The World Needs A Vast Portfolio Of Solutions To Match Our Portfolio Of Problems
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
“No one can make progress until they have clean water.”
“No one can do anything until they have enough food to eat.”
“Having a good job solves all the other problems someone may have.”
“Education is the single key to a prosperous future.”
“Supportive housing is the solution to homelessness.”
“All we need to do to reverse climate change is plant more trees.”
Children playing in the streets in Peshawar, Pakistan, May 16, 2016. DEVIN THORPE
Over the years I’ve been writing about social entrepreneurship and impact investing, I’ve heard all these statements and many other oversimplifications of problem solving. It is our desire for a simple solution that drives this thinking—not the reality of the situation. The reality is helping people and the environment to overcome their challenges is complex.
Consider a low-income family in the suburbs of Peshawar, Pakistan. Access to clean water is likely a problem. The family may have running water in the home, but it isn’t safe to drink without further treatment. They also are likely to be uncertain about where food is coming from. A typical entry-level job—if either parent has one—pays about $125 per month, so a family of five living on that doesn’t reach the World Bank threshold of $1.90 per person per day and so would be deemed to be living in extreme poverty.
As a result of their circumstances, their access to health care is limited. A free hospital in Peshawar is far more likely to be a source of disease than effective treatment based on my brief visit.
Would providing clean drinking water to the family solve all their problems? Absolutely not. It would reduce their risk of infection from a variety of water borne diseases, including polio, which still circulates there, but would not guarantee good health.
Would providing supplemental food to ensure that the family had enough to eat both to satisfy hungry stomachs and to provide adequate nutrition solve all their problems? Absolutely not. It would give them more energy to work and study but there is no guarantee better jobs or higher income would result.
In our hypothetical example, the family already has a job and still finds itself in extreme poverty with just three children. Imagine a family with eight children relying on the income of one job paying $125 per month such as the one I found during my visit.
Our hypothetical family also faces higher risks of having a child trafficked into slavery, sexual or otherwise. They can now observe the impacts of climate change—something they did virtually nothing to create. Their children may be in school but until they are grown and employed the benefits won’t be realized. Every day is a new temptation to pull one or all the kids out of school.
These complexities are not limited to Pakistan. They are global and include domestic challenges here in the United States.
Take for instance the highly effective “housing first” initiative that works to get homeless people into housing. Right in my neighborhood in recent weeks I saw the limitations of that approach play out when a resident of supportive housing was gunned down by police in his apartment when he opened the door and threatened them with a paintball gun. Clearly, other issues, drugs or mental health issues overwhelmed the benefits of the housing.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about how climate change could be stemmed by planting 2 trillion trees, noting that a survey has identified places where all of them could be planted. This is a brilliant idea that we should unequivocally do. The idea fails, however, to appreciate that the current rate of deforestation continues to rise! Reversing climate change will require a range of solutions—including reforestation—and we should be implementing all of them immediately.
The point is not that we shouldn’t provide clean water, more food, more and better jobs, better education, supportive housing or plant more trees. The point is, when we invest our time and energy in one of these solutions, we must do so with the integrity to recognize that none is a complete solution and the world needs a vast portfolio of solutions to match our portfolio of problems.
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