A Worm’s Eye View

“What your profession?” The small Indian man twisted his upper body to eye me curiously as I gripped the little auto-rickshaw seat tighter–I wished he would keep his eyes on the maze of trucks, cars and other rickshaws that were weaving in and out of our lane with Nintendo-like ease.

I could explain to him that I used to work for no money in a country he has never heard of living in what can only be described as “voluntary absolute poverty.” But that would probably only make him take his eyes off the road for even longer so, instead, I say I’m a student. He nods and turns back to the road. Although my knuckles regain their pinkness as my grip begins to loosen, my mind is still tense as I try to grapple with a question that I cannot answer.

I’m still not really sure why I decided to stay in India for an extra three months instead of going home and trying to get a job that pays a more livable wage. I’ve been reading a lot recently–the beauty of seven hour layovers–and I’m starting to think that my year abroad has been about attaining what the famous “father” of microfinance, Muhammad Yunus, calls a “worm’s eye view.”

“By attempting to equip the students with a bird’s eye view, traditional universities had created an enormous distance between students and the reality of life. When you can hold the world in your palm and see it from a bird’s eye view, you tend to become arrogant—you do not realize that when looking from such a great distance, everything becomes blurred, and you end up imagining rather than really seeing things. I opted for what I called the ‘worm’s eye view.’ I thought I should rather look at things at close range and I would see them sharply.” (Banker to the Poor, pg. 5)

Although I wouldn’t have traded my Whitman education for anything, I do think that I used to have a far less complex view of the world and how to “save it.” So what has my wormy existence abroad taught me so far? Well, probably more than I will ever realize but here’s a few things I’ve been thinking about lately.

1. People don’t value things that they get for free. Every couple of weeks an NGO comes into my Nigerien village and distributes malnutrition supplements such as enriched corn flour and Vitamin A enhanced cooking oil. Long lines of women surround the distribution center for hours. The next day, my village is full of those same women selling their newly acquired goods and using the money to buy their traditional staples of millet and rice.

2. Living off a dollar a day isn’t all that bad–depending on where you are. After doing a monthly budget, I realized that for a couple of months at a time I had lived off around a dollar a day. Well this does not accurately reflect the lives of my villagers since I had my medical insurance and rent covered by Peace Corps, upon beginning my life in New Delhi it struck me that it means something very different to live in absolute poverty in Niger as it does in India. Aside from the clear difference in quality of life (i.e. things are a lot cheaper in Niger), there is also a large psychological difference. When you can watch Mercedes and BMWs drive by your tin roof shack everyday, you tend to notice your deprived condition a whole lot more than if you live in a village surrounded by people with roughly the same income.

3. The poor know a lot more about poverty than any aid-worker. The longer I live in developing countries, the more I have come to believe that I know nothing about how to really help people. The list of failed aid projects that bedecked the streets of my village made clear that although something like a school latrine sounds like a great idea, if the community doesn’t understand why they should use  it then you’re going to have children regularly pooping on the dirt in front of the unused bathroom.

4. Competition is the major driving force behind innovation. Just as I loved using competition as a tool to encourage my English students to study, I think that competition can and should be used to provide social goods just as long as that competition is tempered by an equally strong social consciousness.

These observations have brought me to the conclusion that if I truly want to be of use to the world’s poor, I’m going to need a heck of a lot more skills. I want to better understand how markets work and how it can be not only possible but profitable to provide social goods to the so-called “base of the pyramid.” I’m hoping that my new internship at Start Up!, a company that works with social entrepreneurs to help them launch their own businesses, will give me a better idea of how this hip new “social enterprise” sector actually functions.

While I’m pretty sure that this still isn’t an easily explainable profession to those ever-nosy rickshaw drivers and I know that it’s going to be a while before I can find or create a job with decent pay, at least I now have a fun metaphor to describe how I spent my first year out of college.