09/12/2011 04:11 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST

Redefining the Problem of Poverty


The first time I saw a child near death from diarrhea was in Zambia on my first trip to Africa. It would be an understatement to say that experience motivated me. The emotions were powerful. Witnessing extreme poverty and the way these people were living was unacceptable. Millions of children, with their future potential stunted or eviscerated.

This became my rallying call for Engineers Without Borders -- we were going into battle against poverty, and we were going to win. But others had gone to battle before us. The battlefield was strewn relics of past attempts; most common were rusted water pumps. There were thousands of rusted hand pumps, failing to deliver clean, safe water.

According to official statistics, 16 per cent of Malawi's rural population doesn't have access to clean water infrastructure. When we actually got to there and started collecting and analyzing the data on water systems, we saw that many villages would have four to six water hand pumps, while some would have none. Another nine per cent of the rural population doesn't have access to clean water because of improper distribution of infrastructure. Then there are the broken water systems, affecting another 25 per cent of the population.

I'm embarrassed to admit that we also contributed our own similar failures. We naively thought that we could simply "engineer" better solutions. We couldn't. Rather than addressing the problem statement -- people are poor -- it's time that we redefine the problem statement itself.

Poor people aren't the ones who are deficient. But the system that hopes to help those people -- the system of aid projects, of large aid donors like the government, or small aid donors like most people in this room - that system is deficient. People are not the problem. The system that hopes to help them is the problem.

If we continue to define the problem as poor people, we're going to continue throwing solutions at them. New hand pumps, improved seeds, new schools, goats. We'll feed our emotional and moral need to do something. Yes, we will make some progress. But we will not have reached our potential. And the glass will remain half-empty.

George Roter will be speaking in more detail about redefining poverty at the third annual TEDxToronto conference on September 23 at the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto.

The event will be available on free live streaming at