Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Helping the Poorest of the Poor

When I started this blog almost six months ago I was not sure where it would lead me. I began by chronicling my trip to Indonesia to assist PT Ruma, a micro-franchising social venture that provides poor women with the capability to earn money by selling cell phone air time in small amounts to the people in their communities. It was my first hands-on experience in the field generally called “micro-finance” and the beginning of an education.

I remain involved with PT Ruma and will be travelling again to Indonesia to work with the management on improving their financial systems and reporting and developing financial products for their bottom of the pyramid client base. However, the experience has started me thinking about how to help the bottom of the pyramid—the poorest of the poor—in this country.

It’s been almost a month since my last blog posting. During that time I have been able to spend some time with the clients of a number of organizations that strive to help those who have fallen through the social safety nets into extreme poverty. They are homeless, often suffer from addiction and many also suffer with mental health problems. They live on the streets or in homeless shelters. They do not have bank accounts, most do not have jobs. About one third are veterans who have served our country. Whatever assistance they do receive barely keeps them alive from month to month.

I am in awe of those who work to help these desperately poor people and am inspired by those who succeed in taming their demons if only for a little while. They have, against the odds, climbed out of deep hole only to face a steep hill. Among the challenges that threaten to push them back into the hole is learning to handle their meager financial resources.

Much is written in the press and blogosphere these days about the promise of “micro-finance” as a means for ending global poverty. What is usually discussed is credit—providing loans to the poor so that they can start their own businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. However, those receiving such credit are not the “poorest of the poor.” They are often well educated and generally successful though perhaps not able to obtain bank financing for their business idea.

Those in extreme poverty need jobs and the ability to build financial resources through saving products. I am excited to be working with low income clients who have managed to get their addictions under control and are striving to put their financial lives in order. I think I can help them. But I want to do more.

Muhammad Yunus’ latest book, Building Social Business, inspires me to think about at creating a local social business. Taking PT Ruma as a model, I am looking to collaborate with other like minded social entrepreneurs to create a micro-franchise social venture that will create jobs in the US for the poorest of the poor. I have some ideas that I will be writing about in future posts. Anyone who wants to join in is welcome.

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