What Happens When We View the Poor as Peers

Last week, I attended the HK+Acumen launch party at PaperclipHK.  My sweet friend Julie had extended the invitation to me and I was glad to come.  After all, I had heard quite a bit about Acumen before and I was curious to know what business they had in Hong Kong.  So, on a mild Tuesday evening, I came up the lift of a rather obscure building in Hong Kong’s west end and was greeted by the bright coloured walls typical of a startup incubator, as well as the familiar buzz of yuppies mingling over wine and fancy food (or oversized pizza, as was the case).  The event was well attended—over 80 people gathered to learn about the work of Acumen and to find out what the New York-based not-for-profit had planned for Hong Kong.

In case you haven’t heard of the organisation, Acumen is set on “changing the way the world tackles poverty”.   Instead of offering more traditional forms of aid or poverty relief, Acumen operates as an investment group, making debt or equity investments in early-stage social enterprises with brilliant ideas for profitable and sustainable businesses that empower the world’s poor.  Acumen uses what’s called a patient capital approach.  In other words, it engages in long term investments that require stakeholders to be “patient”, foregoing immediate financial returns in favour of more substantial social gains over seven to 10 years.  Those who engage in patient capital must have a high tolerance for risk and a long term outlook, understanding that even the most innovative, entrepreneurial individuals need considerable amounts of time and money to “research, experiment, fail, innovate, try again” (in the words of Acumen’s founder) in order to successfully develop creative, effective, scalable, sustainable solutions.

A patient capital approach is a departure from more traditional models of charity that simply dispense or donate funds, for better or worse, without any expectation that those funds will be returned.  A patient capital approach means that Acumen invests funds with the expectation of an eventual financial return, albeit smaller and perhaps later than traditional venture capital, in addition to the considerable social returns that are the primary objective of the investment.  In the aid debate, Acumen sits somewhere in the middle as it seeks to achieve the social goals of traditional charity or philanthropy, while capitalising on the investment practices and expertise of the private sector to develop innovative, effective solutions.  Today, Acumen investments are empowering entrepreneurs to give  the world’s poorest communities access to affordable agricultural inputs, clean energy, formal housing, quality education, valuable healthcare, safe drinking water and much needed sanitation.


What strikes me most about Acumen is its view that poverty alleviation is not just as an issue of getting money into hands, but rather one of restoring dignity to fellow global citizens.  In a TED talk at the U.S. State Department, Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz declared that “we cannot deny individuals their fundamental dignity because, at the end of the day, dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth.” She then went on to praise social entrepreneurs that are developing solutions that give the poor freedom, choice and opportunity “because that’s where dignity really starts.”

The notion that “all men are created equal” and therefore deserving of dignity is certainly reflected throughout the organisation and its operations.  Acumen speaks of a day when all of “us” will be included in the global economy.  The charity refers to beneficiaries not as aid recipients, but as “partners” or “customers”.  And it’s not uncommon to hear Acumen emphasising the importance of “listening”—the idea that we must seek and value the input of the communities we serve and build solutions to meet their expressed needs.   Acumen sees the world’s poor as peers and there’s something incredibly refreshing about that.   In fact, it’s likely that powerful perspective that drove Acumen’s adoption of the patient capital approach, an approach that has proven successful despite high levels of investment and risk and is only possible because stakeholders are convinced that the returns (and beneficiaries) are valuable and worthwhile.

paperclipAll that to say that I was excited to attend the HK+Acumen event.  Beginning with an introduction to the organisation, the evening featured a presentation from Hong Kong’s first Acumen Global Fellow Christina Tang, followed by an invitation to become part of the new Hong Kong chapter of “+Acumen” for those wishing to “add Acumen” to their lives through further learning, knowledge sharing, or social enterprise.  I was encouraged by the buzz in the room following the event and the thought that Acumen may have successfully inspired more young professionals to 1) learn more about the challenges in global development and poverty alleviation and/or 2) use their “time, talent, treasure, voice and network” toward the development of innovative solutions to the world’s greatest problems.  That buzz also told me that this would not be the last time I hear about Acumen in Hong Kong.  And that’s a good thing not only for the event organisers, but for the organisation itself and its beneficiaries.

In its 12.5-year history, Acumen is said to have created over 58,000 jobs, supported $83 million in breakthrough innovations, delivered tens of millions of valuable services and products to the poor, and positively impacted over 100 million lives across India, Pakistan, West Africa and East Africa.  But with 66% to 76% of these regions’ populations still living on less than $2/day, there is still a lot of work to do and a lot more people to impact.

Do you want to be part of that?  Consider joining your local +Acumen chapter.  Take a class and learn more about poverty and social good.  Registration is currently open for Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation and the HK+Acumen chapter will have Acumen Essentials I: Intro to Moral Imagination & Challenges in Poverty Alleviation on offer soon.

papercliphkOr if you already have an idea for a social enterprise you’d like to start, take advantage of the resources available at a startup incubator like PaperclipHK and apply for grants, such as the Accumulator scheme from MaD and UnLtd Hong Kong.  The world’s poor continue to face tremendous challenges, so there is incredibly important work to be done.  Would you consider being part of that?  Would you consider viewing the poor as peers and develop creative, comprehensive, professional grade solutions to uplift them simply for the sake of their dignity as fellow global citizens?  With the tools and resources available to you, what good can you do?

“I urge you, in whatever sector you work, in whatever job you do, to start thinking about how we might build solutions that start from the perspective of those we are trying to help, rather than what we think that they might need.  It will take embracing the world with both arms and it will take living with the spirit of generosity and accountability, with a sense of integrity and perseverance, and yet these are the very qualities for which men and women have been honoured throughout the generations.  And there is so much good that we can do.” — Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Founder

WATCH: Acumen Founder Jacqueline Novogratz’s TED talk entitled “A third way to think about aid”

Amanda Y. Fung


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