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6 Hard Lessons from Trying to Serve the Poor

January 4, 2018

 

From talking with a colleague today about a program that connects students to small enterprises in the developing world. 

 

There is a lot of good intention.  Many want to make a positive difference.  But many desire the feeling of making a difference more than the reality of making one.  

 

I count myself as one of them.  Really making a difference?  That takes a long-time and a lot of work.  In higher ed, the semester ends and we move on.  The community does not.  In businesses, the money runs out or the plans change and we move on.  The community does not.  

 

As we enter the spring semester for colleges and universities, many students will travel abroad and some intend to serve there.  In fact, around 350,000 students will study abroad (NAFSA) this year. Add to that around 400,000 Christian missionaries, (The Traveling Team), over 10,000 mostly youth in Teach for America, and around 7,400 Peace Corps volunteers (Peace Corps.gov).

 

There is a lot of good intention out there.  We had five terrific Smeal students help to start a small business in Haiti.  We received word that the business is facing challenges.  Of course!  But we have the great photos of the students.  We have the story.  We will get the kudos and the credit.  But we sat in her office and had to ask ourselves, "Is that really the point?  Are we committed for the long-haul to really make a difference?"  It would be easier to send out the press release and move on.  Fortunately, we decided we owe it to our students and the community to commit to seeing it through.  

 

The Feeling of Making a Difference

This is driven by our own agenda, timeline, set of values, and definition of success.  By definition this "feeling" we so desire is in us, but the "difference" is in someone else.  So it is not possible for us to define the change and drive the change.

 

Poverty, Inc., a powerful documentary on the aid industry, tells the compelling story of an organization donating eggs to a poor community. The local egg producers went out of business thus destroying a part of the local economy.  When the organization's priorities shifted somewhere else, they moved on with a feeling of making a difference.  The community was left poorer than before.