Deep and Wide

Economic Choices in the Face of Extreme PovertyEmber Arts rock_quarry

You have $1,000 to give away.

In front of you are two women, both widows with families, both living in extreme poverty. If you split the money evenly between them, both will be able to feed their families until their children are grown, both will be able to afford a little bit of healthcare, but neither will be able to properly educate their families. If you give all the money to one woman, it will transform her family forever through nutrition, healthcare, and great education, but the other woman and her family will be left in extreme poverty.

What do you do?

A somewhat more complex version of this problem is faced constantly by non-profits and socially-oriented businesses. Need is great, our resources are limited. Do we spread our resources thinly across as many households as possible? Do we invest deeply in a few lucky families? Do we find some sort of middle-ground?

It’s a gut-wrenching choice. The stakes are literally life and death.

At Ember, we invest deeply in a limited number of families to catalyze transformational, generational change. This means that we work with fewer women than we could, each of those women makes more money than she otherwise would, and instead of basic improvements in nutrition and living conditions, we drive towards deep, long-lasting change, especially university education for their children.

Why? Because we believe that a Ugandan will do more for Uganda than we ever could. And if we provide a platform upon which Ugandan kids can stay healthy, get educated, access opportunity, and become successful leaders, they will transform their communities in more ways and over longer periods than we could hope to do ourselves.

Still, the choice is not easy. It means saying no to people who need and deserve our partnership, people who will go on living in extreme poverty until they find some way out of it.

But instead of watering down our impact to bring them in immediately, our goal is to grow, to work deeply with more and more families and communities, and to see, eventually, the long-term change that new local leaders will create. To help create a new community in which we are no longer needed, only loved.

More than 1 sentence

Training the Ember Arts women on next year's designs.

Training the Ember Arts women in next year’s designs.

Last night a great conversation and a poorly timed cup of coffee kept me up into unreasonable hours. I checked my email before bed and found a request from one of my colleagues: Could I come up with a one-sentence soundbite that could be easily shared with busy business people, like rising life expectancy or something?

It’s a good idea – people often don’t have time for longer stories. But last night I couldn’t think of what that line might be. This is what I wrote back.

“As for the one sentence, that’s tough.  I can’t give any hard stats because I don’t have hard stats about things like life expectancy or the like.

“What I can say is this: I show up to Acholi Quarters every day and ask these women to work hard. I ask them to put in a lot more hours than they’d like doing things that are difficult and unintuitive, like learning any new skill. And sometimes they complain and they ask for extra days and they say there is too much to learn. And I don’t budge. And the next day they come with their work done, and I give them more work. And they keep coming back.

“And all the while I see them wearing new clothes and passing healthy babies around the room, sometimes to me. And they tell me individually that “this money is making a lot of difference in our lives.” And I hear about children who used to work with their mother in the rock quarry now going to school and preparing for university. And about women finally giving birth without fear because they can afford basic medical services. And I hear that these women who were once homeless refugees are buying land and building the foundations of houses that their families will call homes for decades to come.

“And every day they keep coming back to work harder than they’d like. Because they have hope. Because they can see that through this business they can provide stability, healthcare, education – all the catalysts of generational change, of a family launching itself from poverty to prosperity.

I’ll look at boiling that down into a sentence tomorrow. For now, this will have to do :)”