This post goes out to all of my friends who run businesses or non-profits that employ poor women or men in different countries in order to improve their lives. It has one major point: we need to pay them more.
Many such programs making jewelry or bags or hats or shoes or clothes and selling them in the USA are making a positive impact around the world. I know a number of great organizations in Uganda that are using variations on this model to create life change. They’re doing great work, and I think we can do even more.
In my anecdotal research, I’ve found that most American organizations that operate this way in Uganda set salaries or wages to about 300,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) per month. This translates to about $130. And though this doesn’t sound like much to American ears, in Uganda this is way above the local standard.
But I don’t think it’s enough. That same UGX 300,000 is about what it takes to put one student through one 3-month term of secondary school in Uganda. So if a family has three children that belong in secondary school (a conservative number, by Ugandan standards), that entire salary is wiped out just paying for school every term. Nothing is left over for food, rent, healthcare, school fees for other children; much less saving for university tuitions or other long-term goals.
Obviously the math doesn’t work. Families need to eat, need a roof, need malaria treatment when someone inevitably falls sick. So students miss terms and whole years of schooling because of money problems.
We can do better.
There is a level of income below which any positive difference made is temporary, and above which real, transformational, generational change can happen. Let’s call this the True Poverty Line, the line between being stuck at your current economic level and having the chance to break through to prosperity.
Someone earning below the true poverty line might be able to provide some schooling and better food and occasional health intervention, but the impact of these changes is relatively small, especially across generations – the next generation is only marginally better off, if at all.
Those who earn above the true poverty line, however, can afford the big-impact changes: consistent schooling through the tertiary level, dependable healthcare, and savings to pursue future goals. These changes not only have a strong impact in the present, but their impact actually increase across generations, as a new generation of well-educated young adults brings their potential to bear on their families and communities.
If we are serious about making a long-term impact in Uganda and elsewhere, we need to be serious about where this True Poverty Line lies, and we need to cross it. Of course the exact line is different for every family depending on how many children they have, where they live, etc, but we can start by calculating an average figure based on the communities we work in, and being sure to at least hit the average.
If we do this, we will be witness not just to thankful friends given temporary reprieve from poverty, but to transformational, generational change, where families go from extreme poverty to university graduates in one generation. Imagine that future.