Many years ago, I was driving through downtown Minneapolis with several younger cousins from Dallas, Texas.  As we pulled up to a major intersection, we noticed a homeless man standing on the side of the road. He looked sad and desperate, wearing filthy clothes and holding a sign soliciting money from the passing vehicles.

As we passed the man, one of my cousins, who was perhaps six or seven years old at the time, leaned out the window and yelled, “Get a job!”

Undoubtedly, the United States is a “pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” society.  We honor back-breaking work and private enterprise.  When in trouble, we prefer to look to friends and neighbors, rather than ask the government for handouts and support.

We tend to have a love-hate relationship with this fact as a society. On the one hand, we hold dearly these values, which have been lauded by social thinkers like Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville as reason for America’s rich civil society and strong culture of entrepreneurship.  At the same time, our “bootstrapping” belief system and the associated American Dream often engender selfish behavior and harmful prejudices that none of us should be proud of.  We evade taxes to protect our hard-earned money.  We accept the inadequacy of our social safety net.  And, like my cousin once did, we categorically blame the poor and homeless for their plight.

The random confluence of two interesting stories got me thinking about this topic last week, and how it has shaped our attitudes toward development.

One story was the outrage over Kiva’s decision to begin offering micro-financing to entrepreneurs in the United States.  (More on that here, here, and here.)

The second was a report I caught on Minnesota Public Radio on the 27 year old Loaves and Fishes program.  The program was established as a temporary measure to feed the homeless and the poor after the Reagan administration cut back on welfare programs in the early eighties.

The Loaves and Fishes story represents how we have traditionally approached development within our own country.  Development is all about job creation and entrepreneurship.  It’s about creating policies and institutions that stimulate private investment and create sustainable private sector employment.  The role of aid and charity then (which are also largely private in the U.S.) has been to temporarily prop up those who are transitionally poor or  provide longer-term support to those perfectly incapable of supporting themselves.  It’s a “tough love” approach to development that places emphasis on individual motivation, capacity, and dignity.

The Kiva story, on the other hand, places the “tough love” approach to development that we have applied within the U.S. in stark contrast to how we’ve approached development in the rest of the world.  The American international aid establishment and American attitudes toward aid abroad have traditionally revolved around charity first, enterprise second.  I don’t know why this is.  It’s an utterly mind-boggling contradiction.  But it was readily apparent in the Kiva story, where individuals who were staunch supporters of “interest-free” loans to entrepreneurs in other countries lashed out against the idea of providing the same kind of  “charity” to poorer individuals at home.  It’s as though we believe people in the U.S. can and should be able to make it on their own, just like we did, while families abroad need our help and charity to get ahead.  It’s American Exceptionalism at it’s finest.

This double-standard has failed us for too long. Which makes it that much more exciting to see how our attitudes toward development both at home and abroad are evolving.  The role of poverty-focused non-profits in the U.S. can’t simply be to plug holes in the social safety net.  We’re learning this.  And the emphasis placed on entrepreneurship in international development efforts needs to be significantly greater.  Every day, we’re seeing more and more of this.

It’s an exciting time to be in this field.  I don’t know about you, but (in typical American fashion) I’m optimistic for the future.

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