There are so many different ways to fight poverty, and it's getting easier every day for people from all walks of life to get involved in doing so. But such unprecedented and growing opportunity to do good also carries the risk of repeating past mistakes at an unprecedented and growing scale.
Professor Ananya Roy, at the University of California at Berkeley, takes a class of around 700 undergraduates each fall semester on a journey walking the fine line between that opportunity and risk, or in her words, "the impossible space between the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism."
Thanks to Roy's colleague, Media Professor Tara Graham, a former student and graphic artist Abby VanMuijen, and Cal-Berkeley's Blum Center for Developing Economies, an ongoing stop-motion video series (part of the Blum Center’s #GlobalPOV project) now allows anyone with a YouTube-friendly internet connection to walk that journey too.
"Given it's such a large class I'm always looking for new ways of encouraging discussion and debate and dialogue," says Roy. "I'd been working with Tara Graham on her course on digital media, and around that same time I found out that a brilliant undergraduate student by the name of Abby took all her notes in the form of graphic novels.
"We had to at least experiment with this," Roy says.
Hardly a day goes by without the appearance of a new infographic related to some aspect of global poverty. It's entirely too easy to waste a whole day's work on browsing Pinterest or Tumblr for the newest variation on the pie chart. But the same way a tiny bit of awe can lodge the number of people living without access to formal financial services deep in your subconscious, these graphic narratives do the same for powerful, pertinent questions about poverty and development: Who do we view as poor? When and how does it become anyone's responsibility to "do something" to help the poor? Can we shop to end poverty? Who profits from poverty?
That last question, examined in the third of the four videos (see below) currently released, strikes particularly close to the heart of the NextBillion community. Taking on directly the idea of the "fortune at the bottom of the pyramid," Roy and Abby illustrate with words and pictures the opportunity, risk, and history of creating markets for the poor. Not all of that history has been good for the poor, in fact much of it has been very costly for them while generating plenty of profits for the privileged and wealthy.
"As poverty has become more visible, and there's been a lot of attention to the bottom billion, there also lies the danger of predatory poverty markets," says Roy. "That's not to say that all poverty markets or all forms of bottom-billion capitalism are necessarily predatory, but clearly some are, and there is a long history to this. It's not new."
Not very long ago NextBillion played host to one of many discussions on the evolution of the fortune of the bottom of the pyramid concept, shifting toward the language of shared value and profiting with the poor rather than from the poor. "I see this as a terrain of experimentation and debate, one that is exciting and important," Roy says. "I laud the effort to think about shared value. I want to acknowledge that is an important new area of practice. I really hope young people think about careers in which they create and experiment with the idea of shared value."
In structuring their program, Roy and her colleagues at the Blum Center for Developing Economies were very intentional about targeting undergraduate students at the precipice of their careers, helping them explore these questions and histories earlier than usual.
"Most centers focused on global poverty in America are focused on cutting edge research for graduate level, and that is very important, but we felt they were very disconnected with this larger generation of undergraduates who are really the most passionate about poverty action," Roy says. "We recognized that our goal wasn't to turn them into development specialists; they could do that in graduate school and they could do that in work after college. The main idea of the program has been the ethics of global citizenship—not global leadership, but global citizenship, to produce a different kind of architect or engineer or lawyer. "
That idea led to the Blum Center's offering minor, not a major, in global poverty and practice. "It was very important to think about how we would bring together students from different disciplines and have them teach each other and I'm thrilled that one-third of the students in the major come from the sciences – engineers, pre-med students, environmental sciences students – and to have them alongside our social science students, business students too, urban studies and architecture and also the humanities," Roy concludes.
It's not just career paths these days. The number of ways to contribute financially to the fight against global poverty and inequality continue growing, from Kiva to Global Giving to IndieGoGo to Catapult to Bright Funds to who knows what's next. It's never been more important to be vigilant about the opportunities, risks, and history of doing good.
Check out the first and second videos in the series below.
Oscar Abello is a marketing and communications associate at BRAC USA.