By Ricardo Tomas Light
Social Entrepreneur, Dr. Martin Burt, recently visited UC Irvine for a special presentation, “Social Entrepreneurship: Microfinance, Education, and Poverty Elimination”. The Blum Center had the honor of interviewing Dr. Burt about his work and advice for young scholars.
Dr. Martín Burt was born and raised in Paraguay, a South American country of 6.8 million people. He attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA, received his Master’s at George Washington University in Washington D.C, and holds a Ph.D. from Tulane University in New Orleans. Upon returning home, Dr. Burt established Fundación Paraguaya, a self-sustainable non-governmental organization focused on microfinance and entrepreneurship. The foundation is the first to provide microfinancing in Paraguay.
When Dr. Burt first began his work, poverty was only considered in terms of monetary holdings. Recently, however, through observation and personal experience, Dr. Burt has shifted his perspective on poverty. It is a multifaceted issue whose indicators include income, housing, employment, infrastructure, education, culture, organization, and participation. There are clear indicators, which are easy to identify, and then there are those that are neither so obvious nor as objectively measured. These “soft indicators” rely on an individual self-reporting on their the circumstances and experience.
This is a key realization in the fight against poverty because we must understand how those actually living an impoverished reality view themselves and their own needs before we can know how to help. “The key is to learn what the proper level of intervention is without destroying what you are trying to do,” says Dr. Burt, “[other programs] do not encourage people to overcome poverty. They create poverty traps.” Instead, the goal, according to Dr. Burt, isn’t to create safety nets, but safety trampolines.
Technology is a valuable tool in this goal because it opens the door for the customization of approaches to poverty alleviation and allows for improved participation. It is important that the poor become the protagonists in their escape from poverty because, ultimately, only the poor themselves can say when they feel free from poverty. That can vary greatly by the context of each country, culture, society, or individual. A person can assume different roles.
Today, the foundation is focused on youth entrepreneurship educational programs and creating a financially self-sufficient agricultural school for the rural poor. These schools generate income while educating youth without tuition or government subsidies. “This is education that pays for itself,” says Dr. Burt, “an innovation which has spread throughout Latin America and Africa.” These entrepreneurial high schools provide students with theory and practice; the opportunity to learn by doing. “Selling the tomato in enough quantities to pay the salary of the professor,” says Burt, “it’s a concept of education that pays for itself.” The objective of the school is 100% employability through a market-based curriculum. Burt realizes the importance of people working for themselves, of people creating their own opportunities, instead of merely working for others.
“We are all standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Burt when asked about his heroes, “we see further because we are basing our work on what other people have done.” He admits that his own efforts are inspired by the work Mohammad Yunus and Bruce Tippett, both pioneers in microfinance. “We all have mentors, we need to embrace mentors, and then when we have the chance, we need to be mentors to others. Everybody needs inspiration and encouragement.”
There are two types of people, according to Dr. Burt, people who will drain you out of energy and people who are going to energize you. Students must realize that anyone has the potential to change the world. Depending on your personality, you can be the social entrepreneur or your can support a social entrepreneur or organization. Even a shy person can do great things; you don’t have to be the visible leader. There are many important roles one can fulfill and one might fill many different roles throughout their lifetime. Dr. Burt encourages students struggling to find their place to “be open and follow opportunity.” We must follow our passions to guide our purpose and seek to merge them with things we are good at doing. Finally, he adds, “find your tribe. Find people who have the same dream as you.”
More information on Dr. Burt and Fundación Paraguaya can be found here.