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Fighting Poverty From Within

Fighting Poverty From WithinAccording to Jerry Sternin, founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts, ways to fight poverty around the world can be found in the impoverished communities themselves.

Boston [08.08.05] Although it rarely commands top headlines, poverty remains one of the most critical issues facing the world today. Jerry Sternin – a visiting scholar at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy – says that solutions which fail to take into account the unique needs, values and skills of a community will accomplish little in terms of substantial progress. Instead, a much more community-specific approach must be taken to make real progress.

"A viable solution in one setting often fails to work somewhere else, and it is unreasonable to assume otherwise," Sternin wrote in Science & Spirit magazine. "And so solutions to poverty that are merely templates trucked in from other cultures—that are not based on the value system, traditions, taboos, and strengths of the specific culture or community—will fall short."

Sternin – whose background is in Asian Studies and who has published papers on community-based alleviation of poverty – believes that "Westerners must not delude ourselves by thinking that the opposite of poverty is our great economic abundance." Best intentions, he wrote, can become muddled by arrogance.

"The belief that what works in America will work anywhere, and that people everywhere would choose to live the way we do if only they had a choice, is not only condescending; it is simply untrue," he wrote.

In fact, Sternin argues, the execution of such a philosophy can impose a poverty of another sort.

"Poverty is the impoverishment of the body, yes, but it is also the impoverishment of culture, of values, and of family. Do Western models ever consider that?"

Sternin recalled how, when he volunteered in the Philippines with the Peace Corps, he was aghast at villagers who starved 51 weeks a year but splurged several months’ income on meat and alcohol during a one week fiesta.

"We could never survive without this week, when our full stomachs and heads dancing with music and song let us believe for just a moment that maybe our children will have happier lives and live with hope and dignity,” Sternin recalled his host "father" explaining to him at the time.

As the saying goes, desperate times can call for desperate measures – but in some circumstances, those measures may mean the different between life and death.

"People living on the edge are, out of necessity, extremely innovative and creative," explained Sternin. "Sometimes, because they have absolutely nothing to lose, they are less risk-averse. And more often than not, they have extraordinary coping skills and mechanisms."

And these skills, Sternin says, cannot be overlooked. He says that adhering too closely to the bell curve can lead to the unwitting rejection of what may be a viable solution.

"If the practices of the majority, those at the center, are not working, it only makes sense to look to the strategies of the few who are succeeding," Sternin suggests, a phenomenon known as “positive deviance.”

Sternin, founder of the Positive Deviance Institute at the Friedman School, recalled the work of former Tufts nutrition professor Marian Zeitlin, who first identified the concept of "positive deviance" – which, as Sternin explains it, consists of "studying the characteristics favoring normal growth and development among children living in poverty."

"The idea of learning from those who had uncovered successful but uncommon behaviors and strategies had appeared in the international nutrition movement as early as the mid- 1960s, and researchers began to pay serious attention to people in poor communities who were healthy despite consuming diets that seemed restricted," wrote Sternin.

"Using the positive deviance approach, we can seek out and find good changes that are already evolving in a population, and then, instead of waiting for the fittest to survive into the next generation, the evolutionary advance can be amplified immediately, speeding the capacity of the population to ease its own suffering," he continued.

"In every community, there are certain individuals whose practices enable them to find better solutions to problems than their neighbors do," wrote Sternin. "These people know something we do not; even without our theoretical models, they’ve fixed something that needed fixing. Which means that within the context of their particular problem, within the specific context of their community, they are the world’s greatest experts."

But even these methods, wrote Sternin, are just a stopgap.

"The causes of poverty run deeper than the coping strategies used by the poor to survive. There are identifiable economic and structural causes underlying poverty—and they must be addressed before sustainable progress can be achieved."
























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