Jun 4, 2012

World Economic Forum: "Escape From Poverty"

I had been so excited about joining other Global Shapers in World Economic Forum East Asia (WEF EA) 2012 since 2 months ago. And when Weiyuan, the Community Manager Asia, sent me an email early in May, the excitement grew bigger than ever.

Long story short, she asked me if I can play a bigger role as one of panelists in a discussion entitled, “ESCAPE FROM POVERTY”, together with Brian A. Gallagher (President and CEO of United Way Worldwide), Professor Dean Karlan (Yale University), John McArthur (Senior Fellow of UN Foundation) and Ibu Shinta Widjaja Kamdani (Founder of GEPI). Such a huge opportunity I never had in mind.

No, I wasn’t cool about it when I read that email. I was too excited that I stared at my smartphone for "few" minutes (less than an hour I’m sure) checking whether the email was real and trying to figure out what to respond until my best friend told me to sleep on it first. So I did. Oh well.

Anyway, I became involved in this poverty issue not as a policymaker or a researcher, yet I became involved merely by chance (my friends and I realized how big the potential of our company to contribute more to the community that has been the big part of our business system, hence we changed our business core from profit maximizing business to a social enterprise). So when it comes to data or theory, I know nothing but my experience.

For those who don’t know, I’m a pharmacist and a soap maker. Since 2008, together with some friends, we have run this business, called Wangsa Jelita. In 2010, we wanted to make new soap formula and decided to work more closely with farmers at the time. However, nothing did we know about social entrepreneurship and community development (when someone asked me why I want to be a social entrepreneur, I didn't even know what the definition of social entrepreneur was). 

I think I was lucky I was born and raised in a family who has enough. By enough I mean I got the opportunity to go to university, I took English courses since I was 8, or basic needs like I don’t have to think about what to eat or even what to wear (in women case), I've been lucky enough that I even have options in most (if not all) of things in my life. 

In contrary, all women in the group of farmers that I met ended their education in elementary level. And it has happened in few generations - creating a life cycle. One day after visiting their farm, my friends and I went back home and couldn't help to think - how if WE were born and raised in that community? It was a very personal experience, but when you see how fortunate your life has been and then given a chance to see others’ who do not get the same opportunity as you, it touches your heart.

Back to the session I participated in, there were few things that I really wanted to address elaborately during the panel yet I didn’t get a chance due to limited time (an hour and half was definitely not enough), so I’m going to write them here.

I'm a firm believer that the idea “to end poverty” SHOULD BE a global mission. It IS a GLOBAL mission, and how I’d like to invite everyone to start to see it that way. 

Poverty is a complex problem and obviously not going to end over night. The difference between the haves and the have-nots is not solely money, hence I don't think charity (aka giving money to the poor) is the best answer. It does help to create a short term good outcome for the poor (it helps them to buy their needs), but in the long run, it will be no where near successful.

Few years back in Indonesia, there used to be a reality TV show where a man in suit gave away his money to the have-nots. He gave 10 million rupiah (now it’s about a thousand USD) and it should be spent within an hour (so you’d follow how the camera man running here and there to go where they buy stuff). Soon after we can see how the money well spent on things like food and clothes, but it became even more ‘interesting’ when some people decided to buy things like refrigerator, TV, and other electronics. The question rises - how would they pay the electricity bill?

You see, some things we know, some other things we don’t. Some people know best how to grow roses (farmers I’ve been working with are the best teachers on that), but when it comes to how to ‘treat money as an asset instead of liability’, there are other people whom I'll look for.  

Some people think that microcredit does not work. I’m not sure about that, but to me how microcredit works to help people getting out of the rat trap does make sense. I believe that putting charity in a business format is a sustainable way to end poverty. As Professor Muhammad Yunus said, I quote, "by doing so, the money will not only have one life". I think he made an excellent point.

I also believe that social entrepreneurs can fill the missing link. No, their role is not to give fund/loan to the poor to start their business. I believe they can play another role by giving them direct assistance that the poors need by taking them as the part of their business. So the bigger the company goes, the more benefit they get. 

And by the way, I have no doubt that all of us, no matter what our backgrounds are can fit in to accomplish the mission. Government through its regulations, giant companies through CSR programs, even those professionals who work in private sector through mentorship or anything else.

Another question rose, ‘what should we prioritize in ending the poverty?’

While I have no doubt that entrepreneurship is one of tools that we need to accomplish the mission, I also believe that education should be at the top priority list of things to be "installed". I believe the better education they have, the more options they get, the better life they can acquire. 

As I said during the panel, it’s going to be a long term process. An investment on education will define skills of people in the next fifteen to twenty years. Not an immediate success, I know. But I think education is what we need to create a completely new generation that will be well equipped to take their families way out of the poor's life cycle, making a break in the historical continuation of poverty. 


About the WEF, I’m beyond grateful to be the part of it. I had a chance to meet important people I’d never thought I would and I was glad that I did make the most of it. I think I am going to write another posting (or two) about my Bangkok moments during WEF and quotable quotes that I’ll never forget. One of them will definitely be the one from Madame Aung San Suu Kyi when she was talking about democracy,

“we shouldn’t wait for the country to be ready for democracy, but instead we should make the country to fit for democracy”

Now you can replace the word ‘country’ by ‘people’ and ‘democracy’ by ‘the mission to create the world without poverty’.

Yea, this is the face of passion. Ha.
Credit goes to Sikarin Thanachaiary :)