'Empowerment is basic human rights for all'
[FRIDAY, DECEMBER 02, 2005 09:30:49 AM]

Abraham George holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration, has written three books in international finance, and was a successful entrepreneur in the United States for more than 25 years before undertaking numerous humanitarian projects in South India.

His business career included heading a software company he founded, and he has served as a managing director at a global investment bank, as a vice-chairman at a New York Stock Exchange-traded firm, and as a consultant to many Fortune 500 companies. His charitable work through The George Foundation in India (visit www.tgfworld.org) for over ten years has focused on poverty alleviation, empowerment of women, education and healthcare for the rural poor.

Dr. George is the author of a highly acclaimed recent book: India Untouched: The Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty.

How was the transition from the business to philanthropy and development?

I have spent the last ten years full-time in social work in India after 25 years of building businesses. It is a far more rewarding experience to impact people's lives. You can make a larger impact when you apply your own financial resources and background. You know, the problem of poverty in India is very large - some 600 million people - and we have to embrace new and innovative approaches. It can't be solved without serious national commitment which is presently not there, despite all the pronouncements by our leaders. We, at The George Foundation, are trying to offer a different model to poverty alleviation.

Can you contrast the role played by the private sector in philanthropy in the West and in India?

Private charitable donations in the US are presently around $300 billion annually. However, only a small percentage - less than 5% -- goes abroad. In India, the private donation component is not much. Some large companies have started foundations to help certain programs, but in comparison to the newly created wealth, the donor component is not much. I do not expect the private sector to focus on charitable work. What we need to do is to provide the right incentives for the private sector to participate, especially in the rural sector.

What is the state of affairs of poverty alleviation in India?

I don't think the problem is well addressed currently. The approach is now more of the same; it is not an issue of money allocation only. Good governance, better infrastructure, participation of the private sector, asset formation at the hands of the poor - all these are essential components of success in this. Further, we cannot wait for the benefits of urban development to trickle down to the rural sector any time soon, especially when the rural population is increasing by some 15 million annually.

What are the issues with the current approach and what would you suggest we do differently?

First, the idea that poverty can be solved with more money for the same old programs is faulty. Corrupt governments and inefficient bureaucracies cannot deliver the goods. The government's role has to change from being an implementer and manager of programs to one of being a catalyst for change. Second, the world seems to be looking for easy solutions to poverty, when none exists. For example, micro-credit and other small interventions are fine, but we cannot think of them as the real solutions. Poverty will be solved when we offer the poor new skills, the opportunity to own income generating assets, and when more jobs become available in the rural sector. In the longer run, better education of the younger generation will contribute to a wider range of opportunities.

What do you mean when you talk of empowerment?

Empowerment is nothing more than offering everyone basic human rights. The poor must have the opportunity to come out their terrible predicament. Beyond economic empowerment, we should focus on social and gender issues also. This would include women exercising their reproductive rights, sending children to school instead of using them as child labor, end of discrimination based on caste , dispensation of equal justice and so on. Unless and until we address these critical matters, we cannot expect to effectively deal with poverty.



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