Until last year, global poverty was, over the last 23 years, steadily decreasing. But the impact of 2020 will not be short-lived. The COVID-19 pandemic reversed progress to Zero Poverty. It increased the rate of extreme poverty worldwide by 7%, affected 150 million people, and undid all progress made since 2016.

This is dispiriting news, but even the sum total of a pandemic, conflict, climate change, hunger, and more does not mean that the end of extreme poverty is not possible within our lifetimes.

On an individual level, there is also meaningful action that you can take. It’s reasonable action, too: We understand that no one person, government, or organization can solve income inequality and extreme poverty on our own. But significant and sustainable change means that each of us has to recognize our individual responsibility and use our resources intentionally so that they can make a lasting, positive impact on the world. And you have four very powerful resources at your disposal that can contribute to the reduction of extreme poverty: your time, your actions, your vote, and your money. Read on for more on what to do with them.

Learn more about what causes poverty — and how you can help fight it

1. Invest your time

Each of us has 168 hours each week. It’s a valuable commodity. You can invest some of that time into understanding how extreme poverty works, what the US is doing to address the issue at home and abroad, and how interconnected your daily routines and actions are to those of people on the other side of the world.

That may seem like a tall order, but you don’t have to do everything at once. You wouldn’t run a marathon by getting up tomorrow, putting on your shoes, and running 26.2 miles. (Though if you are a runner, you can dedicate your next race to Concern!) Start by reading one article every week about foreign aid, including how much the US invests in foreign development and assistance. If you can move that up to one article each day or every other day, even better.

A young student during a school lesson in Masakong, Sierra Leone
Mariatu Conteh (10) during a Class 6 lesson at the Muslim Brotherhood School in Masakong, Sierra Leone. (Photo: Conor O'Donovan / Concern Worldwide)

Learn about the causes of extreme poverty, and the solutions to poverty at a large scale (they go hand-in-hand), as well as what fuels the cycle of poverty and the countries hit hardest by it. If there’s a particular cause or solution that’s most interesting to you, learn more about that. We have plenty of resources to get you started on subjects like:

Go with what’s most interesting to you, versus what you think you should be most interested in. In a short time, you’ll see how it all connects, and may start to see your choices, conversations, and outlook change in ways that can benefit everyone. It may seem like a small first step, but it’s an important one.

2. Invest your actions

It’s 2021; posting about poverty on social media is not an action. It’s time to do more, and even though you may not be a billionaire, there are still important actions you can take in your day-to-day life. This includes how you engage politically and how you spend, store, and invest your money (we’ll go in depth on both of those topics in numbers 3 and 4).

One of the biggest non-political, non-financial actions you can take as an individual is to take responsibility for your own carbon emissions. Answer a few simple questions on our carbon footprint calculator to see how your average carbon emissions measure up against the US average. Is it high? Choose public transportation, walking, or biking over driving. Make recycling and composting your trash a weekly habit. Consolidate your shopping trips or online orders, and consider buying second-hand and limiting fast-fashion.

Like poverty, the climate crisis will not be resolved through individual action alone — we need system-wide change at the highest levels to do that. But the more we take steps to reduce our individual footprints, the more leadership will respond in turn.

Team members of Concern Lebanon distribute soap at an informal tented settlement hosting Syrian refugees
Team members of Concern Lebanon distribute soap at an informal tented settlement hosting Syrian refugees. (Photo: Dalia Khamissy)

3. Invest your votes

It is on US leadership, regardless of party affiliation, to take accountability for the role wealthy countries play in either causing or not taking more decisive action against the causes of extreme poverty. Yet there is an alarming lack of funding for current humanitarian crises. Last year, humanitarian organizations received just half the funding needed to provide relief to people affected by crises worldwide. UN data going back to 2009 demonstrate that this is a consistent trend and that over time, annual shortfalls in funding — and subsequent increases in poverty — have continued to grow.

If we want to see real progress made towards eliminating extreme poverty, governments of wealthy nations must work together to fulfill 100% of the humanitarian funding needed every year. They also must amend or discontinue policies and practices that both negatively impact and inhibit progress of low-income nations.

Knowing more about extreme poverty and how the US engages with those countries facing the highest levels of poverty will allow you to see how your political representatives respond to this mandate. Ballotpedia is a non-partisan, nonprofit website that will allow you to see who is running in your district and their track records with many of the key issues that relate to poverty: foreign aid, climate change, hunger, gender equality, and education. Voting for candidates aligned with supporting foreign assistance and meeting initial commitments will help to keep that issue in discussion.

Beyond the ballot box, your representatives work for you. Hold them accountable once they’re in office. Contacting your senators may seem at times like putting a message in a bottle and setting it out into the ocean (don’t do that, by the way). However, engaging with friends, family, and people who share your views on these issues and coordinating efforts can lead to representatives changing positions or focus to ensure that these issues are considered at the federal level.

Members of a village savings and loans group in Somalia count their cash
Members of the Janagal self-help group in Somalia count their profits. Since starting the Concern-led program, the participating women have grown not just in wealth but also in confidence and well-being. (Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide)

4. Invest your money

And invest it wisely. Obviously, we’re a little biased on this topic, but $0.93 of every dollar donated to Concern goes directly into our programming in 25 countries facing some of the highest levels of extreme poverty. But, regardless of where you donate, learn about the organizations you’re funding and the impact that they’re helping to create with your support. Are they hiring local staff? If they’re an international organization, are they working with local partners?

Are they consulting not only the local governments and community leaders where they’re working, but also those who would be participating in their programs — and then using that local expertise and community priorities to guide their projects and work? How transparent are they about their projects, successes, and failures? And are they working to build dependencies or, like Concern, are they working to eventually put themselves out of a job? All of these are good questions to start with to ensure that your money is supporting real change.

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