No, not the clothing store (though that can be stifling too!). I’m talking about the gap between the economic classes here in Ethiopia. You can’t go anywhere here without being faced with it. People driving their fancy cars by mud homes and homeless children. On one side of the road is a nice multi-story shopping complex and on the other side there are people starving. Within 10 minutes walk of each other you can find a nice coffee shop and a red light district. Everywhere you walk, there are people asking for some money or some bread. Everywhere you turn, there is someone that seriously needs help. The gap is stifling.

I have been thinking about this more and more lately. I’m not really sure why. I guess after living here for more than a year I am realizing more and more just how big this gap really is. It is difficult to wrap my mind around. It is overwhelming.

What’s even more difficult to figure out is what to do about it. I have been thinking more and more about the homeless people on the street who beg me for money. I have been realizing how cold I have become towards them. Walking by them without even a glance. I feel awful about it. And I debate with myself about what I should do. On one hand, I think that we are supposed to help everyone in need – even if some of them are faking it or are children employed by someone who takes all their money at the end of the day, or whatever other problem there could be. Shouldn’t I just give to them anyway? On the other hand, I have read so many books and talked to so many people that have said giving out money like this only makes the problem worse in the long run. What should I do? This is a question that I am not sure I will ever have a solid answer for.

The world has tried the system of giving handouts for so long now and the results aren’t that great. The world is still in an awful situation, even though billions of dollars are being thrown at the problem. Obviously we need to rethink the way we are trying to fix the problem of poverty in this world. I am completely behind ideas like micro-lending and social businesses. Instead of just giving handouts, we can use that same money and really help these people get out of poverty. On a global scale, micro-lending and social businesses are making a huge change. I think an important factor is that the people get a sense of pride in what they are doing. They are happy to do work to improve their lives.

Another important distinction between the two is that handouts are demeaning and these new methods are uplifting. The world has often looked upon the poor as lesser than everyone else, and the poor know it. When a handout is given, it only makes this gap between the poor and rich even wider. Imagine how difficult and humbling it must be to beg for money. Poor people are still people, no different from you and me. Why not help them in a way that gives them a sense of pride and helps us all to realize that we really are equal? When someone is given the tools that they need – either a job in a social business or a micro-loan – they are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a better life for their family. I have been privileged to witness this a few times and it is an incredible thing. What is really so wonderful about this method is that it builds these people up, instead of breaking them down.

Some great books to read on this topic are:
Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty
Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs