Features

The Carnegie way

"The Carnegie way" Continued...

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

Martin J. Fisher, co-founder of KickStart International, creator of those human-powered water pumps that make possible longer growing seasons and higher incomes for small farmers in poor countries, argues that "what poor people need most is a way to make money." He happily tells reporters of customers who skipped meals for weeks to save the money to buy a treadle pump. The ambitious farmers multiplied their investment of $30 to $90 10-fold in one year by growing grain in the dry season, when it fetches three times the normal price.

And yet, the idea that anyone should skip a meal upsets the stomachs of many. Why should anyone have to work something like a stair-climber for hours to pump water when we have motorized pumps? But, in Fisher's words, affluent people "buy time-saving and labor-saving devices, and many of those aren't that relevant for the poor. They have a fair lot of time and labor. What they don't have is very much money." By giving people the opportunity to make money, KickStart International says it has helped 230,000 people escape poverty.

Shouldn't we give pumps to the poor? Why make them skip meals?

KickStart insists on selling its pumps because "no giveaway program can be sustainable. By selling our pumps, we create a sustainable supply chain." Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, tells reporters, "When you give things away, you lack discipline in how you design them because you don't have to get feedback from the customer."

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit emphasizes small: Don't construct hydroelectric dams, construct cheap shelter that people can buy to protect themselves from the elements. The exhibit embraces using human power rather than machines and gasoline because use of machinery requires continued infusions of Western cash. The goal is for local economies to function independently: People power can crank radios, pump water, and drive bicycles.

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit displays ingenuity and also forces us to confront our own charitable notions. Do we emphasize giving to all of the poor rather than helping those who are able-bodied to glean their sustenance? Do we ignore sustainability and create long-term dependence?

The Bible strongly emphasizes help to the helpless-most obviously, widows and orphans-but expects widows to be busy with good deeds and not busybodies. The Bible offers hope to the disabled and demands work from the able: In the apostle Paul's punchy words to the Thessalonians, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit shows simple yet elegant tools; a major goal now should be to make sure that eager hands have access to them.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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