Providing opportunity is the key to lifting families out of poverty

Providing opportunity is the key to lifting families out of poverty

In the United States, Congress is debating whether to increase the requirements for work or job training as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which helps impoverished families pay for groceries. The overarching goal would be to provide an impetus for families to eventually move off of this assistance and not be forever reliant on help. 

At the same time, there’s a current trend in international development for providing monetary assistance without any requirements or direction to families in impoverished regions elsewhere in the world. This trend follows a number of empirical studies — conducted everywhere from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Pakistan — explaining how families in dire circumstances understand best what they need to move out of crisis, and these needs can vary from region to region or even within communities.

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There is a third option, however, and that’s where the most broadly appropriate solution can be found. It revolved around one simple truth: Just about everybody who is in poverty wants to improve their economic standing as quickly as possible, whether in U.S. cities and the countryside, or anywhere else around the world.

 

Poverty should not just be viewed as a lack of money though. If you instead define poverty as a lack of opportunity, then programs to address poverty and its many problems — including hunger — should focus on increasing the aid recipient’s economic opportunities. And the successful ones do just that. 

These programs should teach people how to fish, to paraphrase the old adage, and not only give out vouchers for seafood. Helping people exit poverty means this assistance should be provided not as a prerequisite for giving aid but as a part of an overall package. While it is important to acknowledge the need for families to have food on the table three times a day, there is more to moving a family out of poverty than simply helping make ends meet.

Rose Achieng used to work as a subsistence farmer and “sugar cane crusher” on other people’s land in Migori County, Kenya. Too poor to afford her daughter Christine’s school fees, she enrolled in an entrepreneurial training program for people who live on less than U.S. $1.90 a day that my organization runs. With the seed money and mentoring she received, she opened a business selling kitenge — colorful printed fabrics that are popular in East Africa —with her daughter and a neighbor.

The women found that customers preferred to buy dresses and skirts instead of the raw fabric, so they quickly reconfigured their business to meet customer demand. Christine took the lead on production; she had learned the tailoring trade in another program. Without business skills and seed capital, she would have remained a manual laborer and not the business owner she is today.

Their enterprise — selling outfits and matching accoutrements made from kitenge — is now thriving. Rose has even saved enough to buy her own land to farm and, coming full circle back to her roots, is looking to grow sorghum and millet, commodities in demand but not grown locally.

This is the aspiration of every aid program, of course: to generate self-sustaining success stories. The approach that helped Rose — providing seed capital in the form of cash grants, training and mentoring to develop business skills and an entrepreneurial mindset, as well as access to savings groups to build social and economic networks — has been independently evaluated and compares favorably to other approaches in international development.

The program worked for Rose because it was provided locally — there were no geographic hurdles to navigate. Job training requirements are less successful if the recipients have to travel considerable distances to receive the training. And of course, a $150 grant can go a lot further in East Africa than in the United States. But the lessons learned can still be applicable to SNAP being debated in the U.S. Congress right now.

There are plenty of initiatives that implement this model with great success in the United States. Groups like Centro Community Partners in California and C4Q in New York inspire and train entrepreneurs in underserved communities, building the small business that play a vital role in the U.S. economy. 

The basic tenets remain consistent across the board: Effective business training and mentoring provided locally plus funding to help launch a business can help create a sustainable escape from poverty anywhere.

Reducing poverty is an urgent need, both in the U.S. and overseas, and should be the benchmark for success. Limiting the scope of programs by reducing the number of families receiving assistance — the point of debate in the U.S. — is not necessarily the same goal. These programs should be designed to change the paradigm that placed families in poverty in the first place. Program requirements need to expand opportunities and unlock potential. 

The goal should always be to reduce the number of families in poverty — both in the U.S. and around the globe.

Dianne Calvi is the CEO of Village Enterprise, nonprofit dedicated to ending extreme poverty in rural Africa through entrepreneurship and innovation.