My Journey on Exploring the Different Solutions to Poverty: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions We Should Ask
My father served in the Pakistan Air force so in my 22 years I have had the good fortune to have lived in 3 very different countries; Pakistan, Indonesia and France. In Pakistan alone, I have moved around in four provinces, thirteen different places; big cities, towns and small villages. This gave me a unique perspective and understanding about the diversity and beauty of such distinct cultures, languages and values of the different people and places within Pakistan. At the same time I couldn’t ignore the different set of problems each of these regions had, cloaked behind the different faces of poverty.
From a very young age, I have always been troubled by the socio-economic problems and inequalities that existed in the entire world. Growing up, I have always tried to understand why such disparities existed as I closely saw the deplorable living conditions of the poverty-struck population of Pakistan. Rather over-ambitiously and naively, I dreamt of a Pakistan where no citizen was deprived access to food, health care, basic necessities, quality education and equal opportunities. I knew that I needed to contribute to improving lives in my country, I just didn’t know how or where to start.
Volunteerism: A short term solution to a long term problem
Over the years my urge to contribute to make this dream a reality grew and encouraged me to do more. I started getting involved in different local NGOs in Islamabad focusing on primary education, health service delivery and orphanages. I came to see that most of these NGOs had a short-lived impact, trying to find a short-term solution to a long term problem. Most of these NGOs lacked resources, and were limited by inconsistent donations. Behind good intentions, to attract bigger donations many had to constantly display poverty often in unethical manners which could be nothing less than damaging to the recipients of those donations. I started to self-reflect; orphanages where I volunteered to teach during the summer and made many friendships with little children, I never returned, leaving them with a feeling of abandonment and emotional damage.
Public Sector Contribution to Poverty Alleviation: Understand the problem at its core
My increasing frustration and the worsening conditions of my country pushed me to understand the problem at its core and I applied for an internship program at the Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms. I was assigned to work with the Dr. Asif Chisti, Project Director Vision 2025. I was made responsible for formulating a Marketing campaign surrounding this vision with the objective to make the population more aware of Government’s work towards development of the country and its plans for the future. My experience changed my skepticism on the government’s role in poverty reduction, as I saw many competent government servants working day and night towards different partnerships and programs to make progress on a macro level. This experience encouraged me to pursue my Graduate degree in Development Economics to compliment my passion for the development sector with the required know-how to address this problem at its core.
During my time at Vanderbilt, in my capacity as a student, I met a lot of like-minded people, all hailing from different countries trying to seek a different answer, often times for a problem specific to their countries. I always tried to increase my knowledge of the subject by specifically taking courses that focus on Impact Evaluation. I learnt to appreciate the depth of Impact of recent new innovative projects and policies all around the world and the profound implications that its results could have on the economy. At the same time I also learnt the cruel irony of good intentionsby outsiders (international organizations, NGOs, etc) in making matters worse by creating dependencies which has intergenerational effects. It all comes down to the old “give a man a fish” vs. “teach a man to fish” quandary, wherein donations provide a temporary fix, whereas training and help building connections to the world market could empower a way out.
Market Solutions to Poverty: Turner Family Center of Social Ventures
As I became more and more uncertain of the success of recent developments in the development sector, I came across the Turner Family Center (TFC) during my first semester at Vanderbilt. The TFC focused on one of the most exciting developments in the fight against poverty in the form of a new kind of business called Social Enterprises. TFC immediately caught my attention and I knew I had to be more involved. These enterprises are market based solutions to poverty that created sustainable social impact by providing the poor with beneficial products and services, while creating improved livelihood opportunities. These innovative models target a wide range of areas, from healthcare to education, sanitation to housing.
TFC gave me an opportunity to meet different people from different disciplines working on the same solutions bring more varied perspectives. In my first year, I got involved with the Turner Family Center in a series of different projects. My first interaction with the TFC was through the Hult Prize@Vanderbilt, which gave me a better understanding of how complex finding solutions can be and how simple it seems from the outside, as we struggled to find and develop energy innovations that can be scaled to improve the lives of millions. Later I got more involved with them as a first-year committee member for the Summit. Through all these interactions with TFC I started to learn more about what Social Enterprises are, how wide and varied the spectrum of it can be. However, my most crucial experience with the TFC was when I had the opportunity to be selected for Project Pyramid.
Project Pyramid: Community Concepts of Poverty in Context
My experience with Project Pyramid was truly really important in caving a pathway towards my future career. Our Team was paired with a start-up Social Enterprise, Colecto, on a mission to help them fight their challenges on their way to make their desirable impact. We were grouped with different students from all different graduate programs at Vanderbilt. Colecto is a social web project, which was found in Colombia in 2016 by Bob and his wife, with the aim of alleviating poverty by connecting coffee gatherers with coffee farms that require workers to create fair working conditions and to bring in more people into the labor pool. Currently the organization is working on increasing their network by getting more and more farms to register in hopes that more farmers would follow in the pursuit of fair wages and better working conditions.
Going to the trip was my most memorable experience (despite not having spoken any Spanish – nada!). Coming from a developing country, it was interesting to see how similar our problems were, yet how different they can be in different cultural context. It also wasn’t until when we went to trip when our whole perspective changed about our project that we had been working on for the past 3 months. Although, Colecto was helping fix the matching problem, we found other alternate problems Colecto offered solutions to. Colecto was the solution to financial inclusion for the low wage coffee pickers that didn’t have access to financial tools. We saw that the gap in financial inclusion in Colombia exacerbated the problem in fighting poverty and made it harder for people to save. Right now, the coffee pickers get paid in cash and this makes them vulnerable to spending it carelessly (and most often on illegal activities such as consuming drugs and hiring prostitutes).
Furthermore, other than looking at all the opportunities that Colecto had to offer which weren’t being fully exploited we also had the chance to go around meet other entrepreneurs in Colombia. We were really impressed by the efforts of these entrepreneurs into using innovative modeling and technology to contribute towards their economic growth. One of the most interesting organization we had the fortune to meet with was “Ruta N” (Route N). This was an innovation hub that was responsible to encourage and fund innovation solutions to the city of Medellin. One of their first projects were the famous cable cars in the city. The CEO also told us the historical significance of the organization that worked towards rebuilding the city that was plagued by Drug Mafias and war.
We also met with another organization “Nequii”. This was a project of Banco Colombia that focused at attracting the youth towards an easy access banking system that only used a mobile number to open an account. They showed us the app and we were amazed at how advanced this was in comparison to all the banking apps we were all familiar with. They were also trying to integrate financial inclusion of the lower wage earners in Colombia.
During our trip, our Project Partner Bob and his wife made sure that we had a strong grasp on what the Coffee industry in Colombia looked like. We visited different Coffee farms, and saw what the whole 3 stage process looked like. Our client told us that knowing the process was integralto knowing what the project was about. We had the chance to look at the dreadful living spaces of the coffee-pickers that stayed during the harvest time. One of my group partners described the living spaces as mirroring “Concentration camps”. This really made us realize how poor these people need to be to accept such conditions to live in which made us ask bigger macro level questions focused around if the coffee industry is fixing the wage gap, or if its creating it?
Putting It Altogether: The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
While I believe that entrepreneurship lies at the heart of the problem in development countries and its sphere of influence extends to political and social issues and is increasingly central to reducing inequality, a successful development solution needs to incorporate all spheres of development solutionsto come up with a holistic and coordinated effort. These solutions need to foster innovative social transformation through education, research, and collaboration in public and private sectors, nationally as well and internationally. I believe that Social enterprises can indeed make a tremendous contribution, but only if those of us who support these enterprises widen our lens and tackle all these challenges that these new enterprises face and play a stronger role to helping them overcome those challenges. We not only need private sector initiatives to begin from the communities within, but also need governments support to create a supportive environment for these start-ups to thrive. Local NGOs need to adopt and implement strategic policies to cope with the challenges that come their way the keep them from making the impact that they set out to make. At the same time, international NGOs need to spend more time in developing culturally sensitive solutions to the pressing problems of communities. I would like all these different parts to be coordinated for effective use of resources and greater result.
I believe that the mission of TFC can make a tremendous contribution to build future leaders and entrepreneurs to find solutions to global challenges all around the world. Whilst academics are integral to understanding essential concepts and core theory, it is experiential learning that enhances a student’s personal development. Fortunately, last year I was able to participate in a number of activities led by the TFC, which enabled me to develop a very holistic outlook. I feel honored to be able to serve on the board this year as the Chair of Communications to help TFC better achieve its goal and give more students the opportunity to start seeing the systemic nature of the challenges that social ventures face and play a stronger role to help them overcome those challenges.