HALF SOLUTIONS CAN’T WORK FOREVER

Most of us are decent people.  We just want to have a fair opportunity to work to support ourselves and our families, and if there is any money (or time) left after that, we might give some of it to help people in need or other causes we care about.  Americans are generous people.  Americans donated more money to various causes in 2017 (over $400 billion) than the entire Gross Domestic Products of about ¾ of the other countries of the world.  Part of that is because we are a wealthy nation and can afford to be generous, but that’s not the only reason. There are lots of ways to look at giving and lots of ways to measure it (volunteering time instead of money, for instance), but by pretty much any measure, the US is in the top 3 or 4 of the most generous nations. We want to help others.  There are other issues involved in what defines “giving”, but we won’t go into that, here and now.

If you see a commercial about a starving child in Africa, your tendency, if you are like most people, is to want to help to feed the children.  Maybe you can afford it, and donate, and maybe your can’t, even though you’d like to.  Decent people want to help hungry kids.  There is a reason why aid organizations produce those commercials, and there is a reason why they make you uncomfortable.  It is to encourage you to help people who need it.

The theme of this column stems from a conversation I had with my son on the way to school this morning.  We were listening to a song (“West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys) and he asked what they were talking about.  During a conversation with a lot of sharp turns in it, he asked how big London is, which led to what the biggest city in the world is, which led to why so many of the largest cities are in developing countries, which led to the issue of expanding populations, limited resources and half-solutions.  Most of our conversations are hard to follow.  It’s only a 12-minute trip to school, too.

Anyway, he asked why so many big cities were in developing countries, and I said that one reason was that a lot of people were moving to the cities to try to escape the poverty of subsistence farming in the countryside and get somewhere where there was some support or at least possibility of opportunity.  This led to why the populations are growing so fast.  Again, I said one reason was that international aid had helped to lower the death rates from famine and disease, so more people were surviving, causing the populations to grow at a faster and even more unsustainable rate.  Soon, I told him, the populations of these places would grow to the point that international resources wouldn’t be able to sustain them, particularly since populations in most of the developed world, from where most of the aid comes, were leveling off or even declining. “But,” he asked, being a kind-hearted lad, “you can’t let them starve!” “Of course not”, was my answer, but I added that not letting them starve didn’t change the fact that the model was unsustainable.  In any environment, there are “X” resources.  When the population of anything expands to the point where “X” resources are insufficient to sustain it, it will collapse.  Math doesn’t lie.  This did not make my son happy.  He asked if there was a solution.  I told him there was.  There always has been.  Stop using half-solutions.  We, and by “we”, I mean people, in general, are big on fixing visible problems.  If you see on TV a hungry child in Africa, you donate some money.  The money will buy some rice that will be put on a ship in New Orleans and transported to Africa.  There, it will be put on a truck.  The truck will haul it to a village (oversimplifying, here) where the rice will be cooked, put in a bowl and given to the kid.  Hungry kid fed, problem solved!  Donor feels good, as she should.  But someone else is going to have to donate tomorrow to send in some more rice, because feeding the kid is only half the solution, and it is the easy half, by far.

There are two variables in play, here (again, oversimplifying, but it’s valid)–populations of people and resources.  You can, and should, work on both sides of the equation to effect a real solution.  Every effort should be (and in many such cases, is being) made to slow the rate of increase of the population.  That is a daunting task for a whole raft of reasons, and even if headway is made, the population is still going to be going up, only slightly less rapidly.  Exponential growth is hard to fight.  So, we work on increasing the resources.  We send food, medicine and other support.  Next month, the amount needed will increase, as it will every month after that as the population and the need continue to grow.  Eventually, the need will outstrip the available resources and people will begin to die.  Again, it’s simple math.

Feeding the hungry child is the feel-good half of the solution, but it won’t solve the problem.  If you want to solve the problem, you have to figure out why the kid is starving, and fix THAT.  That’s the other half of the solution.  Obviously, the kid is starving because he’s poor.  But that’s not the real cause.  His poverty is a consequence of something else.  He’s poor because the productive potential of environment he was born into is not high enough to support the population of people trying to live in it.  People move to the cities to escape this, but they are really only transporting the issue from one place to another, concentrating their need in the dense populations of the cities.  To establish a sustainable model, there has to be fundamental change in the productivity of the environment. 

None of this is news.  People who work on socioeconomic issues have understood this for years.  The problem is that there are only so many resources available.  If your capacity is being strained to the limit, just trying to keep everyone alive, there aren’t any resources remaining to deal with the actual underlying issues behind the hunger.

I use this example, because it’s the one that came out of my convoluted conversation with my son, but one doesn’t need to look at famine in Africa to see the same sort of scenario. Need exists all around us, every day.  It exists in Hopkins County, and it exists everywhere else, too.  Most of the programs meant to address need in this country are, just like the food program in Africa, half-solutions.  We are using our resources here to try to deal with the immediate issues, usually the ones we can see.  We are, metaphorically, feeding the starving kid, and not fixing why he’s starving in the first place.  It’s not the fault of the people who work in our social programs.  They are doing the absolute best they can with the resources they have.  Even if we do start to deal with the deeper causes, they will have to keep dealing with the surface issues, because you can’t let the kid go hungry while you are working on the other half of the solution.

The half-solution process that has been applied to our issues of need is unsustainable.  In the half-solution model, need is infinite and resources are finite.  Again, math.  It’s unsustainable in Africa and it’s unsustainable in Hopkins County.  We must find a way to apply the other half of the solution, and we need to do it before we reach a crisis point.  Many rural communities all over the country have already reached their crisis points.

One of the reasons we have been stuck in the half-solution model for so long is because the surface issues are usually easier to deal with, and our entire system is set up to deal with them.  They are also visible and seeing need makes us uncomfortable, so we try to make it go away.  You see the hungry or the poor kid.  You provide the kid with what he needs. Problem solved.  The kid has what he needs for the moment and you don’t have to see a needy child.  It’s a win-win.  For now.  Unfortunately, the need will return soon because nothing has changed.

The deeper issues, the causes of the need, are usually more complex.  They are harder to fix.  Often, they aren’t as visible.  Using resources to feed hungry people is one thing.  Using resources to help change the local environment so they can feed themselves is another.  They thing is, one of these is a real solution.  The other isn’t. The good news is that we have the resources and ability to apply the full solution here in Hopkins County.  We can do it, but we can only do it together.  Rural communities, because they have more limited resources than urban areas, must use all of their resources at maximum efficiency to achieve maximum impact.  Right now, we are not winning the game we are playing. We can’t win it, because it can’t be won using the playbook we’re using.  We can, however, change the plays.  If we change the game, we can win it.  We all have to join the team, though.  We need every player, doing whatever he or she can.  Be part of team Hopkins County.  We will win if we all get in the game.  Check out the playbook at www.ARCHcoalition.org

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