Backgrounder: Heroes, Not Emigrants

January 28, 2016

by Patrick Oetting

There is a tendency to focus on the factors that create poverty. The results are often solutions that undermine the dignity of the individual – solutions imposed from a higher authority on people whom we deem “poor.” But when we look at the factors that cause wealth we begin to see individuals in a new light, as the heroes of their own stories.

This is precisely the example I found this past week in San Juan Comolapa, Guatemala, a pueblo about two hours from Guatemala City. Five years ago, Antonio heard the message of personal liberty and the power of enterprise while listening to a radio feed hosted by the Universidad Francisco Marroquin.

Soon after, he discovered the PovertyCure DVD series, which he and his son used to learn English. These core messages have drastically changed Antonio’s outlook on life and helped him cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset that has affected the entire Comolapas community.

In those five short years, Antonio founded a microenterprise firm, a childhood learning center and a think-tank devoted to seeing increased freedom in San Juan Comolapa. At Antonio’s learning center I witnessed the innovative approach that he has taken to educate hundreds of children, mostly from a background of poverty.

This small learning center operates with a for-profit business model. In a town that seemingly has little to offer, Antonio has provided such a valuable curriculum that parents are willing to pay a fee for their children to learn. The reasonable cost of the program motivates them to both stay involved in their children’s education and hold the educators responsible.

A self-sustaining model also allows Antonio to continue scaling his business and thus reach more and more children throughout San Juan Comolapa. As I heard Antonio’s vision, I was inspired. He plans to spread this model, and the skills it offers children, throughout Guatemala. When you couple the effect of the school with the impact that his micro-loan business is having on local vendors, there’s no question that Antonio has used our principles to dramatically improve life for many in San Juan Comolapa.

Antonio’s entrepreneurial mindset has also rubbed off on his family. His 13-year-old son Jimmy, who served as our translator for the trip, is a high-level computer programmer. His video blog is a YouTube sensation in Guatemala. Antonio’s brothers have formed a band that now travels the world, recently opening for Jennifer Lopez in Las Vegas.

Antonio, who once asked for help, has seen his family rise out of poverty through entrepreneurship. His businesses now serve hundreds of families in his community, giving them the same chance to move from dependence to independence.

When communities have access to economic tools and the freedom and know-how to use them, they will inevitably succeed. We have found this to be true not only in Antonio’s case but in hundreds of stories that we have captured from our network. They show us that it is time that society at large begins to look at the factors that cause wealth rather than focusing on negative attributes of individuals and communities that harm dignity and perpetuate cycles of poverty.

Patrick Oetting, of Fort Wayne, is the Strategy and Engagement Manager of PovertyCure, an Acton Institute initiative. Oetting edited a recent issue of The Indiana Policy Review, “Still Pretending to Help: Urban Malaise in Indianapolis.”


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