For decades, the Developed World has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on overseas aid. We see poverty, inequity and suffering and want to make a difference. We want to bring change. It’s human to feel like this. It’s an expression of empathy and shared humanity.  

And we all understand the core needs. The basic needs that bring relief and opportunity: good nutrition, medical care, clean water, education, shelter etc. 

The challenge is not in the understanding of WHAT is needed but HOW it is best accessed.  

And this is where ‘we’ hit a roadblock. Our experience and expectations, so often limit our response. We like instant solutions. Complete solutions. They look like children sitting in high quality schools, families enjoying a nutritious meal, a village gathered around a newly dug well or people lining up to access a mobile medical clinic. From this approach, we take before and after pictures at a single point in time and everyone celebrates the outcome.    

But when we walk away, what do we leave behind? 

Statistics tell us that after spending billions of aid dollars in Africa since 1990, not only has the gap grown between the rich and the poor, but the poor are poorer than ever. UNICEF estimates that there are 50,000 unused wells in central Africa alone. And poor nutrition, inadequate medical services and reliance on overseas aid continue to dominate the landscape of most Developing World countries. 

So, back to the Rwandan proverb. “If you are building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building or do you change the nail?”  

It’s a little like the Western adage for insanity, ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’  

I believe there are other ways. I believe that people can make their own way out of poverty. It will take longer than our current solutions. And it may never look like our picture. We will see small steps and large strides. But the overall goal is to see sustained, contented life change for the poorest people.   

Pursuing this goal looks like: basic literacy and entrepreneurship training, self help groups, indigenous leadership, access to finance (low interest loans), political representation and influence. And in so doing, allow the poor to learn skills, start businesses and provide for their own families.  

It’s a wonderful picture. It’s an ambitious goal. But I think it’s the only goal that will build the house that can never be blown down. 


This is the approach being used by the Self Help Groups in Rwanda. And twenty of the women’s stories are captured in our newest book, “Twenty Reasons to Believe”.  You can order the book online