What Diabetes Has Taught Me About Alleviating Poverty

Shweta Kakkar
JoyCorps Director of Initiatives

I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when I was 11 years old. Since then I have consulted with numerous doctors and experts, but I never felt truly understood, nor did I receive clear answers about my condition or my treatment. For 22 years I struggled with intense fluctuations in my blood sugar levels and only barely managed to do what I had to do at school, university and my successive jobs.

I did not once think that life with Type 1 Diabetes could be any different. Instead, I accepted that I was "damaged goods." I have always known that I have some skills and talents, but this knowledge was buried deep under the rubble of doubts and misgivings, all stemming from failure to manage my diabetes well.

My lack of grasp of my diabetes was evident to my leaders at JoyCorps when I visited America in 2016. I am sure they had many concerns, but they never told me not eat something or to wake up at 5 a.m. and go for a walk (unfounded advice I have received all my life). What they gave me were tools: first, a visit to an endocrinologist in America. Second, blood tests that helped clarify a few things about my diabetes. Third, and most importantly, they created an environment of empowerment, patience and acceptance for me. I slowly began to realise that my diabetes is not a hopeless cause but something that has to be managed everyday with patience and planning.

This realisation stimulated action. I found a book by a doctor who has Type 1 Diabetes himself; his low-carbohydrate eating plan rejects the traditional guidelines of experts but has made a tremendous impact on my health. Most importantly, I found two supportive doctors who supplement my decisions with their medical expertise. Earlier, I would be dismayed at the prospect of visiting a doctor, but now I am in constant touch with them and work in partnership with them. 

Why am I sharing this with you?

It is because my experience with diabetes has taught me a powerful lesson about the fight against poverty and injustice. I have a decade of experience working with non-profits in poverty-alleviation and livelihood programs, but I will never know poverty in the same way as somebody who has experienced it. I will never truly understand what the hunger pangs of starvation feel like. I will never truly understand being unable to access public institutions like schools or banks. I will never truly understand what it feels like to live with less than one dollar a day for years on end.

As a diabetic, I work with a sense of urgency and dedication that can only stem from experiencing the effects of the condition firsthand. I wonder if those of us who work in the domain of poverty alleviation, but have not personally experienced what it feels like, truly appreciate the urgency of our work? This question is uncomfortable, and yet it is paramount, because in our current systems, the people who decide policy, give aid, and determine the fate of the poor are, in most cases, only understanding poverty from an outsider’s perspective.

I know the outsider’s perspective is important; I owe a huge debt to the medical experts who created insulin and who develop monitoring devices for diabetes. However, if my personal experiences and needs are not taken into consideration while developing a management plan for my condition, that plan will most likely fail. 

Without intending to equate my diabetes with the severity of poverty, life with a chronic condition has taught me this: poverty alleviation efforts should be undertaken through a partnership between the experts in the field of development, and those whose firsthand experiences of poverty bring urgency and understanding to the fight.

The experts can provide the tools, but their work should be done under the leadership of, or in equal partnership with, those who are personally experiencing poverty on a daily basis. Only then will our work have a real impact.

I invite you to join hands with JoyCorps and partner with us in our grassroots entrepreneurship revolution. We are listening to those with experiences of poverty and hearing their directions on how they want to use business to transform their lives and communities. We work alongside them as partners in the crucial fight against poverty, inarguably the most severe epidemic of our world.

Rachel Meisel