Resolve, not Resignation

Resolve, not resignation, is a pre-requisite for change.

Yesterday economist Jeffery Sachs, senior UN advisor, columnist, and author of The End of Poverty, ran an article in the NY Times entitled “The End of Poverty, Soon.” Now Sachs is a realist, more firmly aware than most of the monumental challenges, complex economic webs, and poverty traps that keep many countries and large segments of the global population systemically trapped in poverty. But his is a refreshing voice of optimism in a sea of voices crying futility in the fight against poverty, hunger, and injustice.

Ending extreme poverty, Sachs argues, is possible (not guaranteed) within our generation if global powers, private market forces, and individuals all set their resolve, policies, and hearts on the goal. The World Bank Development Committee’s goal of ending extreme global poverty by 2030, and the UN’s stated goal of “eradicating global poverty in a generation” are examples of high-level steps in the right direction.

Economic growth in a market economy, major infrastructure investment (take note South Sudan), and private financing, the rapid dispersion of mass communication (smart phones taking root everywhere you look), new medical breakthroughs, and more effective combatting of malaria, have all been key gains in turning the tide of poverty on a global scale. The emphasis here is on the need for both the public and private sectors to align. In one of Sachs’ most interesting lines, he writes: “One can say that the fight to end poverty is helping to forge a new kind of mixed capitalism.”

Sachs cites World Bank data showing the number of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line has been steadily on the decline since the 1980s, as has the infant mortality rate in Africa, as evidence that progress towards ending poverty can be and is being made and that such an end is possible. Real dents can be made in problems on a global scale.

This sort of optimistic realism, big dreams tempered by a complex understanding of international economics, is good to hear. Combined resolution and efforts by governments, large-scale private investment, and small-scale individual efforts and grassroots development or business have actual efficacy to change lives, increase standards of living, and fight poverty.

Poverty matters in the world of justice and human trafficking as well. Many of the girls trapped in the sex trade are there in the first place as a direct result of their poverty. Starving families with few options sell off daughters or nieces to traffickers who in turn sell them to brothels for sexual exploitation. Young women from rural villages with no employment alternatives are promised good jobs in the big city where they can send money back to their impoverished families, but then end up trapped in a life of forced prostitution. Then there’s the matters of power – these injustices happen to the poor, precisely because the poor all to often have no defense, no one to turn to and no resources to draw from. Thus, economic development and combatting poverty at a grassroots level, from the villages to the cities, actually plays a major role in the prevention of human trafficking.

Of course, there’s always more layers to muddy the waters. In his article “Sexploitation: the Economics of Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking,” Dr. Mark Russell writes: “…economic progress can sometime lead to greater human destruction, not less.”

Russell notes that the increase in ultrasound machines throughout India (coinciding with widespread poverty reduction) simultaneously resulted in a decrease in previously very high infant mortality rates, and, with the newfound ability to determine a child’s gender before birth, an increase in “gender selected abortion.” Likely in part because of the dowry expenses inherent in having a daughter, male children are greatly preferred – resulting in a rather high (and increasing) male to female ratio in the Indian population. That, according to Russell, means less available Indian women to be wives, and an increased demand for prostitution, leading in turn to an increase in supply via human trafficking.

Russell writes: “The situation in India demonstrates why wealth creation must always be accompanied by a broader understanding of ethics and human rights. In India what should have helped more baby girls survive has actually led to their destruction in many cases. Wealth and technology have not changed unbiblical attitudes towards women in India or anywhere else.”

That doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on India, or on economic development in general. On the contrary, as mentioned above, development and turning the tide of poverty is a means of empowerment that is one of the most effective ways to fight human trafficking from the source.

It does mean that we ought to be informed about the complexities and potential consequences of economic development, and that we ought to be prepared to try and address poverty and injustices holistically – and that includes cultural implications. It also means that efforts specifically aimed at fighting human trafficking through empowering women economically and socially (like bakeries and factories employing women trapped in the sex trade), are particularly important in addressing systemic injustice on multiple fronts.

If Sachs is right, then the campaign taglines that you and I often dismiss as unachievable, naïve dreams – End Poverty. End Hunger. End Slavery. – while often oversimplified and cliche, are not to be laughed at. They’re subjects for study, concerted, multidimensional effort, and a healthy dose of passion.

I don’t know that we’ll see the end of poverty, or hunger, or slavery, in this generation. But I’d rather see people fighting those battles than dismissing them as unrealistic.

So, Homework: go read The End of Poverty by Sachs, The Bottom Billion by Collier, and all of the Economist, and then buy me a beer and we’ll have a good, long discussion about the economics of poverty and injustice. Aaaaaaand, Go.

Outside the Box

In the last week or so, I’ve been playing TED talks in the background while I work. They’re amazing. For serious though. These speakers, some of the top in their respective fields, from movie screenwriters to photojournalists, novelists to spoken word poets, have thought hard and articulated well the backbone of What Makes a Good Story and the Importance of Stories. Plus, I’ve had a number of great coffee shop conversations about writing and experimenting with mixed media for a more meaningful, interactive experience with the reader. The result? I’m really excited about creative and meaningful storytelling.

For example, there’s the hard-hitting war journalism of Janine di Giovanni, and the justice-driven photography of global slavery by Lisa Kristine, bearing witness to modern slavery worldwide. These courageous journalists travel to some of the diciest and dustiest places on the globe to tell the stories that all too often forgotten.

In her 2012 TED Talk, “What I Saw in the War,” Giovanni says:

“All I am is a witness. My role is to bring a voice to people who are voiceless [and] to shine a light in the darkest corners of the world.”

Then there’s Andrew Stanton, creator of Toy Story, WALL-E, and perhaps my favorite TED Talk to date. At one point, Stanton says:

“That’s what I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce. It’s: “Can you invoke wonder?”… For me there’s no greater gift than the ability of another human being to give you that feeling. To hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and surrender to wonder. When it’s tapped the affirmation of being alive reaches you almost at a cellular level. And when an artist does that to another artist, it’s like you’re compelled to pass it on. It’s like a dormant command that’s suddenly activated in you, like a call to devil’s tower: “Do unto others what’s been done to you.” The best stories infuse wonder.”

I’ll sometimes find myself lapsing into soulless, newswriter prose – devoid of adjectives or structure or rhythm, the feeling of being there and seeing it noticeably absent. Just declarative sentences. Just the facts ma’am.

Then I’ll go see a movie where I sit in shocked silence as the credits roll, do a double take at a photograph, read a novel or a poem that just sticks, the kind where not just the content, but the architecture and arrangement of the words on the page just won’t leave until I’ve gone and created something of my own.

Or when people give a glimpse behind the curtain, like in these TED Talks. They get my mind whirring at high speed and moving 18 directions at once. They remind me that stories demand to be told and heard and read and experienced in different ways – and that reminds me that I get to be creative, to experiment, to try things and watch what crashes and burns and what people connect with. I get to try and capture the world, show people what’s here and what could be here and why they should care. And that’s something else. That’s where the fun of it collides with purpose.

If life, even a life far different from one’s own, can be captured in a way that makes the audience pause for a moment rather than just dismiss the subject as one more in the unending barrage of daily media. If the audience can, just for a moment, swim with the author through the swelteringly humid air and smog of Kalighat, taste the spice of the curry, hear the roar of the subway and the cacophony of languages, then that world becomes a part of their own experience. If, just for a moment, the audience can understand the tears, the fatalistic desolation, of a Bengali woman who has been trapped in forced prostitution since she was 11 years old; if they can look and see the foggy brown of her eyes, feel the rough edges of the cement walls of the tiny room she calls home, peer under the bed where her tiny daughter hides when her mother sees clients on a creaking mattress inches above her, then that story becomes part of their story.

I don’t entirely know what this all looks like yet – but the gears in my mind are turning. Here’s to thinking outside the box.

Flying Lessons

“Flying Lesson” by Julia Kasdorf

“Over a tray of spent plates, I confessed

to the college president my plans to go East,

to New York, which I’d not really seen,

though it seemed the right place

for a sophomore as sullen and restless

as I had become on that merciless

Midwestern plain. He slowly stroked

a thick cup and described the nights

when, a theology teacher in Boston, he’d fly

a tiny plane alone out over the ocean,

each time pressing farther into the dark

until the last moment, when he’d turn

toward the coast’s bright spine, how he loved

the way the city glittered beneath him

as he glided gracefully toward it,

engine gasping, fuel needle dead on empty,

the way sweat dampened the back of his neck

when he climbed from the cockpit, giddy.

Buttoned up in my cardigan, young, willing

to lose everything, how could I see generosity

or warning? But now that I’m out here,

his advice comes so clear: fling yourself

farther, and a bit farther each time,

but darling, don’t drop.


I love that poem. Always have.  It strikes a chords in so many ways – the restless student itching to push out of the “merciless” everyday; the description of the “coast’s bright spine” and the glittering city lights; the thrill of the gasping engine edging towards too-late; and most of all, the image, or the idea rather, of the tiny plane “flinging itself” farther and farther over the ocean and into the dark unknown.

The dog days of August are packed. Trying to raise support to get to India – envelopes and awkward phone calls and emails; visits to cities and lunch meetings.  I love to talk and write about justice, human trafficking, India – can do it for hours – but I hate to ask for money. Or ask for anything. I want to do everything on my own, and my pride inevitably comes back around. Trying to balance support raising with life, the reality of not being able to work a paid job full time hitting the reality that groceries and gas cost money.

Freelance writing to pay the bills. In an irony not lost on me, I hit a terrible bout of writer’s block while trying to knock out an article on brain health.

Relationships, church Bible studies, weddings, research, the balance of working with my hands to repair a motorcycle, pounding out miles on mountain trails, seeing and wanting to speak truth to the lives I’m wrapped up in here, carving callousing into my fingers from hours of climbing, pacing out the search for the words to type, fueling the writing and the long hours with French presses of coffee until my hands shake.

And stories. Always stories – the rags to riches tale of an American puppeteer turned Florence and Vatican trained sculptor; programmers solving puzzles; refugees in Western Uganda; a Marine taking mortar fire in Iraq; the air force pilot, wrapped up in silver wings and roaring engines, who tried hang gliding and found the silence so deafening that he could finally hear God.

Stories in Kolkata that I want to hear and tell. That whole bit in Prov. 31:8-9 about opening your mouth for the destitute and defending the rights of the poor and needy.

Stuffing envelopes and drafting case statements is not my element. In some ways it’s harder than being in the field – I feel more at home in Africa and India. The comfortable has become uncomfortable. But, this bit of the journey is also a kind of uncharted territory, a risk and a shot in the dark.

On the bush planes in Africa, taking off from the red-dirt airstrip was my favorite part – building speed and defying gravity and rocketing off into the big African sky.

India looms ahead like the ocean and the dark unknown in that poem – huge and terrifying and thrilling. And like that pilot I want to “press farther into the dark,” fling myself farther and farther into the mix. But I have to keep reminding myself that “flying” takes “flying lessons” – and that’s part of what this stateside season is about – lessons.

And good coffee. It’s also about good coffee.  And probably rockclimbing.