficult evaluation of which essentials would have to go.  The first part of the deliberation is vexingly entertaining; the second part is maddeningly impossible.

If the $2 exercise properly infects the students from last Tuesday’s class, they will be left with a virus which has a cure, albeit a difficult one. The treatment for the disparities between those with more than enough and those with less than enough is personal understanding, knowing in both head and heart that the gap exists.  If that treatment truly takes hold, we’ll know what to do next….

 

 

 

Planters and Harvesters

I think most people would be surprised to learn the difficulty involved in being a funder.  Most often, when folks learn that I work for a private foundation which provides grants and loans in Nicaragua to really poor people, they respond with something like, “Oh, what wonderful and rewarding work that must be.”  And while it’s true that there is great intrinsic satisfaction in working with our Nicaraguan partners, there are other layers in our labors that one might never anticipate.  It turns out that, like in most enterprises,  it’s not all that easy to envision, plant, nurture and harvest the precise outcome desired.

That reality was impressed upon me again recently in a conversation I had with an acquaintance about measuring end results.  That’s something which most aid organizations are prone to do, because without some sort of results to tout, raising funds from potential donors or justifying actions to a Board of Directors becomes quite difficult. The easiest measurement to take, of course,  is the number of dollars placed during a given year, under the assumption that if an organization is placing lots of money it must be creating lots of impact.  (Which is not always the case.)  During my conversation, a number of additional measures were cited, including number of households served, geographic area covered, number of women included and loan default rates.  We all search for some way to affirm that funds and energy expended have been put to good use and yielded a good result.  We want to look forward to a “harvest” of the good intentions and capital that we have sown.

Understandably, there are many aid organizations for whom the harvest is the main objective and without a reasonably short and certain “growing season,” they won’t make the investment. Harvesters are numerous and they are essential to vibrant development and organizational accountability.  They represent significant funding sources.

But one of the realities of development work learned by WPF over these past several decades is that sometimes germination just takes longer than we’d like, and there is no certainty of anything growing out of a particular investment made.  Risk is without guarantee, and especially when swimming upstream against currents of rural location, prevailing culture, limited education, autocratic governance models and natural disasters.   So occasionally, the exceptionally poor require the presence of “planters,” those who are willing to sow in marginal soil, where possibly the only measurement is whether anything can bloom- not in micro-loans returned or number of houses built, but in whether there are grounds for further accompaniment and relationship.

Planters bring an entrepreneurial appetite for exploration and risk.  They are willing to “get proximate” enough to make a bet on the lives of deeply marginalized people. They not only lend and grant, but also accompany.  Measures are not unimportant, to be sure, but they are less sure. And for planters, that’s OK.  Because eventually planters hope to be harvesters, too.  They just may be willing to wait longer to be so.

Working on development in the rural sectors of any country is not an exact science.  WPF has developed its perspectives and methodologies over thirty years of on-the-ground observation and partnerships.  There is no existing formula for certain success.  If it was formulaic work, more institutions would be doing it, with assurances of success and favorable measurements to share with the donor base.  It isn’t that easy.

We are all members of the development universe in some capacity, whether we acknowledge it or not.  As members of a common humanity, we do have an obligation to one another.  Our actions, whether small or large, create an impact, good or bad.  Harvesters are willing to travel where the path is rocky, but straight, so that they have reasonable expectations of repeating their success.  Planters bring visions and seeds to scatter, in the recognition that neither the path nor the final fruits are necessarily clear; they are less sure of their own viability in the process.  But we need planters and harvesters and every other resource we can muster in order to blunt the disgrace and indignity of deep impoverishment. …

 

 

 

 

 

Blueprinting Justice

I had the privilege to hear an extraordinary activist and speaker last week.  Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the most acclaimed and respected attorneys in the country.  His memoir, Just Mercyis his story of fighting on the front lines in a country prone to extreme punishments and careless justice.  Time Magazine recognized him as one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2015.  The New Yorker cited Stevenson’s TED Talk on the subject of injustice as one of the five most essential TED Talks.  Oh yes, one additional point:  Stevenson is also a resonant voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

I attended his presentation expecting to learn about dramatic examples of injustices which have occurred in this country, and he provided many of those.  I hoped that he might even offer some insights about both the reasons for and the solutions to some of these miscarriages, and he offered clear views on these.  What I had not expected was his perspective about change and the elements which are critical to bringing about a more uniform and reasonable justice.  As it turns out, he might just as well have been speaking about the poor in Nicaragua as the wrongly-incarcerated in the U.S.  In either case, justice missed its call.

As Stevenson spoke of what would be required of us to mitigate at least some of the miscarriages of justice he has encountered, I was struck by his “blueprint.”  For as he iterated the four important elements of his thinking, he proposed nearly the same set of needs as those which WPF has experienced and amplified over its 30 years of work in Nicaragua.  Consider his priorities for a changed context of justice:

Get Proximate.  Stevenson suggests that in order to truly understand and know the immense cost of injustice (both financial and human), one has to get closer to its reality.  There is an uncomfortable heat generated by institutional unfairness that can bring any of us to a cold sweat, because we are all susceptible, in the same unsuspecting ways as many of Stevenson’s clients once were.

If we wish to truly know the stories of the poor, we face the same call for proximity.  Reading about it in the comfort of a living room is safe, even if sad.  But standing among those for whom $2 a day represents total income is an exposure to virulent indignity.  Being invited to a meal by such a family is an exercise in damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t, as you understand that sharing such food is taking it away from where it is desperately needed, but refusing it is a rude dishonor.  Effective development work  requires being in the middle of the reality, accompanying those who struggle with not only material assistance but also emotional and social support.  Worse than being destitute is being destitute and alone.

Change the Narrative.  Stevenson advocates for a change in our understanding and beliefs about people.  For him, this means addressing the fears and angers that fuel inequities, violence and conditions for injustices to metastasize.  Ignorance about cultures and ethnicities and histories are the breeding grounds for prejudiced thinking and the virus of irrational belief.  Sometimes the storyline  is just plain wrong.

Without a change in the narrative- by living first-hand experiences that shape our basic knowledge and feelings about others- we stand little chance of repairing the systems which pave the way for poverty and injustice.  Our notions that people in impoverished countries don’t really want to be independent are patently false, just as our belief that U.S. jurisprudence is free from factors of class and race is a myth.  Our stories color a great deal of our beliefs; it’s imperative that our stories are therefore factual.

Embrace Hopefulness. In his talk full of poignant stories, Stevenson might have been forgiven if he had allowed the audience to become depressed at hearing case after case of wrongful incarceration and lost lives.  But his outlook is one that is decidedly upbeat, because he believes in the power of the human mind and spirit.

Likewise, the cause for hope in a land like Nicaragua stems from the resilience of its people and the multitude of people- both inside and from outside of the country, including WPF- who are working hard to convert their good intentions for assistance into actual development results.  The degree to which we succeed in such “good change” may well be determined by the degree to which we heed Stevenson’s blueprint for justice, as outlined here.

Be Willing to Do Uncomfortable Things.  Getting out of our comfort zones.  It’s clear that Stevenson’s work takes him into some of the most uncomfortable circumstances imaginable, working with death row inmates, confronting the harsh realities of lifelong imprisonment, consoling the families of victims and perpetrators alike.  Sharing a last meal.  Stevenson confesses to his continued emotional discomfort of such circumstances, even to this day, but also recognizes the importance of it.  He has heard the entreaty, “please come back again,” countless times from voices who have little other source of hopefulness.  The work is not comfortable, but necessary.

Just like in Nicaragua.  The breadth and intensity of poverty there- economic, educational, developmental- makes for environments that are difficult to understand and to accept.  The rural sectors of the country reflect limited opportunities for its people despite their collective determination and the presence of well-intentioned aid organizations.  But if poverty results are to change, then our collective and individual responses to the disease must change, as well, and that will take us out of our comfort zones.

We’ll do with less.  We’ll speak up publicly more.  We’ll have allowed ourselves to get proximate enough to feel the discomforts.  We’ll become intimate with the truths obscured by myth and manipulation.  And we’ll retain our sense of foolishness to believe that each of us can make a difference within our own niches of life, that we will do the things that others say cannot be done.

Without ever likely having been to Nicaragua, Bryan Stevenson seems to know it with clarity….

 

 

 

 

 

Bridging A Gap

It’s an exciting time for many in this country, with the first visit of Pope Francis to the U.S.  Some 70 million U.S. Catholics notwithstanding, it’s remarkable to see and to feel the excitement generated by this pope.  Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been mesmerized by the rock star quality of this man and, more notably, of his message about taking care of each other and the planet.  It’s a moment to savor, this feel-good visit from someone who has the capacity to generate an upbeat and hopeful message; not many could do it.  But it also creates a disconnect for us, as we cheer the messenger while simultaneously spurning the message.

Like many, I have watched copious news coverage of the papal visit, out of interest and curiosity.  I’m both interested in hearing the topics that Francis has chosen to highlight and curious about our collective and positive reaction to him and “the higher Chief” to whom Francis reports.  But I wonder about the gap that exists there, one that Francis has referenced on several occasions in his talks here.  That distance between the emotional uplift of this man’s visit and  the reality of our daily actions is wide, and I am confounded by that space.

How is it possible that we can be so emotionally and spiritually attuned to the lessons Francis brings, while at the same time living our lives deaf to our own opportunities to respond?  Matters of climate and environment, poverty and hunger, stewardship and servanthood have seemingly captivated the pope’s audiences around the world- now including the U.S.- at a time when the debate rhetoric around such issues has never been more polarized and heated.  And we are all the same in this spiritual conundrum that afflicts us between our feeling and our doing.

Catholics from Latin America are especially in love with Francis, for he is “of them” and speaks to Latin Americans in their own language, a connection which is treasured.  From country to country Francis is welcomed by heads of state who cherish the moments of being in the presence of the pope and his hopeful message, only to return all-too-frequently to their autocratic regimes of favoritism, exclusion and oppression.  Even in the rural reaches, professors of the faith who hold a very proprietary view of Francis and his humble servanthood will too often seek to take advantage of opportunities for gain over good character.  We are seemingly infected with the virus of selfhood.

In Europe, the pontiff is received upon red carpets and with gifts of expressive love by leaders who, in some cases, have slammed shut the doors of receptive love on the very homeless about whom the pope continually reminds us.  Particularly on the European continent, we are afflicted with the disease of short memory about dispossession and relocation.

In the U.S., political leaders have clamored to be among those in audience with the pope; few were absent as Francis addressed Congress.  Yet some of these eager faces will reflect a far different countenance in the days to come as the country weighs national interests of short-term corporate health against interests of long-term personal, national and global well-being, of political postures versus strength of character, of support for military revolutions in contrast to Francis’ “revolution of tenderness and love.”  Here, we are seemingly diseased through our affluence and power.

The observations and questions posed here are not intended to be accusatory or pejorative to anyone other than perhaps myself.  To be sure, we are complex beings with internally competing motives that shape us day by day, even hour-by-hour.  We are human, imperfect by definition.  We cannot be perfectly consistent because we live in dynamic surroundings, some physical, some emotional, some spiritual.  We are subject to awesome and unexpected changes to our lives, alterations which can be both unanticipated and unexplainable.    Our world is transforming every day, in ways seen and unseen to most of us.

But almost despite those realities, Pope Francis has been able to reach out to the world with a message that has caught us off-guard but which is full of possibilities.  The receptivity to that message does not depend entirely in the voice of the deliverer, but in the hearts and minds of the rest of us.  Francis has asked us to be our best selves. Consistency between that ideal and our daily actions is entirely within our command.  Deep down, that’s why we’re so glad the pope is here, sharing his universal words of humility and hope, and why we long to embrace both him and his message….