Poverty and Ideas

I had dinner with a newly arrived, German anesthesiologist the other night. It often amazes me how much I have to talk about with someone I just met, when the context is an overseas one. He is working to enhance the education of anesthesiologists here in Ethiopia. I asked him, casually how things have been going. After thinking for some time, his response was two-fold. He first said that sometimes he feels like he can’t quite figure out why he’s here. The people he is supervising seem quite well qualified and he is quite unfamiliar with the drugs and equipment they are using. “What do I have to offer?”

The second part of his answer went something like, “what is wrong with Ethiopia?” He is currently reading a book called Cutting for Stone, which takes place in 1940’s Ethiopia, a fantastic read if you haven’t found your way into it already. We were agreeing that the vivid images in the book seem not so different from what we are seeing today, more than 70 years later. So, why can’t countries like Ethiopia get it figured out?

I started doing some digging and not surprisingly the main issues repeatedly mentioned as responsible for Ethiopia’s current situation were pervasive poverty largely due to corrupt governments and “crony capitalism,” coupled with a long history of conflict. Well, what are we supposed to do about that?

Today I read an article about the city of Camden, NJ, which mentioned that 40% of Camden’s residents live under the poverty level. Ironically, that is the same percentage of Ethiopians living in “poverty.” Now, obviously “poverty” in the U.S. is vastly different from “poverty” in Ethiopia. I doubt very many Camden residents are living on $1.25/day. The point is, “poverty” is everywhere. None of us have it figured out.

Of course I have no answers to the problem of poverty, just ideas. But I guess the world runs on ideas, doesn’t it? Even those who claim to have the answers, really only have ideas. But answers always starts with an idea.

I think my German friend’s two-fold answer to my casual question was perfect. He both recognized that he doesn’t have all the answers, while at the same time allowing himself to wonder just what the answer might be. That is the birthplace of ideas.



A single mother working at a local NGO to support her family.


A group picture from the first SCOPE steering committee meeting here in Gondar. Some ideas were born there.


Kate, the other SCOPE fellow and some of the members of the steering committee brainstorming.


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