Behind every data point is a human story

The women of Ajeluk village

I spent a recent Friday afternoon in Ajeluk village with a savings group of women who participated in our program in 2013. The tremendous tangible livelihood changes that these women described paled in comparison to the community and friendship that has formed among them. This group takes care of its own. Regardless of how little or how much money each member saved each week, the group pooled their savings to ensure that each woman has her own set of dishes upon which she can feed her family, a mattress to lay her head on at night, and a dress in which she can feel presentable. In grief and celebration they are there for one another, mobilizing funds and support for weddings and funerals alike. The way that they sat shoulder to shoulder, carefully scribing the week’s savings into their record book, completely immersed in the task, served as a beautiful illustration of their dedication to one another.

When I joined Village Enterprise three months ago, I wrote that I wanted to use my fellowship to understand and highlight the gap between the industry and the individual experience, to link theory and practice, and to reconcile big questions with daily challenges. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week. On Tuesday, the World Bank published its first Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report. The report focuses on Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 10, ending extreme poverty and reducing inequality. The first of an annual series, this year’s report focuses on the complementarity between these two goals. Extreme poverty will not be eradicated without a dedication to reducing inequality and inequality cannot be reduced without mobilizing interventions that target the extreme poor. I spent the better part of this week putting off writing my weekly post because I wanted to write about this report. It is important, filled with important lessons and data. But I didn’t know what to write. Between the ups and downs of what it means to work daily to end extreme poverty, one household at a time, it is hard to find a connection to a report that includes decades worth of data, addresses multiple continents, and approaches poverty alleviation in terms of millions of dollars and billions of people. A comprehension gap exists between institutions like the World Bank and the reality of life in rural Uganda because it is difficult to straddle these two worlds — one in which global trends in poverty reduction are discussed using complex macroeconomic models and another in which weekly savings of a few dollars are carefully recorded in a recycled notebook.

According to the World Bank report, 1.1 billion people have moved out of extreme poverty since 1990. Margaret is one of them. Amina is one of them. And so is every one of their fellow savings group members in Ajeluk. At the end of every data point is a human life transformed. This is the connection I was searching for. While reports, like this one offer critical quantitative implications for poverty reduction, they can’t capture the human side of ending extreme poverty, one household at a time. We’ve provided over 400,000 individuals with business training and grants to lift themselves out of poverty. We know each of their names and have visited each of their homes. Our business mentors know their children and have watched them grow up. Personal connection is important. Relationships are important. These are our program successes that won’t be captured in an exit survey or appear in a World Bank report.

A higher gross domestic product is important. So is joy. Improved consumption expenditure is critical. So is friendship. An increase in productive assets is valuable. So is love. A group of women gathering every Friday afternoon, shelling groundnuts, soaking in the warm late afternoon light, laughing easily, chatting simply, embody the success of our program that can’t be measured. We can’t measure what it means for a group of women to buy a set of plates for each and every group member, for a savings group to commit to each member owning a proper dress, for a community to come together in the face of an individual’s loss or bliss.

As an organization and as a global community we have an obligation and necessity to measure our impact and progress. Without these measures, we would fail to comprehend the outcomes of our interventions, we would falter to separate the good solutions from the outstanding solutions, and we would be incognizant of the work left to be done. Village Enterprise demonstrates that it is possible to expect rigorous quantitative measurement while valuing the lived experience of our business owners. We know that when we say that we transform lives, there are data points that prove it, and behind each data point, a human story.

Hannah McCandless and Village Enterprise female business owners

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