“And because how we feel is intricately tied to how we know, we cannot
feel differently if we don’t know differently. We need a bigger emotional and
cognitive space, one in which we experience that the internal conflicts and
inconsistencies of our adaptive challenge are not inevitable and intractable.”
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
The most constructive conversation about poverty may be the one we’re not
having.We talk a lot about poverty. Rarely does a day go by without someone
offering a new book, white paper, or article marshaling new data to support a
particular point of view. Experts make definitive statements on long-standing
debates, only to see those debates reopen the next day with a new report issued
from the opposing side. The pace of the conversation seems to suggest that we
are making daily progress toward understanding – and solving – the problem of
poverty.Unfortunately, most of this conversation is a rehash of the same old views.
Contrary to popular opinion, “breakthrough studies” and “radical new
perspectives” on poverty are of-ten – for those familiar with the historical
discourse – merely rediscoveries of or variations on arguments and proposals
heard many times before. The same ideas come and go as seasons and public
But why? Why does so much discussion yield so few genuinely new insights
about poverty? The answer is that we have misunderstood the challenge of
poverty. We have seen it as a technical challenge – one that we can
solve once we learn the right skill or methodology. We strive to determine
“what works” and to apply it as broadly as possible.
Too bad it’s not that simple. We cannot have a straightforward, technical
discussion about poverty because the topic is too emotionally charged, and for
good reason. Until recently, the vast majority of humans were poor. A mere 200
years ago, 83.9 percent of humans lived in extreme poverty, on less than $1 per
day (in 1985 dollars)1, which is roughly equivalent (ac-counting for inflation)
to the World Bank’s poverty threshold today. Poverty is the ground from which
most of us who are not poor have only recently emerged. Most of us would only
have to look back a couple of generations to find a relative who genuinely
struggled to survive. How our own relatives made it out of poverty – or why
they were unable to do so – likely shapes how we think and feel about poverty
Thus, poverty is not just a technical challenge. In the words of
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey as quoted above, poverty is an “adaptive
challenge.” It requires us to change not just what we do but also who we are.
It requires us to change how we think and how we feel, and to work through the
emotions we carry forward from our personal and familial experiences of
poverty. Only then can we shift the focus from the unresolved needs of our own
pasts to what the world needs from us right now.
Prior to that shift, we experience “internal conflicts and
in-consistencies.” In our dealings with others, we cling to our own
limited ideas about poverty at the expense of the ideas of others, preventing
meaningful collaboration and partnership. In our dealings with the poor,
we unconsciously project the difficulties of our own lives, and we offer the
poor not what they need but what we feel fulfilled in providing. In our
dealings with ourselves, we reject new insights and discoveries that
threaten our established identities and our ways of understanding the world.
After we work through our emotions about poverty, how-ever, we become more
potent leaders of change. In our dealings with others, we embrace
multiple perspectives to build collabor-ative partnerships with those we
previously may have avoided. In our dealings with the poor, we respond
to their most pressing needs rather than making them foils for our own
challenges. In our dealings with ourselves, we recognize that the
emotions poverty evokes in us may actually raise issues we need to ad-dress in
our own lives.
These benefits accrue not only to
those who address poverty on a professional or volunteer basis, but also to all
who are concerned about the state of their own communities. The question we
must address affects each one of us. It is not: How do we eradicate
poverty? But rather it is: What am I, as a human being, to do, living
as I do in a world where poverty exists? This question demands a new
conversation – one in which we look deeply into our own experiences.
This book opens the door to that conversation. Part One explores what our
society has already been saying about poverty, but in a novel way. First, it
shows how our emotions about poverty shape how we think about it. Second, it
explores the range of perspectives on poverty and suggests the emotions that
may be associated with each. Finally, it concludes that all such perspectives
have some validity.
Part Two reframes those perspectives by introducing concepts not currently
included in the poverty conversation. These concepts allow for a way of
thinking about poverty in which all the major perspectives can be true at the
same time. They also highlight and address areas where I believe the poverty
conversation overall has heretofore fallen short.
Throughout the book, I will offer a series of nested insights drawn from my
own experience living in developing countries, consulting to nonprofits,
teaching social enterprise classes at the university level, serving on the
board of a global development non-governmental organization (NGO), and
otherwise living my unique human life. What you will do with these insights, I
cannot say. What I can say is that after reading this book, you will
be able to enter into a new, more constructive conversation about poverty.