Dateline Timbuktu - Giving The Poor A Chance

09/25/2006 07:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I just returned from Ouagadougou, Mopti and Timbuktu, the latter a place you've probably heard of all your life but couldn't find on the map. Yes, Timbuktu - or Tombouctou as it is called by its inhabitants - really does exist and it is not in Nepal or the Himalayas as many people respond on first reaction, but in the northern desert of Mali in south western Africa - on the edge of the Niger River. It is a city of 36,000, with one small paved street and the rest being streets of sand. The temperature when I left was 125 degrees, and the sand was blowing.

I recount this setting because in spite of this very difficult environment, life does go on but in a form of extreme poverty; poverty that is even below the world definition of poverty of $1 per day in income. In some cases, in the villages around Timbuktu, I saw families of 6 or 8 living on 50c a day - which actually keeps them alive, but with a very low life expectancy and certainly not many amenities.

In spite of this environment - and in many respects it gets worse as the rainy season arrives and floods what passes for roads and in many cases makes them impassable ... life goes on! My visit was part of a pro-bono project with the International Finance Corporation, to visit several training projects to foster economic development models of finance and to review the Trickle Up Program (TUP) in particular. In the course of this visit, I met Judith Ariviere, a foot soldier in the war on poverty, who moved to Tombuktu three years ago on behalf of TUP to see if she could make a difference.

Judith is not the kind of person you would expect to meet here, even among the earnest volunteers who come from around the world to work in one of the many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are trying to do something to ameliorate the problem of pervasive poverty in Africa. She is a bundle of a woman with bright orange hair and a full complement of lipstick, nail polish and eye shadow. She wears colorful cotton dresses and pantsuits that you might expect to find in a place like Miami or Las Vegas. She was actually raised just outside Montreal and has a strong French accent. She laughs a lot.

Fourteen years ago, Judith moved to New York from Canada to open a boutique on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where she designed and sold dresses. But New York was too much hub-bub and violence (it was the year of a vicious attack on a woman jogger in Central Park, known as The Central Park Jogger), so she returned to Montreal. There she read a newspaper ad seeking people to help poor women start their own small business in Tunisia.

She soon left for what she thought would be a year or two. Two years stretched into ten, and Tunisia was replaced by Morocco. She enjoyed helping poor women start small businesses that would help lift them out of extreme poverty - to earn $2 or more a day, instead of $1 or less. Three years ago she answered an online ad for someone to start a similar program in Mali, which the UN ranks as the fourth poorest country on a list of 177 nations. Like most of us, she had never been to Mali before.

She joined Trickle Up, which through grants (not loans) of $100 each, has started over 7,000 businesses in Mali in the past three years (mostly run by women), which is their first chance at a slice of capital to start a business. So far, 95% are making a success of their efforts. They have formed associations, started savings accounts, while at the same time have achieved some semblance of dignity and pride and hope for the future. Nothing fazes Judith as she goes through her days on her own, visiting small tribes in local villages in remote outposts. Often, she has no water or electricity and, at times, broken vehicles, washed out roads, lack of tools and electrical items and makeshift living conditions on her own, and one of very few non natives. A day or two with Judith illustrated very well how a little capital and a little technical assistance can change lives and bring smiles and robust complexions to even the most disadvantaged people on earth.

The businesses that Judith helps start are very basic: dried fish sales; briquette distribution; furniture assembling; and animal trading. Without these small funds, however, these women would never in a lifetime be able to accumulate the $100 that TUP gives them to begin an enterprise. To make it clear, this is even below micro-finance! In addition to the money, the TUP grant builds self-confidence and dignity and improves health, increases schooling and, of course, improves basic living conditions which to you and I would still seem a long way below basic.

And once a week you will find them at meetings of their kondeye, a group of 25 women who pool savings of $1 a week in a wooden box with three locks, so that they have a source of funds if they need to expand their business, pay for medical care for a sick child or pay for one of their children to get married (or, sometimes, buried). When you meet them, you will meet women who are more outspoken and confident than other women in the village, better groomed and more optimistic about their future and their children's future.

If you follow Judith to one of the kondeye meetings, or one of the training sessions that Trickle Up's local partners conduct, you will see a world-class motivational speaker. "Trickle Up," she shouts to her audience, and they respond by pumping their index fingers above their heads and chanting "Up, up....." (They know what "up" means, but "trickle" doesn't translate easily and none of them have ever heard of "trickle down economics.") Indeed, most would look at you blankly if you asked them what happened on September 11th in New York.

"Who will be my first millionaire?" she shouts. It's not a crazy challenge. A million West African francs is equivalent to about US$2,000. She hasn't minted a Malian millionaire yet but it's a certainty that within a few more years, she will. As the meeting ends, she greets friends and hugs a baby that someone has named after her. If she has brought along her bosses from New York or an important foundation official, the entire village will greet them with drumming and dancing (she joins in exuberantly) and gifts of dried fish.

People like Judith are out there in every corner of the globe from India to Laos to Mali and in particular across Africa. Hot sand, dirty water and floods are all just part of the daily challenge. Their role is to give a little financial help and training and a little hope that things can get better. This is a level even below micro-credit which can only be served by human compassion, assistance and grants (not loans). We cannot continue to ignore extreme poverty, as sooner or later we will face it closer than we all would like. We must all do more than give lip service to making it better and we must honor, elevate and support the Judith's of the world in this fight.