Poverty is a tough, gnarly, complex problem. It has been resistant to countless efforts, strategies and expenditures over decades, even centuries. It has befuddled many many sharp, smart people. The poverty activists I pay attention to are those who start off by recognizing, what is not as obvious as it should be: poverty is a tough, gnarly, complex problem and therefore not amenable to simple solutions. For example we now realize that simply providing people who are poor with income support (welfare) is not enough to break the cycle of poverty. Simple solutions, on their own, don't work for complex problems.
That's where Ontario based Peter Nares comes in. Peter has been in the vanguard of world thinkers and activists who are addressing the thousand faces of poverty – the complex, multi-tiered, multi – dimensional, nuanced, deeply rooted variables associated with poverty. These include: individual, family, and geographic differences; control over one's environment – choice and self determination; the degree of materialism in society; ignorance, oppression; varying perspectives on happiness; and the underlying policy assumptions ex: 'it's their own fault.'
Peter invented SEDI (Social Enterprise Development Innovation) in 1986 as a vehicle to launch a continuous series of poverty fighting innovations. In Peter's language these are more appropriately described as financial asset building innovations. Innovations that enable people to save and invest in their dreams.
Two features of SEDI's approach will illustrate what I mean. People remain poor because the welfare rules prevent them from accumulating assets (savings, home ownership, investments.) People will remain poor, even if they are allowed to accumulate financial assets, unless they become financially literate. Not surprisingly, if you never have enough money to make ends meet, you will never think of saving what you don't have. You, dear reader, might take life insurance or registered investments or saving for your child's education as a given. Not so for people who have never had a chance or been exposed to these financial planning concepts.
While Peter does collaborate with the usual anti-poverty advocates (about 800 community groups over the years) he has also intentionally reached out to partner with 'unusual suspects' – governments, businesses and corporations. Typically these groups are suspected of being the problem. For Peter they are vital to the solution. Peter intuitively knew and pioneered what we now describe as multi-stakeholder, problem solving. Complex problems cannot be addressed by one group or one sector – it's a job for all sectors and for everyone. Easier said than done although in Peter's hands compelling.
Here is a sample of his steady stream of elegant, successful and continuous, asset building innovations.
- The Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy – TD Bank contributed an unprecedented $14.5 million
- The Canada Learning Bond – helping modest income Canadians save for their children's post secondary education
- The Registered Disability Savings Plan – yes, this PLAN led initiative was improved by Peter and Barb Gosse's experience with the Canada Learning Bond
- Federal Task Force on Financial Literacy – SEDI is their strategic advisor. Have a look at the Task Force members – evidence of how Peter harnesses power for the common good
- Learn $ave and Independent Living Accounts – proving that with support and incentives low income Canadians can and do save for their future.
- TD Financial Literacy Grant Fund – focused on innovation and spreading knowledge about proven financial literacy practices.
To infuse asset building, financial literacy principles into the 'water supply' of poverty reduction, Peter has ventured into foreign territory. He creates partnerships with branches of government beyond the welfare departments and ministries – another good illustration of his sophisticated thinking.
A simple approach is to try over and over again to convince the welfare and social service arms of government to reform or transform. A complex approach assumes all arms of government, particularly economic development and finance must be part of the solution. What's good for people who are poor is good for the economy and well being of all Canadians. How majestic a reframing is that!
Peter has a Wayne Gretzky eye for knowing where the puck will be. He doesn't seek to fix what is broken in the current welfare system. He is creating a new structure based on people's capability to solve their own problems when given the tools and the chance. And now the mainstream is coming his way.
Alas, Peter is retiring from SEDI at the end of this year. His body, not his spirit nor his soul, has issued an ultimatum to slow down. He has adroitly managed to avoid and deflect any public tribute. A natural occasion might have been at SEDI's annual awards last week. Peter dodged that one as well.
Here is what we all intend to say when we get a chance Peter. Thanks to you and your SEDI team, poverty has tens of thousands less faces in Canada.