“According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, it is the lack of freedom to make meaningful choices – to have an ability to affect one’s situation – that is the distinguishing feature of poverty.” – When Helping Hurts
On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m tempted to give thanks for the usual suspects: family, food, and football. But, over the past few years, I have come to understand what I truly owe my gratitude to: the ability to choose.
I have come to realize over the years of traveling to Kenya that our clients are some of the most hardworking, ambitious, and innovative people, but they are trapped by broken systems that make it impossible to escape their situation. Each day they face impossible choices:
- Feed myself or feed my children?
- Make no income today or sell myself for sex?
- Get capital for my business at 19% interest or remain a day laborer?
- Go see a local doctor who might misdiagnose my condition or not get treatment?
Each decision only makes matters worse. In our culture, we have the ability to make decisions that can positively affect our situation. On the other hand, knowing that there can be no positive outcome makes people more focused on preservation instead of advancement.
As it says in When Helping Hurts, “Imagine being caught in such a web. Every time you try to move, you just get more hung up on another strand. You think to yourself, maybe this time will be different, so you try to make a change in your life. But immediately you find yourself even more entangled than before. After a while you come to believe that it is better to just lie still.”
In my own life, there are so many choices that I take for granted. I was able to choose if and where I wanted to go to college. I was able to have my choice of financial institutions to get a mortgage from at 3.75%. I was able to choose which hospital would deliver my baby girl, and I was able to choose an insurance plan that would cover the majority of that expense. I can choose to save my money in secure financial instruments that will earn interest over time. These are choices that people trapped in poverty do not get to make.
I am thankful to work for an organization like CARE for AIDS whose goal is not to help people acquire more material possessions, although that is often a byproduct. The goal is to give people the opportunity to make meaningful choices that can affect their situation. We give them a dozen skills to choose from to start a business, we introduce them to new ways to access capital, we connect them with collaborators who can partner with them in business, and we enroll them in a health insurance plan to help protect them from those financial shocks. The goal is not to lift people out of poverty but to empower them to lift themselves out.
So, today, as you give thanks for all the blessings in your life, remember to say thanks for the ability to make meaningful choices.