Friday, January 08, 2010

Ending Poverty (period)

It seems like ending poverty has become quite fashionable in recent years. Movie stars, politicians, and economists are all getting in on it. No doubt, it's a great sound bite, and who could possibly criticize it? For much of recent history, it has been articulated as a goal of any modern society.

As humans moved from rural agricultural societies to urban industrial societies, wealth began to be created at levels that made the elimination of poverty possible, at least theoretically. Inspired, we have had "wars on poverty" and much important literature, as well as social and religious movements, have been aimed at this worthy goal. We have seen the launch of the UN's Millennium Development Goals to halve poverty by 2015. We have seen books with titles like "The End of Poverty" (with a forward by Bono) and "Creating a World without Poverty" (just out in paperback).

Well this bothers me.

What's wrong with me? How can I be against ending poverty? Don't I agree with Dr. Yunus's hope that someday our grandchildren will have to go to a museum in order to see what poverty was like?

Sure. It is a grand sentiment: the eradication of poverty, period. But this grand sentiment can have a pernicious effect on entrepreneurs and activists. Billions of people are in poverty, and no one is going to lift all of them out of poverty. Perhaps poverty will always exist.

So, as a budding entrepreneur or activist... what if your venture is only going to help a few villages, perhaps by providing a cleaner source of drinking water? Should you even bother? Surely, it isn't fair to people in neighboring villages who don't get clean water. And, heck, maybe clean water isn't the biggest problem, maybe you need to build schools too. Wise people will advise you to "scale up." Others will tell you that you need to have systemic solutions. Otherwise, you just aren't a player.

One of the people I respect most in the field, Paul Polak (who wrote "Out of Poverty") is fond of saying "if you can't lift 1 million people out of poverty with your idea, don't bother." Now, I know Paul pretty well, and I think he says this with a wink. He is being provocative. Encouraging entrepreneurs to think big, to consider how they could scale up. But I think (hope?) that he has a lot of respect for entrepreneurs that will educate 10,000 girls, or help 1,000 midwives make a living by providing healthier birthing environments.

For better or worse, I hear apparently well meaning people repeating these "don't bother" words like they were engraved in stone and found on a mountain. Who wants to invest in a small village water project? How will we eliminate GLOBAL poverty with these many small efforts? Listening to TED talks and experts, I keep hearing of all these big ideas to eliminate poverty. Woe unto any entrepreneur who wants to figure things out for a while before they talk about scale. The message seems to be: Better to go BIG and be wrong, than go little and get it right.

I disagree. I'd like the donor community to start seeing themselves as community gardeners: encouraging thousands of entrepreneurial seeds to sprout in their plots. Perhaps with each focusing on a few crops, but trying lots of varieties. Sharing their seeds from successful plantings with others who have similar soils and climates. I am pretty sure that monoculture, even from benevolent souls, is not the answer to our global challenges. We are eager to find the super productive and adaptive crop, and transplant it all around the world. To date, these transplants have had little success.

I am skeptical of the large scale efforts, and attempts at rapid scaling. I certainly understand the entrepreneur's propensity to see the limitless impact of their idea and their desire for speedy implementation (these are personality quirks from which I occasionally suffer). A few years ago, word got around that to be attractive to VC's, entrepreneurs had to offer a certain package ("$50 million in revenue in 5 years"). Soon, every business plan hit this number. Then that wasn't enough, and business plan inflation ensued. I am not sure this resulted in new ventures growing any faster, although it may have eliminated some honest entrepreneurs. I am afraid that budding social entrepreneurs are being lead to believe that they need to hit similar numbers to find capital.*

Yes, I hope that we can end poverty, but I believe it will happen one family at a time, one business at a time, one community at a time. The path of human development is a frustratingly slow one. To figure out how to improve income or health for a thousand people is worthy work, and should be celebrated, even if it doesn't "scale up" to millions. The venture that has served 1,000 people has a better chance at scaling than the idea that has served none.

Loren Eisley's starfish fable is instructive. I don't plan to invest my money or my time in ventures that claim they will save all the starfish on the beach (often while standing on a bluff above the beach, sipping chardonnay). I will spend my time on those ventures that are down on the beach, have saved a few starfish already, are dedicated to continuing their work and have a knack for teaching others to save starfish. Period.

*Kudos to Ian Fiske of the William James Foundation Business Plan Competition, who asks evaluators to measure the ventures against their self-defined measures of success, rather than some artificial hurdle of triple bottom line success.


Unknown said...

Hello Paul, Kale from the Poverty News Blog here. Our blog so far has been a news source, collecting links and stories about the struggle of the poor around the world. We now want to begin having guest bloggers who are social entrepreneurs. You could either write original material or we could use posts already written from your blog. Let us know when you have a moment.

Bopreneur said...

Paul Polak emailed me the following:

Paul, I like what you wrote, even though I don't agree with parts of it.

I applaud initiatives that help one village. That said, I think achieving scale is the biggest unmet challenge in development. My point simply is that if you listen to people in any developing country village, 15 or 20 problems that are important pop out pretty quickly.

Out of these, why not chose the problems that potentially apply to 1,000 villages to work on, in preference to problems unique to one or two villages?

The other part of this is that I believe design for scale has to be incorporated from the very beginning, or it won't happen.

That said, i strongly encourage you to hit "publish"

Paul Polak

zenrainman said...

Great article and I for one agree completely with your views.
It is also wonderful that Paul too takes it in the right spirit and encourages you to publish...
more power to your elbows say I

Anonymous said...

See this WSJ piece: "A fresh start: Asian villages carve out a new life." Wall Street Journal. Jan 8, 2010

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Hi Paul,

Great blog. You might want to check out our Social Enterprise here in the Philippines. We're called Hapinoy (Coined word for "Happy Filipino").

We have a unique business model that focuses on small neighborhood convenience stores or retail-based outlets that sell various things, mostly basic commodities --- what we call here, "sari-sari stores."

here's a link to our website:

and our video:

hope to hear from you soon.


michelle "pabsy" pabalan

Brittany said...

Hey Paul,

I agree with a lot of your sentiments. You should check out this great article hear, about how poverty is romanticized:

Also, check out the Acumen Fund:
They are the most innovative approach I've found so far, mostly because they DO focus a lot on experimentation in small communities before widescale implementation. You can also check out some talks by Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO, on TED.

hope that cheers you up a bit, and feel free to check out my blog:

Best wishes,

Lilou said...

Hello Paul,

Always nice to hear opinions on the subject. We all have different views & approaches to the problem, but I think like you said what is important, is that at least we are all "doing" something.

I get a bit frustrated, (however well-intended they might be) to listen to folks' never-ending debates about how and if's, theorizing everything to death, while they could be doing instead.

The other source of frustration is the tunnel-vision syndrome that so many seem to suffer from. So determined stand out, to find an innovative, mind-blowing solution that they miss the obvious: The simpler solutions that can be implemented today.

Finally, I have to agree with Paul Polak: A project should be designed with scale in mind from the very beginning. While there is nothing wrong with starting small, it seem a shame to not think big from the very start.


Ingrid Vercruyssen

carla tennenbaum said...

Thank you for directing me to this post Paul! I agree with you entirely, and it is very relieving to find this perspective voiced in such an eloquent and compelling way.

I see that there is logic in what Paul Polak says about incorporating design for scale, but it's not the kind of logic that speaks more directly to my soul, and certainly not one that should forcibly be applied to all initiatives. I say this with conviction because I have personally seen the negative effects this approach has had on the budding ventures of young people who hadn't necessarily set out to "save the world" or eliminate poverty, but had their heart's eyes on something beautiful and worthy and transformative, that somehow was made to seem less beautiful and worthy and transformative by being measured against such 'logical' external standards and values.

Bhalchander said...

Hi Paul,

Excellent post!!
I think you have brought in huge degree of realism to ending poverty. In my opinion, to end poverty we need thousands of vibrant community focussed institutions which focus on the needs of the poor and the communities they work with. Big scalable ideas or organizations are useful and necessary but by themselves they are not adequate.

I think we also need multiple approaches - for-profit, non-profit, triple bottom line and social businesses. Given the magnitude of the problem at hand each will find its niche.