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Charities Must Help People Help Themselves

20 March 2018 at 8:36 am
Wendy Williams
Charity is not the solution for helping people out of poverty, according to a leading global advocate for sanitation.

Wendy Williams | 20 March 2018 at 8:36 am


Charities Must Help People Help Themselves
20 March 2018 at 8:36 am

Charity is not the solution for helping people out of poverty, according to a leading global advocate for sanitation.

Jack Sim, widely known as “Mr Toilet”, is the founder of the World Toilet Organization and the Base of the Pyramid Hub (BoP Hub), which was established with a mission to design business to end poverty.

He has been in Australia speaking at the FIA conference where he told audiences charity must change to survive in the future and he offered a vision of how to create impact without going through the traditional route of fundraising.

Sim told Pro Bono News the greatest lesson he learnt while trying to create a global movement for sanitation was that “money is a loss making business”.

“Basically I figured out that, on a personal level, after having some money that is enough to pay all the bills for the kids’ universities and the mortgage, I shouldn’t worry about earning more money,” Sim said.

“There comes a point where you don’t have a money problem, if you live in a very simple way, like I don’t buy a sports car or a yacht or something like that.

“After that point, I realised that making more money is a loss making business. So it sounds very strange. But if at the end of my life I have a lot of leftover money, it would mean I have wasted a lot of my life… I would have wasted all that time to make money which I didn’t use, which basically means it is useless.”

Jack Sim headshot

Jack Sim

According to Sim, who founded the WTO in 2001 after attaining financial independence at age of 40, a loss making business happens when you get something in exchange of a lower value than you pay.

He said the thing of highest value in a person’s life was time.

“I don’t want on the last day of my life to summon somebody next to me to show me my bank balance and say ‘oh I’ve got so much money’ and then I die,” he said.

“That is not a happy ending. The happy ending would be if I could say to myself that people used to not have a toilet, nowadays everybody has a toilet. People used to be poor without basics like drinking water, education, electricity and nowadays everybody has at least that and nobody is actually homeless.

“And so these are the kind of visuals in the last moment that I would feel very good about.”

Applying his philosophy in the context of fundraising, Sim said it was possible for charities to create impact without going through the traditional route of fundraising.

He said charities needed to get back to their mission.

“First of all you have to remember what you are trying to achieve. You are not trying to achieve money, you want to achieve the end result; which is people are not sick, kids get educated, everybody has got opportunity and a better world, where nobody is poor and it is fair and equitable. That’s the kind of thing you want,” he said.

“So you can get that through any channel.

“It’s like you say ‘I want to be happy, that’s why I have to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag’, maybe you don’t need a Louis Vuitton handbag and you can still be happy. So there are many pathways to the solution.”

Sim said the charity sector and social development sector were among the most inefficient industries in the world.

“We have $150 billion of foreign aid going to help solve problems and we’ve got billions of poor all the time. So what’s going on? Where does this money go to? How was it spent? Was it spent ticking boxes so that we say the operation was successful but the patient is dead?” he said.

“These kind of issues happen when we are thinking of our own organisation, our own survival, how we pay salaries to our staff, how we look good to the donor. What happens is that we are trying to please the donor rather than solve the problem. That skews the entire orientation of the industry because the industry has to stop the problem. But they end up pleasing the donor.

“And this approach of people competing for their money makes all the players in the sector afraid of collaborating with each other. So this creates very, very expensive overheads to do very simple things.”

Sim, who founded Singapore-based business accelerator platform BoP Hub in 2011 with the aim of catalysing cross-sector collaboration and strengthening participation in social entrepreneurship, said the solution was to help the poor help themselves.

He said charities needed to be educated in this new way of thinking.

“Charities are very often using emotional blackmail. For example they show a picture of a very sad looking child … and then the message is ‘give me the money or the child dies’. This is language used by kidnappers. Why is it language used by fundraisers?,” he said.

“Something is not right, when we are thinking this way. This child can be a leader of tomorrow. This child deserves the dignity.

“Africans are so sad that they have been portrayed as hopeless, useless and helpless by the NGOs. They don’t want that. They have pride and dignity. What they want is opportunity, investment, training and then they can grow.”

Sim said the idea behind BoP Hub was to aggregate and scale up the best models across sectors and industries, negotiate collaborative interwoven approaches and cut wastage in the supply chain.

“So this BoP Hub, I created, is to find all the good solutions and get people to copy one another and then to learn and collaborate,” he said.

“Instead of delivering one program or service, then you can deliver from each of the multiple services. Let’s say I am selling toilets, now I can also sell drinking water, I can also sell solar energy, cell phone charging, Wi-Fi services, electronic banking, e-payment, e-commerce and I can take orders and I can be a logistics center.

“And if we were to create franchises in this format in open source so that everyone and anyone can pick this up, then your charity money becomes philanthropic investment… you will not lose it because that money will be recycled for the next one and the next one. And each entrepreneur will create jobs.”

He said charity will have to change in the future.

“Because people are getting smart and you cannot just trick them with emotional triggers,” he said.

“People want to give, so philanthropy will not go away. However we should educate people to give in the most efficient way, which is an ecosystem for a market to be efficient.”

He used Singapore, where he was born, as an example of how enterprise can be used to get people out of poverty.

“We became independent in 1965 from the British. We were a very poor country but we did not rely on donations, we relied on investment, vocational training and how to get jobs for our people. And this country grows wealthier and wealthier every year. It had a GDP in 1960 the same as Kenya, and now it is one of the wealthiest per capita in the world,” Sim said.

“Now this model of poverty alleviation is about helping people help themselves.

“You might say that’s a very small country, but China copied this model and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew went to give consultancy and advice for decades. And then what happened, in the last 30 years, China got 700 million people out of poverty. That’s not charity, that is job creation. And China did that through investment, through unlocking the spirit of enterprise and the good work ethics of its people. Once you are able to unlock good work ethics and spirit of enterprise of people then you get people out of poverty.”

Sim said the same was true for African nations, and he dismissed stereotypes that portrayed Africans as lazy or pathetic.

“All human beings are the same in their aspirations and they will be willing to do whatever opportunity is given to them,” he said.

“What’s happening is that because the NGOs have portrayed the Africans in such a bad light that the belief is that they are lazy, pathetic. But that is not true. All can be saved through market. Rwanda, who just suffered the genocide a few decades ago, is now one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. You know why? They call themselves the ‘Singapore of Africa’.

“So, poverty alleviation is the objective of the charity sector. Charity will continue but in a new form of empowerment, of helping people fish and not giving them fish.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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