Fighting poverty more effectively at home and abroad

Amanda Burke/Staff

When Haiti was struck by an earthquake, people and charities across the world ran to the rescue with a total of $3.3 billion in aid for the 3 million people affected.  A few months later, when Pakistan experienced a flood that inundated 30 percent of its arable land, those same charities mobilized only $1.5 billion in aid for the 20 million people affected — less than half of the funds gathered for the less politically contentious Haiti.  While the media reminded people daily about the importance of help during the disaster in Haiti, that compassion did not translate to Pakistan. There were little to no attempts made to overcome the associations we make with Pakistan: extremism, violence and terror. While the amount of aid gathered for those in need is commendable, why have we become so easily tired of showing compassion to those in need? Why is it that we let macro-political associations overshadow the needs of the poor?

The fact of the matter is foreign aid policy is more political than personal. Often, even if a foreign country has high levels of extreme poverty, other nations will reduce aid if the foreign country’s political leaders act contrary to the prevailing will of the donating country. It is only deemed wise to help when it helps oneself. Even aid policy is based on inherently self-interested motivations, despite common rhetoric of social welfare.

These limitations on international development policy also exist in local aid organizations. Although local policy debates are not as explicitly conflicting with the politics of aid as international policy debates, they serve as an example of the discrete superiority complex practiced when speaking for others. Local policy issues still show the danger of speaking from an ivory tower, where culture inadvertently distances the practitioner from those he or she tries to help. This schema provides a new bastion people can point to when they say they know what is best for communities. This same language of local responsibility leads to the removal of community-based efforts to replace them with less “risky” alternatives.

In the early 1990s, President George H.W. Bush began a program promoting the “Thousand Points of Light,” an idea that later became a private nonprofit. The organization was founded on the idea that government should remove itself from local communities so that local organizations could prosper — the same justification was made for the reduction of domestic government-sponsored aid programs. Instead, however, this led to the rise of nonprofits with massive funding. Such large aid organizations have made it near-impossible for local organizations to prosper and successfully use their their knowledge of their community’s specific problems.

As stated by Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” “to speak a true word is to transform the world.” This is what is missing in the discussion on aid organization, structures and their relationships with poor people rather than poor countries. Far be it from me to say that the organizations that exist now are acting incorrectly and that I have the right answer to these problems. Yet having discussions around development aid encourages both a more informed citizenry as well as more informed and thus more impactful solutions.

Free speech is the right not only to speak but also to be heard. Collective action is difficult, especially on an international scale. But this is why I believe in the project of One Degree (

One Degree uses the Internet to connect communities to the places they can work with. While it is San Francisco-based, its mission is global. In doing so, the organization has created a space for individuals to easily access information about opportunities to help others, place their opinions of them online and spread the word to other individuals who could make use of them. Any group can use this space to promote its community events, classes it offers, educational opportunities or anything in the way of social welfare and community support.

One Degree allows individuals to speak from their personal experience and encourages discussions that are both transparent and public. It gives local organizations a chance to promote their unique view on community problems and ascertain funding without being seen as a risky venue for social good. In doing so, a tool such as this helps stop the politicization of aid and welfare policy and encourages impactful and local solutions.

We must ask, does one practice naivety and help strangers without truly understanding their situation? How can we make an assessment of random people before even knowing them, and how can we deny them help without being certain? To know that only one degree of separation exists between you and an individual in need allows you to know that we are each not adamantly unencumbered, and it allows others to know they are not alone. This is what One Degree makes possible.

Shahbaz Shaikh is a senior at UC Berkeley and a volunteer at One Degree.