Ugly and True, Part I

February 1, 2013

“There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous…”

So begins a 2010 op-ed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof detailing the lifestyle choices of many parents in the developing world that prevent their children from flourishing by, among other things, obtaining an education. Kristof gives an illuminating view of several families in the Congo Republic for whom liquor, cell phones, and call plans are more of a purchasing priority than the funds needed to pay for monthly tuition. 

This reality can be seen in the pockets of poverty throughout the United States, and we all know (or are) middle or upper income parents who sometimes make poor financial choices that put selfish pleasures above a child’s well-being. But in countries like the D.R.C. or Ethiopia, the effect of millions of families making similar choices over and over, in successive generations, is a de facto enslavement to destitution.

Kristof is renowned for his writing on the developing world and is respected for his sensitivity to cultural and geo-political factors that shape nations and people groups. He recognizes the risks involved in challenging or ‘blaming’ the social norms in these communities for their role in keeping people impoverished: 

“Look, I don’t want to be an unctuous party-pooper. But I’ve seen too many children dying of malaria for want of a bed net that the father tells me is unaffordable, even as he spends larger sums on liquor…If we’re going to make more progress, and get kids like the Obamza children in school and under bed nets, we need to look unflinchingly at uncomfortable truths — and then try to redirect the family money now spent on wine and prostitution.”

He concludes by suggesting solutions like putting more financial control in the hands of mothers and initiatives like micro-savings groups, what we call Self-Help Groups. We’ve seen the success of this program in improving educational opportunities for children and inspiring unity among husbands and wives. One woman reports, “Before I was saving, my husband thought I was a parasite.”

Going further, one must ask, what’s going to change the men in these communities? We cannot say it doesn’t matter, because drunk husbands are just as likely to abuse their wives as they are to limit the progress of their children. How do we help men find more pleasure in the prosperity of their sons and daughters than the mind-dulling effect of booze?

The most effective solution is found in the one who said, ‘Let the little children come to me’. Next Friday, we’ll see what He may say, whether it works, and connect that to the Africa Water and Life strategy in West Arsi, Ethiopia and beyond.

Part II