Category Archives: Overcoming Poverty

Fresh and powerful ideas on how we can overcome global poverty more effectively in the 21st century

The Ant and the Elephant: A Poverty Parable


One day, after a number of years observing each other’s lives, the ant and the elephant struck up a conversation. The curious elephant began by asking the ant: ‘How is it that you seem to work so hard and yet have so little to show for it?’

‘Ah’, replied the ant ‘that is easy: I was not born with your advantages! Otherwise, we are not so different, you and I. We are both creatures, we both work hard – indeed, we both have “ant” in our name! But I do not have your tusks to knock down trees, your trunk to lift them, nor your mighty legs to carry me such giant distances in a single stride. But neither do I consume the great volume of resources that you do, to keep me going. So I have a question for you: Why is it that you elephants consume such vast resources and have such great powers, yet you do not lift your mighty trunk to help us ants? Are we not both creatures, you and I? Imagine just how much your own mighty strength would help me!’

‘Ah’, said the elephant. ‘That too is easy. As you say, I consume much and I therefore rely heavily on the food my masters give me. Mighty as I may appear to be to you, I remain a slave to them. If I cease their work to do yours, who then will feed me?’ This response puzzled the ant, who replied: ‘But I am not asking you to abandon your masters and help me all the time; only for a tiny fraction of what you have spare. What may seem a little help to you, will make a world of difference to me.’

sermon illustration on poverty, ant and elephant

The elephant pondered this, lost in thought for a long time. Finally, he asked the ant: ‘But if I do as you say, which of you shall I help? I can see that you are not alone. If I am to help only a little, how will I know what to do and who to do it for? Why should I favour you among so many?’

At this, the ant laughed heartily, for the elephant’s reasoning seemed entirely alien to him, as one used to living for his colony. ‘I have an idea’, he eventually replied. ‘Let us agree to do this. I have lived and laboured many years before ever meeting you and if you go your way today, I will live and labour many more without you. If I had been born an elephant like you, this is what I would consider fair. With my limited resources as an ant, I can offer you little in return, except my deepest gratitude as a fellow creature. But start today by helping me. Should you later come across a more needy, or deserving ant than I, I will understand if you favour them over me. At least then, when you meet them, you will already be in the habit of helping ants. For neither can you help us all, nor can you help us not-at-all!’

…And so say we all.

Whether ant or elephant, we thank you once more for being…

One in a Billion!

What Can One Guy Do?


Yes. That’s true. We don’t want to patronise you. There are over 7 billion of us individuals on the planet, apparently – and you’re just ONE of them. Using United Nations statistics, those below the so-called ‘Poverty Line’ are around a quarter of that total – some 1.75 billion people in all. Of that rather daunting number, some 1 billion or so (who’s counting?) are considered to be in “extreme poverty”, often defined as those living on less than the equivalent of US$1.25 a day.  It can be pretty tough for some of us, but probably worst of all for these. And there’s around a billion of them. Facing this tsunami of need, what can one person do to make a difference?  After all, trying to help meet the needs of just ONE person would be enough!

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And with that simple thought, you might just be on to something.

Thinking about it, you ARE just one person, but then seeking to help JUST one other person overcome poverty might indeed be ENOUGH to make a difference. That is…assuming there were a billion others like you willing to do just the same. And we think there might be.  But that’s not your problem; it’s ours, ok? At least, we have made it ours. That’s why we call ourselves “Give A Billion”, because we think there are at least a billion people out there who would be more inclined to engage in solving global poverty, if they could JUST focus on helping ONE person – ideally one person they can identify with. It is our job* to encourage those 1 billion people and help them engage effectively in overcoming poverty – JUST one person at a time.

*We regularly get visitors to this site from over 125 countries worldwide, which collectively represent over 90% of the planet’s population. Good ideas spread quickly.

overcoming global poverty, teach a man to fish, poverty solution, Shan State, Myanmar

If you are one of those people: welcome aboard!  We have some things that will make your journey a whole lot easier!  For starters, leave the other 1 billion helpers to one side for the moment. We’ll get around to them in good time. Let’s talk about you. YOU are the one reading this, so YOU are our main concern right now – you are the one who wants to make a difference in the world. Do you know how many other internet users like you, there are in the world? It was already estimated at over 2.4 billion in 2012. Over 750 million of those are now on Facebook alone! Hundreds of millions also use Twitter and Weibo. If you use any of those tools, or at least know of them, then the idea of being one in a billion people that are somehow ‘connected’, is not a new concept for you, right? You ARE still just one person – but you’re also ‘one in a billion’ of them.

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Have you ever wondered about that? If there are 7 billion people in a line, notionally ranked from ‘richest’ to ‘poorest’, where exactly would you stand in that line? Look ahead of you. How many hundreds of millions of people do you imagine are richer than you? And how many billions behind you are poorer, looking ahead at YOU as one of the richer ones? Whatever your position, the queue itself would classically follow something called the “normal distribution curve” of values. (If you don’t know it, put the search term into Google and look at the images that come back). That means some at one far end of the scale are spectacularly rich. In 2013, Forbes Magazine estimated that the richest 40 people on the planet had a combined wealth of around 1 Trillion dollars. That’s US$1,000,000,000,000.  Or one thousand lots of 1 billion dollars. But they are not our main focus here.

solving poverty, overcoming poverty in Kathmandu, Nepal

At the other end of the scale, you have some people who are the poorest of the poor. If a billion people live on less than US$1.25 a day, then that means some of those are going to be desperately poor, living on less than even half of that. The bulk of the world’s population, however, will fall somewhere in the middle of that queue we talked about. And that got us thinking…


If there are 7 billion people alive today and some 1 billion are in extreme poverty – then by simple maths, some 6 billion are relatively “better off” than that – although for some, it is not by much.  And out of those 6 billion others, we’ve said we want to engage 1 billion among the richest half of those people to help the 1 billion classed as in ‘extreme poverty’ – at the other end of the scale. This way, it’s more like a one-to-one relationship – and no one person feels they have to shoulder the burden for it all. Out of the willing force of 1 billion people, we can all do our OWN chosen bit to help – and let the others do theirs.

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Here’s a sequence of attitudes that you may have felt in yourself at some point, or met in others:

1. You can do nothing: The challenge facing you is too great. Give up.

2. You’re not sure you can do anything: You are not against helping, but you doubt that anything you do will really matter that much.

3. At least you’re doing something: Since doing something must be better than nothing, surely you must have some moral superiority over all the millions out there ‘doing nothing’.

4. You’re doing ‘what you can’: Actually, it is more that you are doing all you feel like doing for now, so your conscience should leave you alone.

5. You’re doing something specific: You have considered the options for action and have picked the actions that best suit you and are realistic at this stage.

6. You’re trying to do everything: You will burn out. Please stop before that point!

solve global poverty one person at a time with this powerful global model

We are looking to help move a billion people up the rankings to stage 5 in the list above. For all those people who are already at stage 6, we want to do what we can to help you move back to stage 5.  But we have to admire your dedication, all the same.

In our best moments, when we are feeling at our most humane, we might imagine the needs of the billion poorest people on the planet, all gathered together on a gigantic set of scales, weighing the scales down massively on one side. We see ourselves climbing onto the scales on the other side and notice…nothing. We scarcely ‘move the needle’.

Against the massive weight of the needs of a billion people, we make virtually no impact. Now, however, imagine just ONE person on the other side of the scales. How do you feel now, when you step onto your side of the scales? Whatever the actual challenge involved, does that not feel more achievable? Which approach would YOU choose?overcome global poverty one person at a time, solving poverty, poverty solutions

Now go a stage further. Whatever the details of your own circumstances, imagine that you can PICK out someone on the other side, who most closely MATCHES your own natural sympathies. They may have certain similarities to you, that help you identify with them all the more. Whatever it is that YOU happen to be looking for in such a person – imagine they HAVE that. There are a billion to choose from – chances are you can get pretty close.


Now, consider your motivation level. That thing you are feeling right now – it’s called EMPATHY.  Can you imagine, in your lifetime, if you maintain that level of motivation and empathy, that you might be willing to do whatever it takes to help THAT kind of person help themselves out of poverty? All you might reasonably ask, is that they also be willing to help themselves along the way and that someone facilitates the introductions for you.  Does that seem fair?

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One thing now. Two things later. But either way, be sure to act. If you are already a user of Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, or something similar, pick out ONE thing from this site that you think is most suitable to let others know about – and just share that. That’s it for now. For later, from elsewhere on this site, make sure you understand the 7 Layer Poverty Model yourself and could explain it to others.  Then thirdly, set your heart and mind to consider some kind of one-to-one person sponsorship at SOME stage in your future, when YOU are ready. Not through us, but through an organisation YOU have hand-picked, from among the best-of-the-best out there.

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You may already be used to making one-off gifts to other noble causes, as and when they ask. And indeed you may experience a lot of people asking! That does all make a difference. But lifting people PERMANENTLY out of extreme poverty is different. It either takes a lot of money once, or a lot less money, invested effectively, spread over a longer time. Which would you prefer to do? Sponsorship schemes through various organisations all around the world, tend to focus on children – for a whole host of good reasons.  They consistently look for around US$30 a month – or a dollar a day.  (It’s usually only around US$50 a month for an entire family though). That seems to be the going rate. It is memorable, in that it is pretty close to the UN poverty line threshold number of US$1.25 a day.

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If you cannot afford to invest that regular amount into one other person’s life right now, try engaging with similarly-minded others in the exact same position, until you can jointly afford to sponsor a person together. It could easily work as part of a group you already belong to. But do it happily, willingly and freely. Not because guilt made you do it, but because you can’t seriously imagine something else you would rather be doing with that money and with that ONE person you have in mind.

make a difference as part of a global team, let the model do the work, team

We don’t want to discourage one-time giving, because it all counts. But keep in mind the ONE person on the other side of the scales from you. Will their life undergo lasting change from a one-off donation? Would you not rather change that ONE person’s life for better and forever?

Getting them there may take several years, whether through school, university, training,  employment, medical school, or some other means. You are investing the time and money to ‘teach them to fish’, not just ‘giving them a fish’, as the traditional saying goes.

That will normally take regular giving from people like you.

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When you have done that, THEN you will have an amazing story to tell. You will be able to share the impact you have made in transforming someone else’s life forever. And the next time someone talks about charity and aid making no lasting difference, YOU can tell them YOUR story.  You may not have ‘changed the whole world’, but you WILL have changed the whole world for that ONE.

Yes, there will always be more that you COULD do. There will usually be more that some may ASK you to do. There may even be more that you WANT to do. But commit yourself, in your OWN heart and in your OWN time, to do this one thing:  balance the scales for that ONE person. Then, you will have truly made a difference that matters. You are indeed just one person…

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But to us, you are…

One in a Billion!

What Is Relative Poverty?


What’s the big difference with relative poverty?  Aren’t we just splitting intellectual hairs instead of fixing a very practical problem?

In response to the above: quite a lot & no.  First, let’s recognise there are indeed good reasons for introducing and maintaining the concept of “absolute poverty”, or “destitution” as the poverty entry on Wikipedia states. It makes poverty binary: you are either poor or you’re not. You either fall into the poverty category, or you don’t.

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Such clear conceptual dividing lines help us identify who exactly are ‘the poor’, for example, when we are seeking to give aid and support to those that qualify as ‘poor’. It is also easier to take existing, well-documented national and regional gross domestic product (GDP) figures, divide them by the relevant population figures & hey presto: you have a measure of the average annual GDP per capita for a given population.


You can then do the maths to determine what the average GDP/capita figure per day is for that country, region, city or district & determine whether that location thereby falls above or below the notional ‘extreme poverty line’ of US$1.25 per person per day. (As an example of this, refer to the ‘Poverty Map’ in the ‘Resources’ section of the sidebar on the right of this post).

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There are “lies, damned lies and statistics”, as the quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli goes. A lot of significant truth can be concealed within generalised statistics and we are thus right to be somewhat wary of them at face value. However, they can also be very useful for certain purposes, when used intelligently. Consider the excellent short video by the statistician Hans Rosling, called “200 Countries in 200 Years” on YouTube. You too will believe a statistician can be interesting!

apples measured  the meter, sports apples

Rosling brings out some important details from vast quantities of United Nations data, showing (for example) that averages for certain regions in China conceal vast differences in the diversity of the underlying reality. If this is true even when we are using simple measures like GDP per capita per day, consider how much more relevant detail on true, underlying poverty is being concealed, once you understand that there are multiple key indicators of poverty – and they are ALL relative.

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So our position is this: by all means KEEP the concept and associated measures of absolute poverty, but recognise that a better image of the underlying truth will be gained by understanding that poverty is fundamentally a relative concept. We understand how ‘poor’ a person is by comparing them with other persons – usually their community of ‘peers’. Just like we understand (internationally) how ‘tall’ a person is by comparing them with those around them, rather than some globally agreed, common standard for “tallness“.



Let us illustrate the point about relative poverty with some extreme examples. Imagine a billionaire flying her jet suddenly encounters difficulties & has to crash land on a remote Pacific island. She has plenty of money, but no immediate access to the basics of life, unless she can find water, food and shelter from the elements and potentially hostile local wildlife. In that sense, her money counts for nothing. For an entertaining exploration of this kind of experience, try watching the film Castaway, with Tom Hanks, or try reading the book ‘Robinson Crusoe‘ by Daniel Defoe.

poverty problems, poverty statistics and poverty at the Oasis

Now, consider a different, imaginary end of the spectrum: a remote Amazonian tribe that has little contact with the rest of the world and avoids using currency. They may not show up on the national GDP figures at all, but they know how to fend well for themselves in terms of what really matters for sustaining human life. Common sense tells us that in that way at least, they are ‘richer’ than certain otherwise ‘wealthier’ people, who for various reasons do not have access to the basics of life. It is ready ACCESS to those basics which matters most when overcoming poverty; it’s not always about the money.

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When it comes to understanding relative poverty, we refer to these core poverty indicators as the 7 Humanitarian Basics.  Poverty is therefore helpfully understood as “the relative absence of the 7 Humanitarian Basics”; or in simplified, 5-year-old language: “not enough of 7 things we need“.  In order, these are:  water; food; clothing; shelter; healthcare; engagement; and freedom from oppression. These are represented by different colours in the 7 Layer Poverty Model below. Can you guess which colour water is?

7 Layer Poverty Model V1_Mar2014

Other posts on this site cover each of those poverty assessment indicators in more detail, but each one of them is understood to be RELATIVE when it comes to measuring poverty. Yes, they can each be measured in absolute terms (eg how many litres of water drunk per day, how many calories etc), but their significance in the context of overcoming poverty is best understood in relative terms for the individual concerned. We are interested in the quality of the water being drunk, the suitability of the food available for the individual suffering hunger.

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It helps by better identifying the real problems we are seeking to tackle, in overcoming poverty. Being better informed helps us make better overall choices about the allocation of finite resources, our priorities and the focus of our collective attention.  Let me illustrate with a story. A friend called Gemma was sponsored by a charity to stay with a family in rural Kenya during her gap year, ahead of studying International Development at a UK university. The family she stayed with was well educated and relatively well-off compared to others in their community. While staying with the family, my friend said that another charity had distributed a number of water purifiers to the local community, intended to try to help them improve their water quality.

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Gemma explained that the locals had a reasonable understanding of the local water supply and what to do to keep it safe and drinkable.  However, they were rather distrustful of the water filters, as they could not be sure when they would cease to be as effective as just boiling the water. Also, the filters worked so slowly, they were impractical to use for a typical local household.  Thus, the clever filters were left on the shelf to gather dust.

woman hand in water splash

I am sure that the charity distributing the filters meant well and that they were able to report to donors just how many extra ‘poor’ households were now enjoying clean water, thanks to those filters!  I do not know how much the true end-to-end cost was of approaching donors, administering the donations, procuring the filters, shipping them to Kenya, distributing them to selected communities and providing training to the locals on their use. What I CAN say with confidence, is that the end result of all that effort, was that they did not improve that specific family’s daily lives one bit.

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I don’t know about you, but experiences like that leave us sad, frustrated and wanting to be more effective. We believe a better global understanding of poverty as a relative term is important and it WILL make a positive difference on the ground – by facilitating better uses of existing resources and efforts to overcome poverty.

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We aim for a billion people to better understand the true nature of poverty, through the 7 Layer Poverty Model.  We want those people to help focus the fixers of poverty, by promoting a clearer understanding of the problems and hence a better idea of how to go about fixing them.  Look through our other material on how to Map Poverty with ‘assessments’ and ‘poverty profiling’. Also discover how the Model can help ‘Focus Fixers’.

Conceptual image of sphere and arrows. Isolated.

You will begin to see how these three logical steps all link together and can all play their part in solving relative poverty, together with the ‘absolute’ kind.

And thanks again for being…

One in a Billion!