October 7, 2009
Catalyst Lab: Don't Pity the Poor
Jessica Jackley no longer feels badly for the poor. She's doing something better.
Jessica Jackley was in first grade when she became aware of how the poor were being presented to her. She saw ads for parachurch organizations and appeals for missions groups that featured photographs of impoverished children with distended bellies and flies in the eyes.
She realized even at that young age that those pictures made her feel bad, and they caused her and her friends to give money just to make the bad feelings go away.
As she got older and had more awareness of the pervasiveness of poverty, and gained firsthand experience working with the poor, she realized that appeals that provoke pity and guilt were not pointing in the right direction. To get people to respond simply to ease their own discomfort was actually counterproductive. Such appeals don't help the poor long-term; these appeals eventually just make people calloused and cynical or at the least able to view such presentations with very little impact.
Jackley learned that what the poor really needed was not pity, but something much more useful.
The poor are often very intelligent and resourceful people. Many have entrepreneurial skills. They don't need handouts--they need resources, often relatively modest resources, to allow them to develop a business to sustain themselves.
So Jackley became the cofounder of Kiva.com, the amazingly effective network of person-to-person microloans. A loan of as little as $25 can make a huge difference to a Sudanese goat herder, or a Peruvian seamstress.
We don't need presentations that communicate only despair. Jackley points to the many stories of hope that emerge from the right kind of assistance.
What the poor need is not our pity but our partnership.
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