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A Rationally Irrational Hope
Jay Jackson (Texas)

I was once a rational optimist, at least that’s what I call it. The condition climaxed around 3:00 pm on June 25th, 2008. I was boarding a plane bound for Swaziland armed with my copy of Jeffrey Sachs’, “The End of Poverty”, a leather journal full of western development jargon, and a vision of how my grand knowledge would aid in the final rescue of the poor. Some things change, not completely, but they do change. Now I would call myself an irrational optimist. Returning from Swaziland on July 22nd, 2010, dragging my crushed pride and the tattered remnants of development theories, I still had hope, but it was not hope in what we could do for the poor, it was hope in the strength of the poor. Can we, the “developed world”, end extreme poverty in the next 30 years? Not a chance. Could extreme poverty end in the next 30 years? With a hope in the incalculable strength of the destitute, yes I believe it could.

With the recent phenomenon of globalization the question of ending poverty morphed into how we can achieve success. If we cancel debts, build economies, cure diseases, educate the children, stop the wars and end corruption, it can be done. Scholars establish ingenious plans that are beautiful on paper, inflaming our imaginations at the possible depth and breadth of their impact. How could the plan fail when it is so perfectly designed? Like a physicist failing to calculate that reality isn’t a vacuum, these plans are based on a population that doesn’t exist. They are built for leaders who will give up their power for the benefit of their people, people who will give up their meager earnings for the benefit of their neighbor, and neighbors who make decisions based on a series of rational thoughts that only a computer simulation could follow.

As an HIV/AIDS educator living in a rural village of Swaziland for two years, my well read plans, theories and notions were quickly rendered useless. Naively, I thought to myself, “I will teach unlearned Swazis how HIV is transmitted and success will follow.” They knew HIV transmission better than I. “Well, there must not be adequate protection available.” There were free condoms in every village. “Free Testing?” Weekly. “Free Drugs?” For all who needed them. “The prevalence rates?” Continued to climb. “How can the people of this village possibly make such irrational decisions about their lives?” The answer came to me in the form of a question. How many highly educated, science driven medical doctors in the United States still use tobacco or discuss their most recent heart attack patient over a burger and fries? The forces that drive our passions and ultimately our decisions are not always based on reason, and can not be assumed from the outside. If we continue to believe they are we will continue to throw money and energy, despite the best of motives, into crumbling attempts at changing someone else’s world.

The plans that are created by our thinkers are truly remarkable, but to be effective outside the vacuum of theory, they must incorporate every factor. Every country is made of different regions, each region different communities, each community different homes, and each home different people. All of these need an individual plan designed for their passions, beliefs, and behaviors, whether rational or irrational, and such a plan could only be established from its source. We could see an end to extreme poverty, but I do not believe it will happen from external sources trying to pull the impoverished out or large plans infiltrating down. It will be through the collective passion, beliefs and behaviors of those at the bottom developing a vision, creating a plan, then pushing out and pushing up.

Some would deem this fatalism, but it’s not left to fate, it’s simply not in our complete control; the control lies in the unacknowledged potential of the destitute. So how do we facilitate development without controlling it? I believe it is primarily through our time and relationships and secondarily through our resources. Prior to distributing monetary donations, assuming we have relationships with the people, we can help channel ideas, develop business plans and then provide micro-loans for the impoverished. Before providing governments with funding to build schools, we can instill knowledge of, and desire for, quality education among students and their parents. HIV will not be stopped by idealistic Peace Corps volunteers standing in front of a group of Swazi youth talking about HIV, but by empowering Swazi youth with the courage to stand in front of each other openly discussing their struggles. There are extremely impoverished people who have brilliant plans and the means to enact them, but lack the confidence to do so. There are others who need a meal today and a plan for tomorrow. One needs encouragement and the other resources and direction. We can not know what is needed unless we are present and involved, and the solution for the one could be devastating to the other.

There is a place for government interjections, financial donations, and medical aid, but the place is only where the people they intend to help have reached an obstacle they can not overcome without external resources. The only way to know if the obstacle has been reached, and how it should be removed, is through immediate interaction with the people and communities involved. Some people need to know where the door is, some how to open it, and some who need it to be opened, but they all must walk through on their own. Otherwise, we cast our vision, display our strength and knowledge, and leave the impoverished with a sense that they can only achieve their goals through us. Could extreme poverty end in the next 30 years? Not through plans or theories, but through the incalculable potential of the destitute and all of our energy focused on igniting that potential, yes, it could. Is it irrational? Quite. Optimistic? Deeply.

It's about them

Sifiso Ginindza

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