When it came to money, grandmother knew best

By Gaithiri Siva, Director of Buen Vivir Fund

We’re living in the most technologically advanced time in the history of the world yet, with less equitable wealth distribution than at any time in the last 50 years. In 2017, eight individuals, all men, and almost all in the field of technology, owned as much wealth as 3.7 billion humans – or half of the world’s population. Here in Northern California, where technology is touted as the great equalizer and tech billionaires are just a stone throw away, over 30% of jobs still pay less than $16 per hour.

As I sat on the 45th floor of a high rise where I previously worked, complete with an expansive view of the San Francisco Bay, I listened to yet another tech entrepreneur pitch a health app (or was it a fitness app?) that was going to change the world. Well, it was going to gamify healthy living, actually. There were impressive charts, and a fine tuned pitch – that made me nod and almost go ‘wow’ – except I couldn’t help but feel an inexplicable feeling creep in that something was insidiously wrong.

The feeling – although I couldn’t name it at the time – was a misplaced faith in the market, in unbridled consumption, and in a broken global economic ideology. What I didn’t know at the time, too, was that somehow I had put out a plea to the universe to show me something different.

And then, almost serendipitously, I chanced upon…buen vivir.

After applying and being accepted as one of two inaugural Buen Vivir Finance Fellows, this term – buen vivir – which I had never encountered before has now permeated my life in a way that brought me back to my roots. They were roots I had ignorantly been moving further and further away from, because that was what was I was taught in school, in university, reinforced by my mentors at work, and I had simply never thought to question.

Buen vivir – this Latin American concept that implies “right living,” or life in balance with community, natural systems, and future generations.

Buen vivir – where economies are built around well-being, balance, spirit and joy.

It seems so obvious. Why is this not our normal?

I grew up in Malaysia with community and family close by. I grew up steps away from my grandmother, a lady who grew her own flowers and vegetable in her small backyard, who organized women in her community through a co-op, who made her own clothes, who hated waste in any form, who lived modestly, simply, and joyfully.

I realize now, through my work as a fellow and re-imagining an alternative economy, an alternative world – that my grandmother provided me more of a financial education than my college degree and management consulting job ever could, combined. My grandmother was removed from school by her father when she was 12 years old because a boy teased her. Yet she held wisdom you don’t learn in schools.

As I step into the work each day, I am reminded of my grandmother. I am reminded of my family and my community. I am reminded of why I never felt I belonged on the 45th floor in a shiny office.

Wisdom about managing earth’s sacred resources is not found in slick powerpoint presentations or boardrooms. Wisdom is not found in complicated financial models or number crunching or an app. Wisdom is not found in a CEO focused on maximizing profits whilst ‘extracting value’.

Instead, wisdom is found in places similar to where my grandmother was – on the ground, led by community, where the work is being done. Some of the most innovative work and practices are taking place at the grassroots – offering vital insights and directions to all of us who want to help create a more just and equitable world.

Every day now I wonder, what else did my grandma know?

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