This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Most of my coverage at Forbes regards people working to make a difference in the world at scale. We’re usually talking about people who are deploying billions of dollars—or at least millions—to help millions of people—or at least hundreds of thousands.
For example, take my stories about the global effort led by Rotary International and its partners the CDC, World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate polio. Billions of dollars have been spent and billions more have been committed to wipe the disease off the planet once and for all. The goal is see the last case of polio on the planet in 2015!
Over the thirty year effort, it is estimated that 10 million cases of polio have been prevented. It is easy to for those involved in eradicating polio—or fighting any such global problem—to focus on data and statistics. In fact, it is absolutely necessary for an effective fight.
Michelle Kloempkin immunizes a child with help from the child’s sister
But there is another side to solving these big world problems. There are, behind those statistics, individual people.
It is difficult to articulate the difference it makes in understanding the battle against polio to have looked into the eyes of a child living in desperate poverty in the slums of New Delhi or in rural Ethiopia.
As I watched, interacted with and occasionally even immunized a few children while working on stories about polio, I was struck most often by two internal observations.
First, the poor children in India and Ethiopia and, I presume, the rest of the world, laugh and play just like our children. And a few (remarkably few actually) cry, just like our kids, when strangers drop polio vaccine into their mouths. While this may seem obvious and you might correctly suggest I didn’t need to travel around the world to figure this out, the implication of the observation is nonetheless important. If children all around the world are the same, then they should be entitled to the same opportunities whether they are born in New Delhi or New Jersey. And a polio immunization is just the start of what a child has every right to claim from the world.
Second, I noted with absolutely no scientific measure, how bright and full of potential the children were. In countless little ways, from how they studied us, mugged for photographs, worked the crowd for attention or alternatively to avoid it, and how they sometimes gamed the system, that they were as intelligent and full of promise as our children. They have the same natural potential to have impact on the world that our kids do, but their circumstances work against them. We owe it to ourselves to work harder to unleash their potential, if only for what they may well do for us in return.
Beyond these two simple observations I made during my travel this year, there is still another reason for all of us who work in the global effort to do something good to actually get out into the field to see the people our work is intended to impact. Quite simply, we need to see the people we seek to serve as people and not merely as statistics. It is imperative that we view 10 million cases of avoided polio not as a milestone in the progress against the disease, but as 10 million individuals spared, 10 million lives freed of paralysis, 10 million people better able to reach their full potential, tens of billions more smiles.