I believe that people have to save themselves. In order to enact truly transformative, truly radical, truly productive social reform, we as social reformers have to enable the people who are most affected by systems and structures of inequality to enact the changes they deem most appropriate for their lives. We — the elite, the powerful and the philanthropic — must learn to listen to the people we are trying to help and meet them where they want to be met.
Thus, when we go out into the world, the only way we can save it is to realize that we don’t know how. This seems counterintuitive, considering that we have just spent four years developing our problem-solving skills, but there is nothing less empowering than having someone else decide how to improve your life. It is incumbent upon us as future leaders to internalize and understand that our perspective is inherently skewed. As the administrators of social welfare programs, we will by definition not be a part of the target population and therefore not know how best to solve their problems.
Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, winners of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, offer an ideal working example. In 1974, Yunnus was an economist working in Bangladesh trying to figure out an innovative solution to the profound poverty plaguing the region. One day, he made the radical decision to ask people how to help them. He realized from his conversations that one of the major problems facing the poor was loan-sharking, wherein people would lend money to the poor and then charge ridiculously high interest so the recipients of the loans were immediately trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. When talking to an impoverished group about their debt, Yunus found that the entire group only owed $27 American, so he decided to lend them the money from his own pocket and set them free from their debt.
Yunnus then went to a bank and asked whether the bank could start lending money to the people instead of the loan sharks. The bank responded that it could not, because the poor people were unworthy of the money and could not be trusted with it. Yunus, bristling at this characterization, decided to take out a loan under his own name, which he then divided into smaller loans and lent out. The experience led him to create the Grameen Bank, which offered micro-credit loans to the poor. They could then do with them exactly what they saw fit — such that the bank was enabling people to create their own solutions to their poverty.
This was the most important move of the Grameen Bank — Yunus’ decision not to control how people spent the money. Yunus gave money to anyone who asked for it and without asking how they intended to use it. In the 32 years since the bank has been open, the project has proved successful at combating poverty.
Another example of an organization that empowers the recipients of their support to tailor services and meet specialized needs is an organization I met with while on a Reach Out trip to Rio de Janeiro. The group was a public health organization called Programa Integrado de Marginalidade. When I visited, one of its main goals was decreasing the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among Rio’s sex workers.
The woman who ran PIM explained to us that because they were a public health organization, they worked hard to make sure that they did not judge the behavior of their constituents (prostitutes, drug abusers etc.) and instead simply provided them with the resources to ensure that they remained safe. When they began meeting with local sex workers, they asked the women what health services they needed and what PIM could provide them with in order to improve their lives. The prostitutes asked for condoms, gynecological services and a space where they could meet.
What I could not believe was that PIM made no overtures to offer these women a way out of their positions as sex workers. PIM believed that to suggest the women find alternative work would be to criticize their chosen professions and therefore would take agency and power away from the women themselves.
I want to make clear that I am not blindly advocating a practice of cultural relativism. Neither the Grameen Bank nor PIM would ever suggest spending your money on gambling or making your money through prostitution is positive for you or your community. Rather, both organizations understand that creating a system in social welfare organizations that imposes a certain set of beliefs or dictates certain behaviors only works to replicate a system in which those at the bottom are told that they are incapable of making their own decisions. Such a system would rob them of the basic human dignity they need to help them help themselves.
We can’t save the world ourselves. We don’t have that kind of control over other people. What we can do is promote a belief in the inherent value of all humans and their capacity to enact valuable change, and thereby allow other people to save themselves.
Adda Birnir is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.