Your Pity Is No Longer Required…
“Your Pity Is No Longer Required”, and other thoughts from Nairobi…..
He was a short and frail Kenyan of Indian descent in his early thirties with a bushy (and somewhat creepy) mustache and glasses, dancing at a hip Nairobi nightclub teeming with young Kenyans, Expats, and everything in between.
Up to that point, my whole day had been a reflection of just how powerful the city and people of Nairobi seemed to be becoming. The technology and innovations emerging from places like the iHub, the Kenyan diaspora returning after working or studying abroad to build the companies and the future of their own country, and the remarkable ambition, resilience and drive I felt in each of my encounters with the people of Nairobi, was driving some point home for me. I was creating a narrative in my head- despite the lack of infrastructure, despite the poverty, despite the political corruption, the city has so much untapped human potential waiting to be unlocked, and so many Kenyans hungry to thrust their country even further into the international spotlight.
Then I saw it. It was written on skinny mustache man’s t-shirt, in bold letters taking up the entire frontside of the shirt. “Your Pity Is No Longer Required”. I didn’t see the back, or the context, but I had seen enough.
The time for pity is over. The African narrative of the past decades- pictures and videos of fly-covered street children with dirt-clotted snot dripping off their face, plastic bags full of human excrement floating through flooded slums, horrendous images of poverty, stories of development failure and disaster- has outlived its purpose. YES, these stories and images highlight crucial problems, and YES, they get donors to hand money to the thousands of NGO’s trying to fix the same problems (albeit usually not together), but they simply show a one-sided story; one that doesn’t reflect the hope, power, and potential of a country on the edge of something bigger.
The story of Kenya, the narrative of development, is ripe for a makeover. Where are the stories of the young entrepreneurs? What about the students relentlessly pursuing an education to make their own future? Where are the stories of people overcoming amazing odds to make a name for themselves? I always wonder how shocked your average American college freshman would be be standing in the heart of a nightclub in Nairobi on any given Saturday evening, or spending an afternoon with a team of young entrepreneurs launching a new technology to change the way Kenyans bank.
“Your Pity is No Longer Required,” is in my mind a perfect motto for the new approach to development. The west has “pitied” the poor in developing countries, and offered solutions that sometimes marginalize, embarrass, or worst of all create a fundamental dependency on western aid.
Now, let’s be frank. This new motto is not to mean “your aid” is no longer required. Yes, NGO’s, humanitarian organizations, and large international agencies still have a massive role to play in assisting Kenya in building an infrastructure for the country and its inhabitants (water, health, sanitation, education). But this role should not be permanent, nor should it be led from the top down, and it ultimately should be done in tandem with the goals and work of the government, the people, and the private sector.
So today, start by throwing your pity aside. Instead of donating out of pity, begin investing in hope.
Begin searching for and sharing the stories, images, and narratives that reflect a country moving forward, not a backwards place in need of salvation.
There are many core areas that are failing and hampering development, such as clean water, access to sanitation, health services, and energy. These are ultimately perceived as the government’s responsibility, yet for multiple reasons (corruption, lack of taxpayers dollars, aid dependency) the government has seemed to fail, and the private sector needs to begin playing a more active part. That‘s why social entrepreneurs & social businesses are flooding into, and emerging from, Kenya. They are attempting to create profitable, socially beneficial industries out of areas where the government has previously, and continues, to fail.
Investing in the hope of a country like Kenya means investing- whether it’s time, talent, money, resources, knowledge, or training- in the young technology entrepreneurs, the social businesses, and the social entrepreneurs that will, we can hope, propel this wave forward and move the country in the right direction.
I’m working to do my part. The purpose of The (BoP) Project is not to document poverty. Most everyone knows what poverty looks like. They’ve either seen it in photographs, documentaries, or on the nightly news; witnessed it first hand walking through the streets if Mumbai, Mexico City, Bangkok, or even out the window of their van on spring break in Costa Rica; or, for over half of the world’s population, they’ve seen it because they live it every single day.
By sharing stories of social entrepreneurs, social businesses or enterprises, or simply young entrepreneurs in the developing world who blazing their own paths out of poverty, I am hoping to shift away from the common mistake of simply documenting “poverty”, towards documenting “potential”. That, in my opinion, will have a much greater impact on the global narrative and western perspectives of these emerging economies.
So let’s end this pity party and start focusing on the real problems, real solutions, and real narratives the countries. It will be a welcomed change, I promise.