Monday, March 28, 2011

In-Flight Entertainment

Exhausted, 10 pounds lighter, and wearing a tan that almost had people mistaking me for a Liberian, I sat between two massive engines laboring for the Boeing 767 that was carrying me across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.

As I sat there, almost two days after I had left the village, I was still running through everything that had happened in the last two weeks.

There were certain events that simply showed the amazing obstacles these people confront too often: for example, watching (and shortly after joining) Game pick up rice that spilled on the ground, grain by grain in the dirt, or when I went with Esther to see her home, slogging 20 minutes through thick mud and water over my knees. She goes through this every night, except she carries Ma-Mary on her back and pots on her head.

And the end was typical enough – they were sad to see me go, I was sad to go, I promised to come back. Some of them gave me gifts, which was really uncomfortable considering how much they had already given me.

But beyond this one of the real takeaways of the two weeks was seeing how people handle poverty across the spectrum.


During my trip, I’ve come to poverty largely in terms of opportunity. Under this definition, a villager with a small house, little money, but a technical degree and many friends in government agencies or formal companies would probably be less impoverished than a villager with lots of money, a big farm, but no schooling or outside contacts.

So, how do you get opportunity?

If we’re talking about the impoverished, you either WAIT for opportunity to come to you, or you SEARCH for it. Examples could be working extra jobs for tuition and being accepted to college (searching) or waiting for the country/economy to structurally improve and bring your standard of living with it (waiting). My arrival to the village was, in a sense, a convenient proxy for an opportunity.

Then, the question becomes: what do you do with it once you get it?

You either CREATE more opportunities for yourself and/or others, or you CONSUME it. For example, do you just milk the NGO that’s come to your village for all it’s worth, or do you try to capitalize on the program offered and/or the Western connections?

On the plane ride home from Monrovia, I sketched a diagram out, which I later altered a bit with the help of my cousin, a sociology professor. First off, I’ll admit it’s not the most simple and sexy diagram. I’m not a theorist. More technically speaking, a couple notes:

1) The pyramid is not indicative of ranking but rather of quantity (like the food pyramid). The middle “?” indicates that not all “Searchers” will be “Creators” and vice-versa.

2) The wave indicates that a person’s status as a “Searcher” or “Waiter” is not static, and is influenced by various things throughout their life like cumulative capital (financial, social, human, etc.) and dependencies (career, family, etc.). Perhaps I’m more of a searcher now, but check back when I’m married and have kids and see how willing I am to take big chances.


The reason I started thinking of it in these terms is because this is exactly what I saw in the village. On one hand, Togbah was comfortable to use me like a pocketbook throughout my entire stay. Conversely, Amos never asked me for money or for me to buy anything for him. He’s not content to wait and wants to create businesses that will have impacts far beyond himself. He’s already started saving, but I’ve offered to partially fund one of his businesses, which we’re discussing now.

James and Goma fall somewhere in between. They really valued me as a friend, I believe, and wanted to convert this friendship into support for themselves and for their children’s college. They’re a bit harder to characterize because I saw varying tendencies.

So what’s the point?

I think this has a lot of indications for development organizations/businesses and where they intervene. One school of thought is that if you have a limited number of aid dollars, to get the largest social return per dollar, spend the money on high potential villagers (creative searchers) and let them be examples to the others.

However, perhaps these people will be creative on their own, and maybe the people you really need focus on are people like James and Goma, who risk becoming a complacent waiter/consumer.

And this doesn’t mean that waiting consumers can be ignored – certain Bottom of the Pyramid approaches and business ideas, such as launching a product, really needs to pay attention to these consumers and what they want.

It’s not a perfect model, but thinking back to people like Josue in Mozambique, Sihphiwe in Soweto, and Anis in Bangladesh, it creates an interesting lens through which I can see how people handle poverty.

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