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Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

We Are Not Always the Answer

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Minata Konaré is proud of what she and others have done in her Saving for Change group in Mali. “This is our own money,” she says. Brett Eloff/Oxfam America photo
Minata Konaré is proud of what she and others have done in her Saving for Change group in Mali. “This is our own money,” she says. Brett Eloff/Oxfam America photo

With the abrupt economic downturn I have to wonder what will happen to US foreign aid budgets when the new president assumes office. Barack Obama originally said he will double foreign aid to $50 billion by the fourth year of his administration, if he can get elected. Earlier this month he said he will probably have to re-evaluate this plan, but that he does not intend to cut the foreign aid budget. It seems certain: Whoever becomes the next president may have to devote more treasure to bailing out banks and other unforeseen expenses.

I was thinking about this because today we are announcing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is donating $11.7 million to Oxfam America for our Saving for Change program, which trains people, mostly women, to start their own saving and lending organizations. This helps them start businesses and become more self sufficient, and the results are impressive: More than 155,000 participants since 2005, and more than $2 million in savings. The key here is the savings: this is money poor people themselves save and lend to each other, not money from you or me, or Bill or Melinda Gates. We just pay to train people how to form the groups, keep track of the funds, and save. They take it from there and it costs almost nothing to run these groups. Some participants also help form other groups, again at no cost to the program.

Two years ago I spent a couple of days talking to women in Mali about how Saving for Change has helped them. The thing they kept stressing was their own ability to save and build their savings. No one had ever told them that they were capable of solving their own poverty, but now that they had proven that this is possible their perception of themselves and their world had changed. One young woman named Minata Konaré who sells tea, sugar, and other prepared food to her neighbors told me, “sometimes I give part of my profit to my husband, and he is very glad. I don’t have to ask him for money to buy things; anything I need I can buy myself. Usually the husband has to do everything for the wife, but I can use part of what I earn. This is really good for women.”

There is no question that the United States has to continue to fund important aid programs that fight poverty, so we can achieve the Millennium Development Goals. But don’t think for a minute that money from you or me is the answer for every poor person’s problem—sometimes we need to give them the right education and tools, and then just get out of the way.

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  1.  avatarMichael Borum

    This couldn’t be more true! Based on my own, admittedly limited, exposure to the developing world (West Africa), I was nothing short of stunned and thrilled to witness the energy, entrepreneurship and positive attitude demonstrated by nearly EVERY SINGLE PERSON I encountered. It is an awful myth in the North that Africans, for example, are somehow culturally incapable of engaging in responsible commerce and building a strong civil society.

    In many ways, it is we who have forgotten what it means to want something so basic and to be willing to work so hard for it. We’ve also, sadly, forgotten what it feels like to achieve that success, in that we too often take it for granted. The people I met in Senegal were grateful for their opportunities, and did not expect anything from me that they didn’t somehow earn or receive in exchange for something equally valuable.

    I think it comes down to a respect for the dignity inherent in all human beings. Nobody wants a free handout–they just want opportunity and a chance to make it on their own. I don’t know a single American who would disagree with me.


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