Let’s say you show up in Sierra Leone and meet Joseph, a hard-working kid who just graduated high school with high marks. He desperately wants to go to college, but his options are limited. There are no academic scholarships, no student loans. Right now he’s working for $1.50/day, if lucky saving $1/week, so if he saved for 10 years, he could pay for one semester of college, perhaps graduate when he’s 65. (Unless sickness or some other emergency wiped out his savings on a regular basis.)
Your heart is moved and you decide to scrape together $80/month out of your budget and pay for his college tuition. It’s a sacrifice, but you’ve been looking at the face of extreme poverty and realize how much wealth you really have from a worldwide perspective. So you invest $4000 over 4 years and Joseph graduates college with a world of possibilities open to him.
It’s not a bad story. But what about this one:
Let’s say you and others donate to help bring a water filtration project to a community in Sierra Leone. That water project is organized, led, managed, and operated by Sierra Leoneans. Set aside all of the physical or economic benefits for those drinking safe, affordable water, and just think that it creates 6 jobs for those running the water store. Now we have 6 young men and women who are able to learn business skills, learn to save, and eventually they’re able to pay for their own college tuition. And Joseph is one of them.
So where does that leave you, and where does that leave Joseph? In both cases, you helped invest, and Joseph went to college. But in the first story, is it more likely that you end up with a savior complex? Feel like you’ve personally saved the day? And might Joseph not graduate with the belief that he needs someone else to come in and fix his problems? That he can’t do it on his own? And what about his younger brother, Samba? Does Samba believe he could ever go to college without a rich American to pay for it?
Listen, I certainly don’t know all of the answers to these questions. When I was in Sierra Leone last week, I met a young man named Samba, who now works at the Healing Waters project. His older brother had received $4,000 from an American couple to go to college. Later in the week, Samba basically asked me to do the same for him. And the truth is, I probably could. It left me feeling confused and conflicted and wondering, what really is the best way to fight poverty in places like this?