Having worked among the poor overseas it might seem obvious that I would side with the green scarves. But I was conflicted. I knew some of these business people appealing their case at the mike. I sympathized with their fears. Well into the question period a man who works among the homeless came up to the mike. Shockingly, he wasn't wearing a green scarf. Did he forget to wear it?
In New York in the early '80s the Times Square Hotel and its surroundings was known for peep shows and prostitution. The hotel was on the verge of being condemned and there were almost a thousand homeless people in the immediate area. Rosanne Haggerty, a resident of the community, decided something had to be done. She rallied fellow residents and local businesses to renovate the hotel in order to improve the aesthetics of the neighborhood while providing housing for those in need. Then she organized a group of community volunteers to spend time on the streets with the homeless to better understand their concerns. Now, decades later, the hotel fits nicely into the high priced surroundings with its gold-trimmed ceilings and marble lobby. Living here are 650 people who once frequented New York's homeless shelters and are now successfully blending into their community. Additional solutions were generated by the community so that today, if you visit the Times Square streets, the homeless are no longer there.
The New York project was a resounding success. Others wanted to get in on the act. Governments, including mine, poured money into similar projects. However, they missed the key reason why the New York project was successful. In New York the solution was triggered by a community that worked together, not by money. In contrast, the green scarf troops rallied because of a massive government grant to build a building. Meanwhile, the business community was alienated. Is this why the man who works among the poor refused to wear a green scarf?
On my trips to Congo I used to take my travelling colleagues to two Kinshasa health clinics. One clinic was started by a well funded group from the outside interested in meeting the health needs of the poor. The second clinic came from the vision and commitment of people of little resource within the community. The first clinic was depressing to visit. It was empty, the staff were less than motivated and the management had other things on their minds. The second clinic, though, was inspirational. It was brimming with activity, the staff were committed and the management had a passion for the community. A health clinic in a poor community is, no doubt, a good idea. But if it's not triggered by the grassroots, it's impact on community health may be limited. Seeing the man without the green scarf reminded me of an upside-down principle. Don't follow the money. Follow the people.