You, like me, may be overwhelmed by the scope and complexity of extreme poverty, with 1.4 billion people around the world living on less than $1.25 per day. Take a moment, then, to be inspired by the words of Jake Harriman, and the work of the organization he founded, Nuru International. As Jake says, “We can never give up…We can win this war as a global community united – we just have to actually believe that we can win.”
Jake founded Nuru because of the link between extreme poverty and global instability, one that he saw during seven and a half years serving in the Marine Corps as a Platoon Commander in four operational deployments in southwest and southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa, including two combat tours in Iraq. In this video, Jake shares a personal experience that inspired him to create Nuru.
Nuru International fights extreme poverty by supporting, investing in, and following the direction of servant leaders from the communities in which they’re working, specifically Kuria, Kenya and in the Gamo Highlands of southern Ethiopia in a place called Boreda. Jake took some time from his incredibly busy schedule to answer a few questions and share what he’s learned and accomplished since Nuru launched in 2008.
1. Nuru takes a holistic approach and focuses on working with the community as partners – what happens when Nuru first enters into a community, as you did in Kuria, Kenya?
We work to identify key servant leaders in the community and begin working with them to understand the needs of their people. We conduct an intense training with these leaders to develop a common understanding of four key needs in their community: hunger, inability to cope with economic shocks, unnecessary disease or death, and lack of quality education for children. We then design solutions to address these needs with the leaders in a process of co-creation. During this process, we share the best poverty-fighting ideas and models that are already working in other areas around the world with these leaders. We wrestle together with the pros and cons of each model to see if the solution can be sustainable, scalable, and produce impact in this community, and then the leaders choose the best solution to address the need.
2. What makes Nuru’s work different?
Nuru is building the world’s first ever self-sustaining, self-scaling integrated development model to end extreme poverty in our lifetimes… Many of the strategies or ideas that I list below are present in a few other organizations as well, but the way in which we combine these strategies to make a comprehensive, holistic approach to fighting extreme poverty is truly unique.
a) The way we define the problem. Extreme poverty is commonly defined as “…average daily consumption of $1.25 or less.” This is an extraordinarily limited definition, and one that I believe hinders us from tackling the problem in a way that creates truly sustainable, catalytic solutions. Extreme poverty is more than the lack of material resources necessary to meet an individual’s basic needs. In fact, a critical component in extreme poverty is a condition whereby an individual lacks the opportunity to make meaningful choices that will sustainably improve her life. …When organizations define the problem of poverty in terms of these material symptoms, they never really get to the heart of the matter. Even if their solutions are effective in alleviating some material aspect of being poor (lack of clean water, chronic hunger, etc.), they won’t last if the solutions don’t restore agency to those living in poverty and provide an opportunity structure to enable them to effectively act on the choices they make.
The work of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen emphasizes the need for meaningful choice as the end and the means for development. Choice is powerful and opens the door to hope, opportunity, change, and a better future…Instead of trying to find ways to make solutions that address material deprivation more effectively, we have to create an enabling environment where people have the ability make meaningful choices on their own not an environment where we make those choices for them.
b) Our philosophy. The fight against extreme poverty is an issue of human rights. We believe that living a life of dignity and hope where a person has the freedom and ability to choose a better life for herself is a basic human right. This shapes the way we view those living in extreme poverty. They are not “the poor.”…An individual’s identity is not defined by the conditions she was born into. She is a fellow human being existing in the unjust environment of extreme poverty… Many people living in extreme poverty are incredibly resourceful, talented individuals who possess the potential within themselves to rise out of extreme poverty if placed within an enabling environment where they can make meaningful choices. Many of them are far more capable of creating solutions to poverty than we in the West will ever be because of their ability to understand the need at a much deeper level and because of the uniquely relevant wealth of knowledge and experiences they have accumulated over their lives that they can apply to solution building. Lasting solutions to extreme poverty must start with a reversal of that worldview a restoration of identity to those living in extreme poverty an identity of value, integrity, and worth…
c) We believe that we must leave. Because of our philosophy, we don’t believe that it’s enough to create solutions to meet material need and alleviate the suffering of those in poverty for them and then just keep doing it for them forever. We seek to go into a country, work with them for 6-7 years to create an enabling environment where communities can make meaningful choices to continue to improve their lives in a sustainable way…and then we leave….This strategy to exit makes us very serious about utilizing only truly sustainable and scalable methodologies to fight extreme poverty because when we leave, individuals must be able to continue to improve the lives of their families and communities independent of us.
d) Leadership Sustainability. Our Leadership Program is the foundation of our approach to fighting extreme poverty. The goal of the program is to develop and equip servant leaders with the ability to be critical thinking problem solvers who can innovate past challenges that arise as they continue to implement and scale Nuru’s programs throughout their country….Nuru’s Leadership Program is designed to restore identity to those in extreme poverty by cultivating a shared understanding with them about the value of their own knowledge and life experiences.
e) Financial Sustainability. We create revenue generation models (viable businesses) through our Income Generating Activities (IGA) Program that are designed to generate enough income by exit to subsidize the entire cost of sustaining the program in existing communities and fuel the scale-up of the program to neighboring communities…Bottom line in Kenya, this (model) equates to less than $1 of western funding to empower a person out of extreme poverty…permanently.
f) Bold Vision. Our vision is to help create a word where all those living in extreme poverty have the freedom to make meaningful choices to determine their own futures. …We want to take this model to some of the toughest places in the world where others cannot or will not go to empower people with these choices. Because of my background and the connection I was awakened to between extreme poverty and national security issues while on the frontlines of combat, we desire to eventually take this model to failed states and conflict areas countries like Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, DRC, and South Sudan….
When the US or even a coalition of UN forces goes in to remove an oppressive regime, it also removes any remaining infrastructure left in the country. The people who suffer the most from that change are those living in extreme poverty. Those suffering masses now make a ripe recruiting ground for any terrorist or insurgent group that offers an alternative (no matter how bleak that alternative is) to the individual’s current situation. This is what happened in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
If instead, there could be an entity that could do effective empowerment of those living in poverty around the country simultaneous to the removal of an oppressive regime, one could begin building a much more stable political and economic situation post-regime change.
g) General contractor of best solutions in fighting poverty. Nuru’s impact model is a holistic integrated approach that focuses in four areas: agriculture, community economic development, health, and education. Holistic models make a lot of sense because the impact of each of the four areas of development is magnified by the complementary impact from the other programs…Instead of building solutions from scratch and reinventing the wheel in each of these areas, we have researched the sector to identify the most sustainable and scalable models in each of the four areas of development we focus in. Then we work to learn from the organizations implementing those models. We then equip the local leaders we work with in our project with these best ideas and models.
h) Dedicated, rigorous commitment to Monitoring & Evaluation. We are serious about measuring the efficacy or lack thereof of our model. If something is not working, we want to identify the problem quickly, admit that we are wrong, and then learn from another more effective approach or innovate to create a better solution that will deliver the desired impact.
3. What are some of the impacts you have seen so far?
Within ten years of the projected exit of Nuru International western staff and funding at the end of 2015, Nuru will cumulatively impact 80,990 farmers and their families or approximately 348,257 people total.
Recently, Nuru has disbursed Agriculture input loans to 5,521 farmers for the 2013 long rains season; this is near double the 2,783 farmers who received input loans in 2012. The Community Economic Development Program has maintained a 100% repayment rate of loans disbursed in 2012, and the Nuru Agriculture Program has achieved a loan repayment rate of 97% in 2012. Most importantly, farmers participating in Nuru’s Agriculture Program during 2012 realized an increase in maize yield of 123% – which means their families won’t go hungry this year.
4. You’ve now been doing this work, formally through Nuru, since 2008. What’s changed since then? What have you learned?
A lot has changed since we first launched in 2008, …and I have learned a lot about leadership, the importance of rigorously monitoring and evaluating the impact of your model, the strength in humility and admitting when your model isn’t working, and the value of focus and learning when to say no. But one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that the most critical resource in fighting extreme poverty are those trapped in extreme poverty themselves. Many of these brave individuals are far more resourceful, tough, and innovative than I will ever be, and unlocking the potential and ideas within them is the key to long-term success in this fight.
5. What’s one thing that families back in the States can do to address extreme poverty?
Extreme poverty is the greatest crisis of our time. I believe that everyone is called to get into the fight against extreme poverty and that we all have something valuable to contribute. The key is to willingly commit your strengths and talents to the fight in creative ways. Not everyone is wired to fight in the field from the frontlines, but there are parts to play at all levels – from advocacy and public policy to grassroots awareness and social media campaigns to call global attention to the crisis. Since I began my journey in this fight, I have encountered some incredibly innovative ways to contribute to the fight against extreme poverty. I would encourage everyone out there to look inside themselves, harness your strength, discuss ideas with like-minded and similarly gifted friends, and step forward into the arena. You won’t regret it.
6. Extreme poverty is such a complex, and overwhelming, problem. What gives you hope for your work?
Change. Small victories. Light and hope in the eyes of others that simply cannot be extinguished once lit. My time in combat as a Marine gave me a fire. I have seen far too much unnecessary death in my life – in both my old life as a Marine and now this new life. I see it as the same war with the same enemy, and the injustice of those unnecessary deaths has created an extraordinary sense of urgency and passion that drives me relentlessly forward every day – sometimes in the face of seemingly impossible odds. We can never give up.
If you have a burning vision to change the world, never let anyone tell you that it can’t be done. No meaningful change has ever been brought about in this world without great risk and opposition – without some courageous soul’s willingness to step out from the rank and file into the complete unknown. When I see others take that step forward into the fight with determination, that inspires me and gives me hope to continue fighting. Hope and vision are powerful forces in the world. We can win this war as a global community united – we just have to actually believe that we can win.
If you’d like to learn more about Nuru’s work, check out this video telling Milka’s story: