Rich lessons from the working poor
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Unpoverty [uhn-pov-er-tee] -noun

1. the state of eradicating extreme poverty
2. the reversal of a perpetual state of deprivation
3. the provision of basic human needs
Base word origin: 1175; Medieval English poverte
Old French poverte Latin paupertatem, small means

Much of what we learn and read about the poor has kept them distant and impersonal. They have become an intellectual category, a problem to be solved. Some politicians and policy makers may find that useful, but if we want to achieve unpoverty we need to know these people as unique and worthy human beings. A mother living on the streets of Kolkata loves her child as much as a mother living in a gated community in suburban Chicago. A child helping his father scavenge through garbage has the same right to an education as a youngster enjoying recess on her school playground in Orange County.

We need to see the poorest of the poor with new eyes. Rather than pity them for their poverty, respect them, learn from them, and maybe even recognize yourself in their hopes, dreams, and spirits. Just like you, the poor want to enjoy their families, prosper, and reach out to help someone else. That is the way I believe that extreme poverty will become obsolete.

For the past 25 years I have visited the cardboard and tarpaper huts of families who live on garbage dumps. I've hiked dusty paths to African villages whose names do not appear on most maps. I've tiptoed across makeshift bridges over open sewers that give a new meaning to waterfront homes.

The purpose of my travel is business, but I don't wear a power suit or negotiate multi-million dollar contracts in richly paneled board rooms or over sumptuous meals in elegant restaurants. The clients I work with are not vice-presidents or CEOs, and you will not find their businesses on the Fortune 500 list.


I work for an organization that provides small loans to very poor people in the developing world so they can start businesses and feed their families. The technical term is microenterprise development or microfinance. Whereas a start-up business in the United States might seek several million dollars in venture capital, our typical initial loan is less than $150. These are not gifts, but real loans with interest and payment schedules. Before prospective business owners receive their loan, they are required to develop business plans that must be approved by a loan officer. By just about any conventional standard, our clients would not qualify even as high-risk borrowers. Credit checks are out of the question because these people live in a barter-and-cash-only world. We make many loans to people who officially don't exist because they have no identification papers, no passports, no birth certificates.

Most of the businesses I work with are tiny in revenue, but giants in resourcefulness, innovation, and entrepreneurship. When it comes to supply-chain management, containing labor costs, liquidity, return on investment, and net profit margin, businesses I work with could teach Fortune 500 companies a few things. And while I know many fine business leaders in the West who are tireless workers, no one outworks the business owners I have met in the developing world.

You would think that loaning money to people so poor might create a huge number of defaults, but our overall record is very good. Of the more than one million loans we make each year, only two to five percent have defaulted. Something tells me that most banks in the United States would love that kind of record.

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