There are people in this world that do crazy, unthinkable things to make the world a better place. Elijah is one of those people doing crazy things. He lives in the Silaloni area of Kenya - outside of Mombasa. Kenya is one of the countries where many people live on less than $1.90 a day. Extreme poverty is defined by the World Bank as living on an average of US $1.90 a day or less. Families in these conditions represent well over a billion people on the planet, with nearly double that amount living on less than just $2.50. But, poverty is more than a lack of income. Extreme poverty is multidimensional.
Elijah, like many in the rural communities of Silaloni, has siblings, parents, and neighbors who never had the chance to go to school to learn to read and to write. Most of whom are women. And years of drought in this area mean entire communities have been painfully transitioning away from agriculture and subsistence farming only to rely on urban slums and isolation. This impacts one's culture, environment, health and wellbeing and even one’s potential. These factors create difficult choices.
So while income is crucial, multidimensional poverty is also about impossible decisions. So what do the choices look like for Elijah and others in this vulnerable state? It means the choice between school or work, between living with your family or migrating to urban slums or choosing between food or medicine. Options become obscure and choices constrained.
But the world has not been idle in the face of this problem; decades of humanitarian efforts have tackled the root causes of poverty. In fact, between 1990 and 2010, nearly a billion people moved out of extreme poverty. So why then, amidst the progress and innovation of our era, do nearly 20,000 children still die every single day due to hunger-related causes? As James B. Mayfield, Ph.D., and CHOICE co-founder with over 50 years of field experience puts it, he, along with practitioners like him, are “experts in what doesn't work.” Initially, experts and governments gave TO the poor. However, understanding that the poor don’t need to be fixed, they began to do things FOR the poor. But when handouts failed, and poorly designed projects went underutilized, inclusion became key, and they began working WITH the poor. Always, however, with the idea that experts HELP the poor.
People like Elijah and the circumstances of others like him aren't problems to be fixed, programs to be funded, nor projects to be built. They are partners to be had.
It is our belief that true poverty alleviation can only be achieved when done THROUGH the very people we aim to support.
When Elijah and fellow community leaders decided that they were tired of their kids not attending high school simply because they couldn’t afford the fees, he got to work.
Years before, Rita, the CHOICE Kenya director and her team began organizing the Silaloni community around a concept called community-based organizations¬ (CBO).
And what has that CBO done? It has organized parents around a scholarship program in which hundreds of parents pay a monthly fee into a pool. If the community collectively reaches its goal, CHOICE then matches the amount 2 to 1. Then, the CBO, along with parents and community members, allocate high school scholarships to deserving, eager students in need. The first year, 36 awards were granted, in 2016, 121.
Think about that for a minute. Can you imagine if you got together with your neighbors, and all started putting in money beginning in elementary school, so that, years down the road, maybe..... just maybe.... your child could be one of those selected to continue their education. Imagine caring so much about the IDEA, to attend a high school that you were just as committed to potentially sending your neighbor's child to school as your own. That's community-led development.
Right now, in each of our seven countries, our teams are working with dozens of communities and leaders like Elijah, at a given time. They are training leaders to design, fund, and carry out their own projects.
Whether it’s a community scholarship program in Kenya, heated solar classrooms in Bolivia or agricultural projects in Ecuador, CHOICE leverages every program dollar, roughly 5 to 1, by working THROUGH leaders like Elijah.
Elijah cornered me in front of 500 people during a fancy farewell ceremony on a recent expedition. That expedition was supporting his CBO in the construction of classrooms and desks for over 400 children. He presented me with a letter and a crazy suggestion.
As anyone who has been on an expedition knows, when you leave, it's a time of both celebration and deep reflection. Even though I know our team and the community leaders will carry on the work, I am always left feeling the weight of how much can still be done, which is why the simple words of Elijah and his letter are so powerful. I'll never forget the wild twinkle in his eye as he handed me his letter. In his letter, he requested additional support. But he was not requesting support for his community, but rather eager to pay it forward by helping another community in the construction of a sister school. To me, that is what its all about. That is to say, it's about empowering people to help themselves, and then give them the tools to think beyond their own needs scheme on how to help those around them.
At CHOICE, we believe that when crazy people like us partner with crazy visionaries like Elijah, we have the power to look at old problems in new ways and ultimately change this world for the better.
Normal, just ain't gonna cut it anymore.
I invite you to join CHOICE in our crazy movement to End Extreme Poverty.
CHOICE Humanitarian Expedition Director
*This post is an abridged excerpt from a presentation given at the CHOICE Annual Journey’s Gala in Sept 2016.