Solving Poverty: Overcoming the Overwhelming


There is a saying in business, when you are faced with tackling a huge range of overwhelming challenges – all at the same time. It goes something like this: “If you have to fight alligators, then first you have to drain the swamp”. It means that there will be enough challenges for you in fighting the alligators themselves, so you don’t want to have to deal with the ADDITIONAL problem of trying to fight those deadly creatures, when you can’t even see what, where and how many there are. If you don’t drain the swamp first, the chances are those critters will come and bite you. When it comes to solving poverty, the swamp is a metaphor for a lack of information. If you are blind about the nature, extent and the causes of the poverty conditions you face, you will inevitably suffer in the process – and will possibly be overwhelmed.



Let us be clear: this application is not a substitute for the human beings in charge of ‘alligator management’. It is a combination of a set of TOOLS and a METHOD that will help make their task a lot easier. They build on the concept of the 7 Layer Poverty Model and make powerful use of the following TEN handy problem-solving principles – some of which we came up with ourselves and some of which we borrowed from elsewhere. They are primarily intended for use by poverty ‘fixers’ at the LOCAL and MICRO levels, typically at the Community, household and individual scale. The remaining 4 of our 7 key ‘fixers’ recognised in the 7 Layer Poverty Model, can still use this tool, if appropriate. However, given their likely focus on more MACRO scale projects and considerations, they may prefer to use our macro-scale Impact Assessment spreadsheet tool instead.

Our top ten problem solving principles , to keep in mind when using EITHER of the tools are:

  1. You cannot manage what you do not measure and you cannot measure what you do not define.
  2. Someone somewhere has to lead. Until someone better suited to the job presents themselves, we guess that means you.
  3. You cannot change where you have come from, or where you are – ONLY where you are now going.
  4. Until someone invents a way of accomplishing everything all at once, ALL group and personal tasks have to be PRIORITISED in some agreed manner, however imperfect that ordering may seem to some.
  5. When choosing between many options, it helps to CATEGORISE lists of things into groups with SIMILARITIES, then establish an agreed, common system of MEASUREMENT to minimise lengthy disputes between them. We propose a minimum measurement system of Importance, Urgency and Ease, and a simple ranking system of high, medium or low, for each of these 3 criteria.
  6. Maintain a way of measuring, visualising and representing PROGRESS which everyone that matters can see and understand
  7. Whenever it seems like you might be missing something important, check back with Rudyard Kipling’s 6 Honest Serving Men: who, what, when, where, why and how.
  8. Make your goals and objectives ‘SMART’: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related. A simple way to check this is to write them in the past tense. For example: ‘We have a mechanical fresh water pump in our village in March 2015’.
  9. ALL organisations worldwide can be understood in terms of three sets of factors: people, processes and technology. All problems that arise in organisations can similarly be understood as arising from various underlying failings in one or more of these areas. You cannot make a change in any one of these areas without having an impact in the others.
  10. In any group, it helps to understand the hidden secrets of how decisions are actually made: The DMU, the DMP and the BOD. You can learn more about what these mean here.



People don’t usually have difficulty TELLING you about their problems. However, they often struggle to tell you about them in a USEFUL way. Let’s assume you have downloaded our spreadsheet below and you have arrived at your own alligator-infested swamp, planning for victory. By default, you are our leader, even if you don’t have that title and nobody treats you that way. You are perhaps just a willing volunteer who is looking to help people overcome their problems. Few, if any, should object to that. The principles here apply to ANY type of challenges, but let’s imagine you are investigating a particular Community (maybe your own) and want to UNDERSTAND their problems. Having introduced yourself and how you hope to help, you ask the relevant individual or group: “What are your biggest [poverty] problems?”

In a group situation, you may want to have a visual way of representing them for all to see, like writing them on a board, or large sheet of paper. This has three advantages. a) It shows people you are not writing something down secretively. b) It gives them the feeling they have been ‘heard’ – and people like that. c) The visual list acts as a prompt and a reminder for others to build on ideas already listed. If you do this (and allow long enough), eventually people will run out of new ‘alligators’ to add to the list. That is a good time to let them know that they can always add MORE problems at some later stage and let them know that you commit to keeping that list maintained. We now have our way of keeping track of what the alligators are and how many we have to deal with. They may still be difficult to tackle, but we have now drained the swamp, so we can see them all.



The next stage, either in that meeting, or separately, is CATEGORISATION. This is where the existing list of ‘problems’ is in some way grouped together, however loosely. Within the 7 Layer Poverty Model, we identify 7 Humanitarian Basics. Hence, one way of categorising would be to identify one of the issues on your own list relating to water and ask: “Are there any OTHER issues you have, relating to water?” This may prompt people to identify NEW ideas related to water, or select from existing ideas, which ALSO relate to water. This is the beginning of categorisation. This process helps people COMPARE and CONTRAST between different items on the overall list. Inevitably, people are drawn to think of ways in which things are the same and ways in which they are different.

Difference and Similarity. Abstract Concept.

The next thing to ask, related to categorisation, would be something like: “Which of the things on the list do you think would take the longest time to fix?” This prompts people to consider the factor of time. It is typically an easier introduction to time, than coming straight onto an understanding a degree of urgency. They are not the same thing, but it introduces people more gently to the idea of how long things may take, without forcing them to consider – and potentially argue about – the more emotionally-charged topic of which is the most urgent one to fix. Greater urgency is likely to be felt by those personally feeling the pain of any given problem on the list. Hence, hungry people will press for food, sick people will argue the case for healthcare, while any who are homeless will naturally speak more eagerly for shelter. If you think the group are ready for it, be ready to discuss urgency after discussing how long things might potentially take to fix. Thinking about fixing also gets people thinking about solutions, as well as the problems themselves. That is also progress.



The idea here is to help people start thinking about a common set of underlying COMMON MEASUREMENT CRITERIA, by which you can begin to compare and assess the different urgency of problems. In short, they will relate to some common understanding of the significance of problem IMPACTS. In most people’s value systems, there will probably be a recognition that a direct threat to life, is more significant than a threat to health. Similarly, a threat to health is more significant than a threat to comfort, convenience, or other lesser quality of life considerations. There is also a general acceptance that anything that affects 1000 people is more significant than a factor which affects just one. If the group does not recognise these commonly shared values and beliefs explicitly, you will need to encourage them to consider them – and their impacts on your ultimate problem list prioritising.

time flows

Next on our list, you can start asking them about which ones they think are the hardest to fix. People with a problem-oriented mind-set may be more inclined to think in terms of which ones are hardest, rather than which ones are easiest. Whatever their responses, aim to get some kind of representation on the list that reflects group consensus thinking, if you can arrive at it. This may be giving say, 3 stars to the highest and one star to the lowest, on either the urgency, or degree of difficulty scales. Again, the underlying COMMON MEASUREMENT CRITERIA will relate to estimated COSTS – measured in terms of time, efforts, energies, attention and resources that will need to be expended – most obviously, but not exclusively MONEY. People tend to measure difficulty in terms of how much they think it will cost, particularly how much they think it will cost THEM!


Lastly on our list, having brought the group this far, you can approach the subject of which items are the more important. Note that asking which item is MOST important, is a harder question for most people to answer. You may find it easier to compare just 2 problems together at each stage and ask people to discuss and agree on a choice between those TWO. In computing terms, this is called a ‘bubble sort’, where the most important item ‘bubbles’ up to the top, one place at a time. People will also often blur the difference between importance and urgency in their own minds. Do your best to help them separate out the two. This can usually be achieved by asking the question: “Which of these items would be most important if time was NOT a factor?” To help with this clarification process, EACH ‘alligator’ item on the list should be given a unique number, so you can refer to them more easily during discussions. Again, find some way of ranking their relative importance, using a simple concept of high, medium and low, or an equivalent, so it can be recorded in the spreadsheet, or your other chosen recording system. After completing the first stage of ranking, go back and cross compare items of the various ranks against each other, to ensure there is general agreement now, on the consistency of your group rankings.

To get this far is a major achievement and you would be wise to congratulate the relevant group on getting this far. To capture and represent all this quality information, you are next going to develop a form of visual table, with each of the list items (or problems) numbered down the left-hand column. Then you are going to represent 3 columns across the table, with the headings ‘Difficulty, Urgency and Importance’. When people see it all displayed together, it can be surprising how much clarity you can bring people, who had no equivalent way of separating out and prioritising their own problems before you all conducted this exercise.


Explain that you are going to TRY to get their combined views on what each listed item should be categorised as (ie, high, medium or low), based on your discussions so far. Start with the Difficulty of each item, if you think that will be the least contentious. Then Urgency and lastly Importance. For each problem item on the list, get your best attempt at a CONSENSUS, regarding how a particular problem should be SCORED. This is the first step towards measurement. You can decide which approach will work best. If you think higher scores will be better understood as meaning greater significance, then suggest that the “high” score in each area gets a 3, the medium gets a 2 and the low gets a 1. WARNING: If highest importance and highest urgency get a 3, then the highest EASE (not difficulty) should get a 3 as well. This is because the highest focus of attention should ultimately be on the listed items that are most important, urgent and easiest to fix.

A couple of guidance points at this stage. Before trying this tool in a group, your should try it out on yourself, or with your own household, so you get a fair idea of what can come up. Secondly, if things break out into heated discussions, gently bring people back to this one compelling idea: ‘If we cannot even reach agreement on the relative importance of our own problems among ourselves, how can we expect to persuade others to agree with us and help us out?’ There is greater power in being organised into a single, collective ‘voice’. Agreed?



In our spreadsheet, we multiply the 3 scores for the 3 priority measurement areas. If you have picked the high numbers as the greatest values, then the bigger the compound number, the more important the item on the list. We prefer choosing the LOWER numbers, as very high numbers at the top of the list may be rather discouraging for some people. By showing it as a SMALL number, we are just directing group attention to our top PRIORITIES on our overall list. Our ‘first’ priority should ideally be an ‘alligator’ that ends up with a compound score of 1. This means high importance, high urgency and high degree of ease to fix.


Once you have your own ‘alligator’ list, the Filter function on the spreadsheet below will enable you to sort the data into the standard Excel-driven orders, eg high-to-low, or low-to-high, etc. It can also be done by hand, but that is more work. Each of the ITEMS on your list now represents an alligator that needs to be tackled and you have jointly agreed the system for ordering their priority. What you have also done is come up with a useful way of getting the group to agree on how to CATEGORISE the list of alligators and arrive at a way of ordering PRIORITIES in a group. For each of the problems on your list, there will need to be a separate mini action plan of HOW to tackle it. This can be as simple as a list of steps that you think would need to be taken in order to get the job done. It breaks the big task down into smaller steps that people can understand more easily. We suggest focusing on the easier tasks first, so that everyone can see the remaining list is getting shorter and progress is being made. If some of the easy ones are also both important and urgent, then so much the better for group morale, when they are completed.



It is hoped that this METHOD will help get a group to list and discuss their problems. (It can also still be used by just one person, for their own benefit). It can help people recognise that there are ways of grouping problems, such that people have a shared idea of what they are and how their problems may be similar. The group discussion will also be a starting point for later discussions on HOW to tackle each problem on the list. We suggest leaving a period of time between LISTING problems and discussing SOLUTIONS. Trying to do both at once can be a less productive experience. People often need time to think over what they have discovered and absorb the idea of the different priorities that have been mentioned – PARTICULARLY if it may have direct personal implications for them.



Answer: one at a time! When you are ready to discuss possible solutions, each alligator ‘Problem’ in your list will need to be discussed and a ‘best’ Plan of Action agreed for each item. This will include WHO is going to do WHAT and by WHEN., together with a summary of HOW they will do it. Remember Rudyard Kipling’s 6 honest serving men? They will prompt you to ask the difficult, but important questions. By being this specific, each resulting ACTION will be allocated to someone, who becomes the action OWNER. They will have an objective to complete that action by a given time, as progress in overcoming the given problem will be dependent on it in some way. You will want to have some way of keeping track of who has agreed to do what and by when. Your chosen approach will need to be culturally sensitive. This is just one way of getting things done. If another way works better, use that instead.



Keeping track of all these things can easily be done on another spreadsheet, or a separate page of this same one. As many people often won’t have access to the same technology, representing progress will often need to be done differently. For example, if there is a list of 50 problems identified, you may want to build a pile of 50 stones, each ideally with a unique problem number written, or scratched on it – then display the pile of stones publicly. They need to be big enough that they don’t wash away! You may represent bigger stones as the bigger problems – that is entirely up to you. The point is that people typically require ENCOURAGEMENT to keep going. Seeing progress being made gives people hope. That in turn gives them motivation to keep going. In developed nations, it is common to show some kind of thermometer scale, or progress bar, representing how close towards the overall target a given project is. It helps encourage more people to offer support, particularly once they see your approach is working and things are improving.



Our task here is to give you the TOOLS to help make the job of co-ordination and leadership a whole lot easier. People CAN make progress without using such tools, but it typically requires more effort and takes longer. We want to give you a quicker and easier route that we have found WORKS – again and again. Tools like Excel make the tasks simpler to manage and track, but the PRINCIPLES are the same, whichever tools you ultimately decide to use. We have written another article on DECISION-MAKING, which may help you when you come on to discuss solutions and action plans with your own groups. This is just an initial stage to help you get ORGANISED and MOTIVATED. We wish you every success with your own problems, projects and your own ‘coalition of the willing’ to help solve them. Feel free to adapt the following sheet to best suit your own approach.

Problem Listing And Prioritisation Template_Alligators V1_April 2014

It now just remains for us to say: thanks again for being…

One in a Billion!


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