Hope, identity, and character: three forgotten truths about ending poverty

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Imagine a community in the Global South, perhaps a group of informal workers in an urban slum, or a group of subsistence farmers on marginal land.

Is there a successful model or simple idea that might dramatically change things for these women and men?  A magic bullet that could help them escape poverty?

Part of my role involves identifying these ‘scalable models.’  Replicable ideas that have worked in one place and could work elsewhere (with some contextualisation, to use the jargon).  I can give you a couple of well known examples: conservation agriculture (which helps farmers increase their yields) and micro-finance (making small loans to help people start businesses).

However, when I worked in the field in Zimbabwe, one local project leader, who ran a super-successful, internationally-recognised NGO, told me that more than half of their material related to (and I paraphrase here): issues of identity, hope, and character; rather than the technical expertise that they were known for.  

In ‘Walking with the Poor,’ Professor Bryant Myers suggests that “the deepest form of poverty is poverty of being, ontological poverty,” where people begin to see themselves as less than human: a broken sense of identity.  Unless this is addressed, endowing someone with technical expertise makes little difference.  Unless they have hope that things can turn out well for them after all (and the character to fight for this), then they never bother to put new technical knowledge into practice.  What’s the point, if you believe you are powerless to escape a life of poverty, and even deserve it?  

In other words, the success of this NGO rode as much on their ability to walk with and empower those they supported, as on their ability to teach them a particular technique.

Sitting at Tearfund’s annual global gathering of international staff this week, I’ve been reminded of this.  The search for magic bullet models is only part of the story.  Successful community development is as much about walking in relationship with people as it is about finding a ‘killer idea’.   It’s about helping people face their fears and find hope in desperate situations, about reminding them that they are powerful people whose choices matter.  Helping them articulate their hopes, and rediscover their true identity.

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