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What if most of our beliefs about poverty are wrong?

Social innovators show how assumptions and stereotypes of those living in poverty can shift

Social innovators show how assumptions and stereotypes of those living in poverty can shift Image: REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

Mauricio Miller
Founder & Managing Partner, Center for Peer-driven Change
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Society and Equity

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  • Assumptions around poverty could be flawed from the very start.
  • Stereotypes around poverty need to shift to highlight success stories already happening.
  • There are residents in every community that show how to take positive steps. Their self-defined efforts can be amplified to scale social change.

Approximately 80% of the world’s population continues to struggle in and around poverty. As Dr Bonnici and Cynthia Rayner point out in The Systems Work of Social Change, neither government nor the fragmented philanthropic efforts have closed the socio-economic gap. If anything, the social and economic gaps continue to grow even though some of the brightest and most well-intentioned people in the world have spent trillions to fight poverty.

To date, there has been some success at reducing mortality rates and even making poverty more tolerable for some. Despite all those encouraging efforts, socio-economic mobility is only available to the few; poverty is not yet escapable in any large, sustained way. We’ve tweaked and adjusted our efforts for decades so we must consider that there could be something fundamentally flawed in our attempts to reduce global poverty rates.

The wrong assumptions

What if we focus too much on finding the deficits in a community, their problems or needs? Have we been collecting the wrong data or the wrong stories? Are there embedded solutions hidden within those targetted communities that we have ignored?

“We don’t avail ourselves of the incredible, omnipresent, self-renewing power of social change that exists in everyday people, in every neighborhood, and has existed throughout history – we need to work with what people are already doing,” says Rohit Menezes, a partner at non-profit and NGO consultancy The Bridgespan Group.

We are misled by proverbs such as “Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime”. Do these proverbs mislead society into believing that low-income people have no agency to “fish or learn to fish" unless outsiders teach them? We need to learn more about the success stories that happen naturally outside of institutional efforts.

Global income and wealth inequality. poverty stereotype
Global income and wealth inequality. Image: World Economic Forum

How did entire communities succeed before poverty reduction programmes existed? Former enslaved people built more than 50 All-Black towns in the US state of Oklahoma. More recently, Iu Mien refugees stopped the gang wars in Oakland, California and tracked their kids out of gangs and into college (something I describe in The Alternative).

The stereotype that people facing poverty don’t help each other, that they are like “crabs in a boiling pot, pulling anyone back that tries to climb out” is wrong. What if people do help each other and what if that is an asset that we can use to scale social change? What if our efforts from the outside hide or discourage mutuality among peers?

What if, instead of looking for the problems or deficits in these communities we look for the positive innovations by the people themselves?

Save the Children researcher Jerry Sternin found that children in Vietnam were malnourished but knew that introducing Western diets and habits would not be feasible. By contrast, some children in typical families were doing well which led him to investigate. Though facing similar circumstances, Sternin found that a small number of families had developed differences in diet and feeding.

Trends in income and wealth inequality. poverty stereotypes
Trends in income and wealth inequality. Image: Pew Research Center

He called these hidden behaviours “positive deviations”. Rather than starting new programmes or looking for outside solutions, he suggested those practices could be amplified by the villagers themselves, peer to peer. Rapidly, and with minimal cost, these new ideas developed by the people themselves affected more than 50,000 villages.

Behaviour studies show that in most groups of people, rich or poor, there are positive deviations (social innovations) by everyday people that provide practical solutions to local problems. Other studies of diffusion of innovation demonstrate that peer role modelling and sharing is much more effective and less costly than professionally run training.

What if instead of social innovators like me being offered challenge grants to solve something, we challenged communities to come up with ideas and gave them access to the resources needed to lead their own change? People self-organize all the time. It seems we have underestimated the ability of people to work together and solve their own problems. Every day, people just need to be given the opportunity and resources to lead their own social change.

Have you read?

Social innovators fighting poverty

We have all personally experienced peer-driven change – our parents pass on traditional medicines or friends influence our career and even our fashion choices, as described in The Tipping Point. Programmes such as Mothers2Mothers rely on mothers to pass on information and help other mothers. The Center for Peer-driven Change is a collaborative of groups in 11 countries demonstrating peer-driven change.

But this peer-to-peer learning and expansion does not have to be structured. It happens every day, everywhere and in all aspects of our lives. In Drive, Daniel Pink summarizes decades of behavioural studies showing that people, rich or poor, all want to direct their own lives, learn and create, and do better for others. It is the naturalness of mutuality and helping others that can scale change as we promote and recognize what the Bridgespan Group found in its research.

The stereotypes that people facing poverty don’t help each other, that they are like “crabs in a boiling pot, pulling anyone back that tries to climb out” is wrong.
The stereotypes that people facing poverty don’t help each other, that they are like “crabs in a boiling pot, pulling anyone back that tries to climb out” is wrong.

Poverty stereotypes don’t help

I grew up in one of those households that funders and programmes typically target: a single mom with a third-grade education from Mexico with two young children.

What I saw in my family and in our neighbours is that societal stereotypes were wrong. The deficit-based attitudes about us led to solutions that didn’t grow our hard work and talents.

What I saw reflects the truth behind Rohit Menezes’ statement: someone in our community was always trying to break barriers and my mother would look for those to be our role models.

For the billions struggling in and around poverty, the helping sector’s deficit view and assumptions only hamper their progress. We must start from the positives of what people are already doing and amplify their best practices. People that have little or nothing are amazingly resourceful.

Most of what society believes about people living in poverty is wrong. If we change our starting assumptions, we will change our solutions and make real change.

Maurico Miller is a Schwab Foundation Social Innovator of the Year 2020.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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