The last time we visited India we met a young man who we thought was a mischievous street kid. But he was in fact a harbinger of sustainable economic development.
Maybe 13 years old, he held his hand out for spare rupees. We offered instead to buy him lunch, and over chapatis and dhal he shared with us his hopes and dreams. "I want my own carrom board," he said, referring to the portable, Indian equivalent of air hockey. He thought by renting the board out to passersby, he could earn money to eat and possibly escape his life on the street.
While kids the world over usually say they want to be a teacher or a doctor when they grow up, increasingly, many dream of becoming an entrepreneur. While a university degree was out of reach for our new young friend, he also realized his hopes for a better future would not be realized with handouts from charities. He was determined to take control of his own fate, however modest the ambition, so he wouldn't need help again. He was among the world's smallest of small entrepreneurs.
Business is often seen by the non-profit sector and protest movements as the enemy of sustainable development in poor countries. But entrepreneurship is a key player in ending global poverty by reversing the cycle of dependency with a cycle of self-sufficiency and employment. From pint-sized street vendors and rural artisans, to technological innovators and social entrepreneurs who creatively tackle barriers to progress, small businesses are the building blocks of resilient, independent economies -- one carrom board at a time.
Despite the starving-child stereotypes pushed in the ads of some charities, the entrepreneurial spirit is vibrant in the developing world -- even more so than in wealthy countries. When governments fail to provide, it's amazing how creative citizens become. Our favourite examples often come to us while parked at a red light: bottled water on a sweltering day; cell phone batteries that are fully charged; even porta potties when the traffic line-up is long.
Many -- if not the majority -- of small entrepreneurs in developing countries are women, whose contribution to household income and the local economy give them unprecedented power and influence. Empowered, employed women have fewer children, and tend to spend more of their income than their husbands on the health, education and well-being of their families.
Entrepreneurs build economies. Charity can help people grab the first rung of the development ladder, but only their own enterprise will allow them to climb the rest of the way. Entrepreneurs are motivated and able to innovate, devising new ways to farm, provide basic goods and services, and solve social problems -- from "edible insect" farming for improved protein consumption in Thailand, to solar-powered lanterns where electricity is unreliable, and clean, safe toilets in Kenyan slums that turn human waste into organic fertilizer.
But they can't succeed in a vacuum. Among the missing links to productive enterprise in developing countries are basic infrastructure, skills, capital, and regulation. Try being a farmer without a road to get your wares to market; a factory owner where electricity is always blacking out; or an aspiring entrepreneur trapped in the red tape of arcane bureaucracies. We need rich-country governments and international charities to invest in building roads and power grids, provide business skills, and help developing-country governments foster an entrepreneurial climate in their countries and communities.
As individuals, we can help in small ways. Resist supporting projects that send used clothing or other finished products overseas, where these well-intentioned gestures displace existing and potential jobs making those products domestically. Support charities that offer education, literacy training, micro-loans and other enterprise-encouraging projects like infrastructure building. And talk to your financial advisor about investing in "impact finance" or other funds that support social enterprises around the world. There are smart investments with good financial and social returns out there -- we just have to look.
We've spent much of our working lives in the world of international development. We know how important charity is in providing basic needs and empowerment. But if the end goal of development is long-term self-sufficiency, then we must engage the entrepreneurial spirit that is so vibrant in the developing world. The entrepreneurs and their workers will pay tax, invest back in their communities, and like our ambitious young carrom-board-seeking friend's dream, never need a handout again.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.