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Dan Liljenquist: Extreme poverty requires hand-to-hand combat

Published: Thursday, Aug. 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The real battle to end extreme poverty is hand-to-hand combat (carpet-bombing developing countries with care packages cannot do the job). We must look for opportunities to help specific people — the Esi's of the world — improve their own economic situation, through individualized giving. Gratefully, technology makes such connections possible as never before.

Schalk Van Zuydam, AP

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Her name is Esi, a single mother, peddling salt on the streets of Assorkor-Asaman, Ghana, eking out on her own a hand-to-mouth existence for her family, desperate to buy time, another month, another week, another day of education for her five young children before they are forced out of the classroom and into the world to find whatever work they can. Esi's life is a desperate, daily battle for survival. It is a life familiar to 1.2 billion people throughout the world who live with extreme poverty, subsisting on less than $1.25 per day.

Last Saturday night, my wife Brooke and I attended a fundraiser for the Global Poverty Project, a non-profit organization with the mission "to increase the number and effectiveness of people taking action to see an end to extreme poverty." The setting in the Grand America Ballroom was picturesque, the food abundant, the attendees beautifully attired, the speakers successful, well-educated and articulate. It was a world away, both figuratively and literally, from the grinding poverty I have personally witnessed in Manila, in Cairo, in Guatemala City. At first, the setting seemed inappropriate, obscene even, as I reflected on the contrast between my own experiences.

The evening changed, however, when the speakers moved past the statistics, where overwhelmingly large numbers can frame poverty as an abstract idea, and began to focus on the stories of specific individuals trying to claw their way out of their destitute circumstances and how targeted, seemingly insignificant charitable giving can make all the difference. That was when I understood why we were seated in such an opulent setting — it was to draw the sharpest contrast possible between our situation and the situation of people like Esi. The folks at the Global Poverty Project are successful raising money for their cause precisely because they have figured out how to make the plight of the extremely poor tangible, visceral, compelling and fixable.

The real battle to end extreme poverty is hand-to-hand combat (carpet-bombing developing countries with care packages cannot do the job). We must look for opportunities to help specific people — the Esi's of the world — improve their own economic situation, through individualized giving. Gratefully, technology makes such connections possible as never before.

This summer, my wife Brooke read the New York Times bestselling book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." The book details the challenges often faced by women and girls in developing countries, including domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, maternal mortality and barriers to education. It also recounts the stories of dozens of women, once trapped in desperate circumstances, abused, exploited, physically crippled by treatable conditions, who were able to break free with the most modest of help.

Inspired by "Half the Sky," Brooke found www.kiva.org, a non-profit organization with "a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty." She learned that Kiva, working with hundreds of field partners worldwide, had linked up 981,322 lenders with tens of thousands of low-income entrepreneurs throughout the world, placing nearly $500 million in micro-loans with a 99.02 percent repayment rate. It was through Kiva that Brooke learned of Esi and her desire to grow her retail salt business in order to keep her children in school. Brooke, along with several other Kiva lenders, contributed towards the $500 loan Esi needed to expand. The loan was funded last week.

Mahatma Ghandi once said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." With determined effort and modest means, utilizing new ways to connect, we can help eliminate extreme poverty — one person at a time.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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