16 1 / 2013

Some of my fellow fellows are having a rough go of it.

One came down with malaria and was sidelined for a week.

One is dealing with a lunatic landlord who is trying to take advantage of the fact that she is a foreigner and is essentially forcing her out of the apartment.

And one got kicked out of the country because the immigration office refused to approve her visa.  She was packed and ready to board her flight when she finally got a temporary extension.

These are exhausting issues they’ve each had to tackle in the past month. And why bother? Well. They just want to get back to work.

In contrast I’m living a fairly charmed life. I haven’t had any major challenges preventing me from living or working. It’s been easy. 

But.

I do find myself losing time. Constantly losing time. I sit in hours of traffic most days; I have very long conversations with cops who are looking for a little extra cash; the real estate company threatens to change the locks on my apartment because they can’t keep their payment records straight so I spend half the night getting things sorted; and the electric company actually does cut power at my apartment because they suffer from the same record keeping challenges that plague the banks. The hours pass as I stand in long queues to argue about bills that were paid. In full. Early. Weeks ago.

I won’t pretend like my daily annoyances come close to being as challenging as these bigger issues that my fellows had to deal with. And yet, whether we’re getting sidelined with these issues that consume us for days, or if we’re our quietly, insidiously, losing minutes and hours every week dealing with inefficiency the end result is the same: None of us can work the way we want to. None of us can work the way we should. None of us are able to give all the brainpower and hard work and dedication that our jobs demand and deserve.

And we’re only the temps.

What about the entrepreneurs that we’re working with? What about their staff, who could all get higher paying jobs in the private sector, but who have chosen to work with these social enterprises to try to reach the poor with their products and services? The huge amount of friction they deal with every day is staggering. The power goes out hourly during our executive team meeting to set the strategy for doubling the number of farmers we want reach this year. We head out to visit farmers and understand their needs better, but the roads are so bad it takes 3 hours to travel a handful of kilometers. Our staff lose family members to street thugs who were probably armed by corrupt cops. We are late reconciling loan repayments because the banks our farmers use to process payments frequently go offline.

It defies my sense of fairness, and it sure as hell defies my personal level of patience.*

For some reason the pervasive friction in the systems of developing countries never seems to make it into the big philosophical or academic debates about poverty alleviation that we all love to have. Not sexy enough maybe. And yet this friction is one of the hardest things about working to create opportunities for the poor. It’s no easy thing to watch helplessly as your efficiency get stolen away from you in bits and pieces by factors that are just so … external. And it’s harder still to experience the inefficiency but just keep going anyway. To wake up the next day and try again – even though yesterday made you want to pull your hair out. We need smart, innovative, empathetic and passionate people to try to build these companies who are empowering the poor.

Yup.

Definitely.

Absolutely.

But you know what else we need? People who are committed really deep down. And I mean all the way down. So far down that they are somehow able to get back up, day after day after day. And try again. And again. And again. Even if it’s slow. Even if it’s bumpy. Even if it makes you want to scream. Until it works.

 *This might be a character flaw. I’m working on it.