When we first set out to fully flesh out our vision of transforming 1,000,000 people trapped in unfathomable poverty to become self-sustaining entrepreneurs, we started digging into who these people really are. Who should we work with to start this venture? Whose lives should we begin to knit our lives with?
Both Brad and I had seen unfathomable poverty up close – Brad in Africa, and me in Haiti and rural China. For those who’ve been, you know what I’m talking about. That kind of poverty can not be captured with a camera or a news segment, or even a documentary. The direness, the endless hopelessness, the putrid stench, the complicated back stories, the deep, systemic brokenness, and personally most haunting for me as a dad: the faces of young children who’ve known no joy. I don’t mean to be overdramatic about it, but basically it is exactly: 100% unfathomable.
Nonetheless, 3 things really surprised me about the poorest of the poor: the “bottom billion” as experts have labeled them (which makes them sound so… sterile) — the 1.3 billion people living (and dying) off of $1.25 per day.
1. Only 25% of the bottom billion live in “poor” countries- in fact, they live in (often rapidly) developing countries whose GDP per capita has grown tremendously. These countries have begun to arrive on the world’s stage, but the wealth has not distributed evenly. They’re just as poor (if not poorer) then before, but now to make matters worse, they have rich neighbors. They’ve been left behind. They live in countries like India, Pakistan, and others you might not expect. It didn’t used to be this way – back in 1990, 93% of the poorest lived in poor countries. This has huge consequences as to how to think about the poor and how to eradicate poverty in our lifetime.
2. Rich people aren’t necessarily any happier than poor people. Yes, more comfortable. Definitely more safe. But not more joyful. Why is that? A weird thing happened to me when I was in Haiti. Despite all the poverty, we met some people that showed me something I hadn’t seen for a long time – authentic joy. They didn’t have nice cars, or barely a working bicycle. They didn’t have nice houses, or barely 3 mud walls. But they had each other. They were thankful for the days they had together. Here I was in Haiti trying to help them, but in fact, they helped me more. I had no idea how fragile and superficial my definition of happiness was until then.
3. Compared to the poor, I’m lazy, arrogant, and have no creativity. So much of my preconceived notions about the poor was that they were stupid, didn’t work hard, and (pardon my crassness) didn’t know how to stop having so many darn babies. I firmly believed that they were poor because they deserved to be. Sorry buddy, your choices, your life. But when I dug deeper, I saw them as the exact opposite. They have a lot to offer – more than you might imagine, except they live under a system that systematically, unfairly, and brutally keeps them down. More on this one another time.
As we get ready to visit the slums in India next month, we are bracing ourselves to be rocked and surprised again. Have you seen the poor face to face? What was your experience like?