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Investing in Individuals

Emily Cunningham is one of OneSeed’s amazing summer interns. This is her second guest blog.

Emily is a sophomore studying economics at Harvard University. She is interested in microfinance and social enterprise, and is currently in the process of starting a fair trade jewelry network in Gujarat, India. In her spare time, she enjoys playing guitar and saxophone, surfing, Frisbee, and being outdoors.

I’ve been trying to make the most of my time as an intern here in Colorado, hitting up all of the sites from Denver (which seems to resemble my hometown of the Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts in its political diversity) to the slightly more conservative Colorado Springs where, this past weekend, I resisted the urge go off on a Keynesian tirade when asked by nearly everyone I met who discovered I was an economics major to “tell Obama to stop spending what we don’t have!”

I digress.

The focus of my story this week began on the commute home from the Springs. Our bus had been parked for quite some time at one of the stops along the way when the driver turned to address us.

“I don’t carry cash on me to work,” he started uncomfortably “but there is a woman outside crying her eyes out because she is supposed to start a new job today and she doesn’t have enough cash to pay the fare–“

He was quickly cut off by a chorus of “Bring her on! I’ll pay her fare today!” and a dozen eager passengers leapt out of their seats to welcome the new arrival aboard.

Most of us would probably do the same if faced with a similar situation, without thinking twice. Yet, when faced with nations full of individuals in need of a way out of poverty, many of us turn our heads.

It seems that the problem is not that people are callous to the suffering of others, but that we are so deeply overwhelmed by the multitude of problems that face humanity every day that we choose to react only when tangible, solvable opportunities are dropped in our laps.

This is not a novel idea. Nick Kristoff has been bringing the evils of genocide, human trafficking, and poverty to light through the stories of individuals for years, eliciting a much greater response from readers than analysis of similar problems without the faces to put to the statistics.

Joshua Greene believes that this strange dichotomy between helping individuals when the opportunity is staring us in the face and ignoring the plight of the poor on the other side of the world is actually hardwired into our brains.

So perhaps this is how we evolved. The question is what can we do about it?

In this increasingly globalizing world, every day we are presented with opportunities to help an individual. We can go out of our way to buy fair trade groceries to help an individual farmer. We can invest in a microfinance project to empower an individual woman. We can start our own social enterprise or change our existing business practices for the better.

Once we start forcing ourselves to see the individuals who compose the populations struggling through poverty and other social injustices, we will rush to help with renewed urgency and passion.

Whatever problem or injustice we decide to tackle, we will be confronted with the uncomfortable reality that our money, our time is never enough. Does that mean we should stop trying to eliminate that problem?

No. Because even if you can’t see her across the globe, somewhere in the midst of that overwhelming problem is an individual like the woman on my bus last weekend who got a second chance and a fresh start because someone with the means to help saw her as an individual and changed her life in some small way.