How to Change the World on Less Than $1 a Day

Copyright 2020 by Seun Shokunbi. All rights reserved.

We’re afraid to die yet want something to live for. That’s the unofficial lesson I learned growing up in a Christian family. Our prayers were always asking God for a long, meaningful yet safe life that ends with us entering heaven.

And of course, we gave thanks for how lucky we were to have food and shelter while alive, and we would pray for those living with less.

But when I told my family I was coming here, to do a little bit more than pray for those in need, they begged me not to go. They couldn’t understand why I was putting myself in unnecessary discomfort or danger, coming to a place where (they believed) I could get kidnapped or killed because of how desperate the situation is for poor people in this region.

I’m not naive enough to think that poverty doesn’t SOMETIMES bring the worst out of us. But so does wealth & privilege. And so that conversation with my family was confirmation that I had to give this speech. 

Lately I’ve been obsessing over human nature – the ways we think about others, and how we decide when and how to help anyone else. And there’s a vital message for us to reflect on if we truly want to change the world, make it a better place. 

It’s a message about people in comfortable places and positions learning how to get uncomfortable.

Whether or not they realize it, most people talk about changing the world in ways that benefit them. They talk about big dreams they have to leave behind a legacy, so that when they die they will go to heaven, or people will throw huge parties celebrating their lives, and they’ll leave their mark in history. Some talk about a win-win situation, building a money-making social enterprise that is profitable yet provides jobs that improves the lives of people & their environment.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those thoughts – except when we’re not honest about how attitudes and actions we take for granted keep people in situations that make us have to become their heroes, saving others rather than empowering them to take care of themselves.

The road to doing good, as we like to say, is paved with good intentions. But we’re 20 years into this journey of doing “good” works in the name of Sustainable Development Goals, and we still haven’t reached our destination. 

20 years into the 21st Century, nearly 75% of people living in extreme poverty today are in Sub-Saharan Africa, even though the percent of people in the world living with poverty moved from 30 to 10%. 

These statistics hurt me because of what I still hear people say about my country Nigeria, and about black people across the diaspora. 

Africa, as recently as last year by some of the world’s most famous leaders, on the most prominent stages, is still described as a dark continent full of wayward people and “shithole” countries.

Many of the approaches we take to address Africa’s issues start from a scarcity mindset – describing people in “undeveloped” or “developing” nations as unable to figure it out, as if our ancestors in past centuries weren’t leading rich kingdoms that ran pretty well before being interrupted by, I don’t know, colonialism.

Scarcity mindset also shows up in the simple things, like when we think we can just drop a few dollars and cents into an offering plate and POOF, the money will travel all the way to Africa in magical fairy dust and end world hunger.

But we should ask ourselves: in a world where we have enough disposable income to spend billions of dollars creating robots that talk and look like people, why don’t we fully commit to preventing real humans from experiencing poverty and insecurity? 

And in a world where almost anybody with a computer can make up their own currency, why don’t we have enough money to stop 440 million people from going hungry every day?

If you asked me what I thought, I’d say it has more to do with the way we think about saving the world than it does with the resources we have to do it. 

We, the privileged, the rich 1%, the middle class families sitting in our living rooms sending $10/day to children’s charities, and the African diaspora “lucky enough” to be born or living outside of Africa need to admit we have a savior complex towards Africans. 

And it’s turning our beautiful dreams about a peaceful world into nightmares for others. 

This nightmare started with this man. Andrew Carnegie, considered the “father of modern philanthropy.” He literally wrote the book on the savior complex, called the Gospel of Wealth, creating this mindset that it’s better for us to have a few people – like 1% of the world’s population – making lots of money. Because by becoming rich, these people proved they’re the only ones we can trust with this responsibility to save people from poverty. 

People like Carnegie who are part of the rich 1% want to be honored as superheroes and saints, either with their names plastered on every project, or rewarded with a life of eternity in Heaven.

Carnegie gave money to remarkable initiatives, and people still do this today. Yes, the millions of dollars they donate may help a little bit in making the world a better place. The harsh truth, though, is that the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest is the main cause of the harm that they’re trying to fix in the first place through their charity.

This is data from a 2018 Harvard University report, and the picture is pretty clear and bleak: over the past 20 years the world has 4 times more millionaires and billionaires, and even as they give their money away there are still parts of the world where you are more likely to become or stay poor, rather than become rich or never experience poverty in the first place. 

Africa is where this happens the most.

And what about the charities that we donate our money to? How far does that go in stopping this from happening?

Not far enough. It cost around $6 million USD this year to run one of the most well-known charities for children. That’s almost double the amount it cost them to do this work 11 years ago. Yet the rate at which the poorest children around the world enroll in school hasn’t changed that much over those 11 years. 

So it’s costing us more to do the thing that we told the rich people we could do with their money, that we’re not actually doing…

In 2013 Peter Buffett, the son of one of the richest men on earth, described this as the charitable industrial complex. The CIC claims that poverty is big business and that rich people only donate to charity in a way that keeps them comfortably rich, while keeping poor people poorer. 

Poverty is VERY profitable for people and corporations getting tax breaks and positive publicity for donating relatively small amounts of their wealth. 

Based on the charitable industrial complex and this graph, the term “not-for-profit organization” is not that accurate.

This notion that it’s money that makes the world go round caused me lots of anxiety as someone from a middle class background dedicating her career to working with NGOs.

I started thinking about this during my Master’s degree program ten years ago, living in London and wondering what good I was going to do with my privileged life. 

For my thesis, I decided to tell another story, one not about the rich using their wealth to save Africa. 

My argument was that if we truly wanted to see Africa develop, we couldn’t sit in ivory towers, conference rooms or fancy cafes just talking about what needs to be done, or throwing money at the problem. 

We needed to adopt the relentless, guerilla mindset of people who create real change in the world every day while only making less than $1 a day.

Mohammed was one of them. 

Mohammed probably knew he was just one of a million other stories of young people trying to check every box they were told to if they wanted a better life. 

Study hard, chose the right subjects at university…thinking all of this would make them the next self-made millionaire or at least get a well-paid job that helped them take care of their families.

Instead Mohammad and many others graduated into barely making enough to survive. 

Instead they scrambled for small jobs from the kinds of people that donate to charity because they want to help people like Mohammad

Ironically some of those people would opt to pay people like Mohammad poverty wages.

While these people wrote songs about Africa and ran fundraisers to support the so-called helpless Africans, Mohammad took matters into his own hands, taking a different approach and making a statement.

He set himself on fire. 

This was probably the hardest decision, but I’m sure this was a completely selfless act, more selfless than sending $10 a month from your decent paycheck. Because if Mohammad simply wanted to end his life, he could have done it quietly, in the shadows. 

Instead he lit a match where the entire world could see, where it would force us to spark a more honest, deeper conversation about all the other Mohammads in Africa. 

I’m not telling everyone to leave here today and set yourself ablaze to make a statement. But what I’m saying is that there are so many other people in Africa, young and old, maybe in this room, living with little, fighting to free themselves and the world from the evil that is extreme poverty and oppression. I also know that many of you in the room today have more realistic dreams than others about making changes in your communities, but are afraid you don’t have the resources to carry them out. 

I hope the stories I tell today convince you that you’re underestimating how much more you can do than many of us to make the world a safer, better place. 

The title of my talk suggests we can save the world on less than $1 a day, but it requires some more context. 

I’m not ignorant to the fact that we need money to do much of this work. But there’s something in the way charities or people with privilege operate that makes us waste lots of time and money. And if we got rid of this thing, it would make the money and time we pour into ending poverty go a lot further.

That thing is entitlement.

I’ve been living in Nairobi, Kenya for four months now, and I nearly went crazy seeing this right in front of my eyes. 

On the one hand, you see places like this where sidewalks and paved roads are non-existent, in an area where over 2 million Kenyans live. On the other, you miraculously see meters of smooth paved roads and – surprise surprise – sidewalks in an area called the UN Crescent, an area of Nairobi County where diplomats, expatriates, and much wealthier individuals live.

I would call it coincidence maybe if I didn’t see the same thing comparing areas of mainland Lagos to Lagos Island in Nigeria. 

So for me, it has to be more than a coincidence. It’s a clear sign that for some of us, we want to save the world only when it’s comfortable and convenient for us. 

We somehow find a way to build better roads and houses for ourselves even while the people in the countries we’re coming to help don’t have it. Even when they’re the ones who need them the most.

Carnegie got one thing right. He told us that Heaven only comes when people start to get their happiness not from working for themselves, but for others. And he was also right when he said this requires us to change our mindsets…and that this work could take forever because, unfortunately, human nature defaults to selfishness. 

The cheapest and most effective way to save the world is to stop thinking we’re angels or superheroes, and be brave enough to go into the places and situations that aren’t so pretty 

to fight against systems that keep the poor poorer and the rich richer. And we need to look at the courage and sacrifices made by the people we claim we’re trying to save, the ones that give up something more precious than money to get us closer to Heaven on Earth. 

Last year, during the Year of the Return, I saw so many of us in the diaspora searching for a heritage we felt detached from. We were searching for purpose and wondering what influence we could have on the people we left behind to achieve our professional and financial goals. 

We, the diaspora, are in an entitled situation, where we get to travel to Accra for celebrity parties but fly back to the U.S. once we’ve had our fun or realize it’s too risky to dedicate our lives to living in and making changes in Africa.

Even if we don’t decide to move to Africa and roll up our sleeves to do the work that changes lives, we should at least admit that there are Africans, with less money than us and less fear than us, who deserve a seat at those elite tables to speak on the work they’re doing to save and change lives.

Think about women like Aisha Yesufu, who without cameras or famous people around her put her life on the line for years to end this abuse against women, while the rest of the world paid little attention. We barely hear about stories like hers even when the world became obsessed with finding and reporting on the Chibok girls kidnapped in Northern Nigeria. 

As we saw with Aisha, and Mohamed during the Arab Spring, those living on less than a dollar a day have brought down evil dictators and stopped atrocities without it costing them a thing – financially. 

But without our help, from those of us in the middle or higher echelons of wealth, it will cost a bit more – their lives. 

Those of us in the middle, in the diaspora, need to get uncomfortable, and one way is by demanding that we bring more people like Mohammad to these conferences to share their stories and their solutions for effective social change. 

We should demand that more donations go to grassroots organizations led by people who look like Aisha – those who have been sacrificing their lives on the ground in Africa, doing more than the international charities that spend billions of dollars every year just to cover operational costs. 

By 2050, the largest percent of children born into poverty will be born in Sub-Saharan Africa. And those children will be told the same thing we told children like Mohammad and me – that if you pray every day, get good grades in school and prove yourself worthy you’ll definitely escape a life of poverty.

We’d be telling them a very expensive lie.

The truth, the real solution, is not comfortable. When we start taking risks and say or do things that are uncomfortable, powerful people will get mad. Maybe only mad enough to make our jobs a living hell. Or maybe mad enough to go to the extreme, where we’re locked up, attacked, killed for challenging the status quo. 

But maybe, when we put all our chips on the table and we’re all in – financially, physically, intellectually, and emotionally – we’ll actually reach that utopian, pie-in-the-sky goal of saving the world a lot sooner than we think.

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