AID TO TRADE – HOW A STROLL WITH A CORRUPT BUSINESSMAN CHANGED MY VIEWS ON AID & DEVELOPMENT

Words by Jai Sharma

 

As a kid I always wanted to change the world for good. I came across a bucket list I wrote as a 12 year old a couple of months ago and right below ‘surf a wave for 7 seconds’ (still haven’t ticked that one off) was ‘develop an entire town in a poor country’. Despite what people told me, it wasn’t a passion that faded, it stuck with me throughout my high school years, uni and beyond. I dreamed of living the intrepid life of a development professional, khaki shirts, dusty boots determined look in my eye – the whole deal. I had no idea that at the height of my development zeal, a brief conversation with a corrupt but likeable business man would change my perspective on aid and ultimately much more.

I’ll pick the story up at the end of my university years – I’d been studying international development for years, case study after case study about how to make the world a better place. The theories, information and conversations were great but they gave me itchy fingers to actually be out in the field doing things. After a season of prayer, I went to work with an orphanage in a small town on the edge of Delhi – I’ll save that adventure for another blog post but in short what was meant to be a 6 month volunteering stint turned into a two year adventure discovering the world of child rescue, and living life as a development practitioner (dusty boots and everything).

Toward the end of my two year stint in India, an acquaintance invited me to visit his factory. He was an abundantly wealthy man, known for being corrupt enough to get the job done, an exporter of various products and the last person I expected to learn a development lesson from. I knocked on the large steel gates of his factory and was shown around the vast operation by the man himself. As we strolled around the factory two things slowly dawned on me. Firstly, this man, though brimming with business charm, did not care at all about the poor and vulnerable and really just wanted to make a lot of money. The second and more surprising realisation, was that despite the first point, he had perhaps accidentally done more good for the poor and vulnerable than I had in my years of intentional oil. The man employed around three thousand women, almost all from poor backgrounds (because they were cheap to hire) and in doing so had helped lift countless families out of poverty, send thousands of kids to school and shifted the way that these women were perceived within their families and community. All achievements which any development practitioner would wear with pride. But he wasn’t a development practitioner, he was a business man, and a slightly dodgy one at that. What I didn’t know at the time was that in factories like this, all kinds of abuse are standard – both environmental and human. But still the fact remained, if we could remove these significant violations there was a potential in business to generate change that I had somehow completely missed.

For me, walking around that factory was a paradigm shifting moment. It was the first step to reframing business in my mind. It changed from being a means of making money to give to charity, to actually being a powerful tool for positive social change in itself. I remember thinking to myself… ‘if this man’s business can have such an impact by accident, imagine what a business that was intentional about helping people could achieve’ and imagine what a fashion industry that cared deeply about the people and planet could achieve. My prayer is that as we step into this Thread Harvest journey we’ll find out.

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