Ernesto Sirolli: Is There A Right And A Wrong Way To Help Someone? When many aid workers hear about a problem, they get to work. But Ernesto Sirolli says that's naive. He argues that the first step is to listen to people and tap into their entrepreneurial spirit.

Is There A Right And A Wrong Way To Help Someone?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So you've probably heard the statistics - about half the world's population, 3 billion plus people, live on less than $2.50 a day. Every other person on the planet is very, very poor. So how did that happen and why? Well, on the show today, we're going to explore the ideas about how we got to this point and how we can get out - about the haves and the have-nots. So let's start in Italy 1971, and the government, inspired by the U.S. Peace Corps, starts a program...

ERNESTO SIROLLI: ...That allowed young men and women who did not want to join the Army to go to Africa for two years instead.

RAZ: This is Ernesto Sirolli. And at age 21, he wasn't that excited about the Army.

SIROLLI: I spoke, at the time, fluent French and there was this interest for me to go and work with this agency.

RAZ: And it seemed like a pretty good opportunity.

SIROLLI: I very quickly became involved in the training of the volunteers.

RAZ: He trained them and then he'd send them off to Africa with a project and he'd say, don't forget to write.

SIROLLI: And very often, they would write two different letters. One letter to the boss say, everything is fine and the letter to me, say, get me out of here.

RAZ: So Ernesto, he got himself a nickname.

SIROLLI: And my nickname was tarmac because I was the guy getting all the flu shots and then be sent to all these African countries - Kenya, Zambia, Ivory Coast - try to rescue these volunteers - Somalia, Algeria - who were in sometimes, in desperate situations. I was the guy who saw the problems and mistakes that were created by our very silly international aid programs.

RAZ: Like this one. It happened in Zambia, and it's a story Ernesto Sirolli told on the TED stage.


SIROLLI: It was a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So we arrived there with Italian seeds in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the Zambezi River. And we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. And of course, the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that so we paid them to come and work, and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people in such fertile valley, would not have any agriculture. But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, thank God we're here. Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.

And of course, everything in Africa grew beautifully and we had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy, a tomato would grow to this size. In Zambia, to this size. And we were telling the Zambians, look how easy agriculture is. When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came up from the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians, my God, the hippos. And the Zambians said, yes, that's why we have no agriculture here. Why didn't you tell us? You never asked. I thought it was only us Italian's blundering around Africa, but then I saw what the Americans were doing, what the English were doing, what the French were doing. And after seeing what they were doing, I became quite proud of our project in Zambia because, you see, at least we fed the hippos.


SIROLLI: And if you arrive in a community with arrogance and you don't listen to the local people, you don't ask, you are going to have your pride chewed off by the local hippos.

RAZ: I mean, that was like a moment of clarity for you. This was like a turning point for you.

SIROLLI: Yes. There was the moment of - this kind of moment of clarity where you really sit back and say, we do not know what we're doing here. What are we doing? What the hell are we doing here? It was one of those revelations. It couldn't be clearer that for somebody to arrive in a country and to have this superior attitude towards the local to say, why don't they grow anything here? Look how beautiful this land is.


SIROLLI: Every single project that we set up in Africa failed, and I was distraught. I thought, age 21, that we Italians were good people and we were doing good work in Africa. Instead, everything we touched we killed.

RAZ: How did every single project fail?

SIROLLI: And they still do. See, the first reaction was, let's not tell anybody we made a mistake. Let's not tell anybody about this project. I really thought that it was one bad project that will never be repeated, which, I think, is what the Americans in the Peace Corps are thinking right now. That they are in a bad project, but it's unique. So what they do, they don't tell anybody what they've done because there must be lots and lots of lot good projects out there.

But if they had the chance to go and find out what their colleagues are doing around Africa, they will discover that, in fact, the norm is failure. The question is, of 50 years of international aid, what can we point to that has been successful? In the last 50 years, the donor countries have donated to Africa 2 trillion American dollars and the African continent is the only continent in the world that has not caught up with the alleviation of poverty, education and health that the rest of the world has done.

RAZ: I mean, this is a serious issue here. Poverty is a real thing, it is a really serious thing that many people want to tackle, right. I mean, they want to fix this problem. So how do you do it without doing it...

SIROLLI: Not by arms. You never solve problems of poverty by giving people money. You have to teach them how to fish.


SIROLLI: I decided, when I was 27 years old, to only respond to people. And I invented the system called Enterprise Facilitation where you never initiate anything, you never motivate anybody, but you become a servant of the local passion. The servant of local people who have a dream to become a better person. So what you do, you shut up, you never arrive in a community with any ideas and you sit with the local people. We don't work from offices. We meet at the cafe. We meet at the pub. We have zero infrastructure. And what we do, we become friends, and we find out what that person wants to do. The most important thing is passion. You can give somebody an idea. If that person doesn't want to do it, what are you going to do?

The passion that the person has for her own growth is the most important thing. The passion that that man has for his own personal growth is the most important thing. And then we help them to go and find the knowledge because nobody in the world can succeed alone. The person with the idea may not have the knowledge, but the knowledge is available. So years and years ago, I had this idea - why don't we, for once, instead of arriving in a community to tell people what to do, why don't, for once, listen to them? But not in community meetings. What we do, we work one-on-one, and to work one-on-one you have to create a social infrastructure that doesn't exist. You have to create a new profession. The profession is the family doctor of enterprise, the family doctor of business who sits with you in your, house at your kitchen table, at the cafe and helps you find the resources to transform your passion into a way to make a living.

RAZ: I mean, that makes complete sense, but I mean, is the whole idea of sending aid wrong?

SIROLLI: Completely, entirely wrong.

RAZ: Wow.

SIROLLI: Has to be dismantled. I wish we would set up a website called for people to come out of the closet and tell the truth about what they're doing.

RAZ: I can't help but imagine, you know, like a young aid worker hearing this in despair and thinking, my God, I'm just doing the wrong thing. I mean, it can't possibly be the case for all of them.

SIROLLI: It's never our intention, you see, the damage is not done by the original intent. The unintended consequences of what we're doing when we show up uninvited, when we don't know what we're doing. To do aid in Africa is like trying to back a truck with three trailers, and every minimal change at the front is going to create a absolute, huge effect three trailers back. All of a sudden, you lose control. And some of the stories are funny, but some of the stories are heartbreaking, and that's why I encourage more people who have done what I've done for the last 40 - 50 years, to come and tell the truth. What did they leave behind?


SIROLLI: So we can create a community where we have facilitators who come from a small business background sitting in cafes, in bars and are your dedicated buddies. Somebody who will say to you, what do you need? What can you do? Can you make it? OK. Can you sell it? Can you look after the money? Oh, no. I cannot do this. Would you like me to find you somebody? We activate communities. We have groups of volunteers, supporting Enterprise Facilitator to help you to find resources and people. And we have discovered that the miracle of the intelligence of local people is such that you can change the culture and the economy of this community just by capturing the passion, the energy and imagination of your own people. Thank you.


RAZ: Ernesto Sirolli. He works on enterprise projects all over the world. Check out his entire talk at Stay with us, more stories of the have and have-nots in a moment. I'm Guy Raz. And this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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