It was in 1987 that after an altercation with a UN driver, I found myself running as fast as I could from an angry mob through the streets of Mogadishu in war-torn Somalia. I had been there to hand out micro-loans to the poor, and even as I showed my heels to the baying mass behind me, I thought to myself that it had been a worthwhile enterprise.
I’ve found myself in many war-torn countries. Among the ruins and the desperation and the poverty, I’ve found I can count on finding two things: bravery, in abundance, from the locals and, from humanitarian workers, a determination and passion for changing things for the better. The willingness to work in the most unforgiving areas of the world is a quality found in a very select few. Last week, on World Humanitarian Day, we all paid tribute to aid workers who risk their lives daily in humanitarian service, often without any expectation of recognition and rarely any acknowledgement whatsoever from the wider world. Those people who go to the most desperate regions of the world to help don’t expect fanfare for their work but they are, nonetheless, a grossly under-appreciated section of the public.
We are often told that we live in the most dangerous era of human history and it would be hard to deny that today there are weapons that could cause destruction and death on an unprecedented scale, not to mention massive climate change and rising extremism around the world. But the data shows that on average, economic well-being is improving across the board and conflicts are fewer. Professor Steven Pinker at Harvard University has found that the number of deaths in armed conflicts is falling. In fact, he says, we have never lived in more peaceful times. But this is no reason to become complacent. The opposite, in fact: this is a call to all of us to push forward and eliminate poverty once and for all. The UN might have pledged to end poverty by 2030, but this does not make it an inevitability.
We now have the technology and the knowledge we need to overcome the societal and infrastructural obstacles to development. By turning to innovation as a means to poverty eradication, while at the same time using existing methods and tools to reach that end, we can take the world’s worst economies into the 21st century rapidly, and lift millions out of penury in doing so. In 1918, the German industrial chemist Fritz Haber’s Nitrogen Fixation started the so-called Green Revolution and extinguished fears of world starvation almost overnight. In the 1980s, it was Microfinance that gave many people in the developing world access to credit and savings for the first time. A single innovative idea has the potential to change the world, but in the meantime, we should also use the tools at our disposal to make a positive difference.
There is a basic interrelation between poverty and conflict and therefore many of the poorest places in the world are those riven by conflict. Sometimes conflict comes about because the previous leadership failed to provide basic services to its populace. Sometimes it’s the other way around. An effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. But if humanitarian actors come in before civil unrest descends into conflict they can prevent that conflict taking place at all. What’s more, they can prevent terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, al-Shabab and the Taliban from exploiting the desperation of civilians by providing them with basic services or employment as a militia in return for support. This is part of the reason why it’s important to see those struggling in these countries as entrepreneurs and financial agents and not as victims. By empowering people, rather than offering them simply charity, they gain the tools to lift themselves and others out of poverty and to restore stability themselves.
Let us not simply stand back and celebrate the brave and dedicated few working to eradicate poverty worldwide. And let’s not wait on a great and innovative idea before we act ourselves. Let’s commit instead to providing individuals living in poverty with the best tools available for them to be successful, and let’s all of us redouble our own efforts, even if that is only to give more to charity or to volunteer or to raise awareness of those places and people most affected by poverty. As my good friend and FINCA co-founder John Hatch said to me recently: “The UN have vowed to end poverty by 2030, that means you and me don’t have long left. So let’s saddle up. We’re burning daylight.”