Theo Vaes

Ashoka Fellow
Theo Vaes
Fellow since 2020
This description of Theo Vaes's work was prepared when Theo Vaes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020 .

Introduction

Theo Vaes involves thousands of citizens in his effort to change the condition of people living in poverty by raising their self-esteem and stop their societal stigmatization. He measures every step of this journey to build economic and social arguments aimed at changing policy-makers’ behavior. In doing so, he is building a case to move away from funding approaches that retroactively heal symptoms of poverty in favor of preventing its root causes.

The New Idea

Theo has realized that a lack of self-esteem represents a significant hurdle in one’s emancipation from extreme poverty. He is convinced that working with people in extreme poverty on rebuilding the foundations of their self-worth is a necessary process to ensure that essential support already provided to them (education, jobs, health etc.) will be more efficient and sustainable. Therefore, complementary to the work done by social workers, Theo created ArmenTeKort (ATK), an action research organization offering a new space for poor people and volunteering citizens to meet and create trustful relationships on an equal footing. By sourcing and training these volunteers on how to empower someone trapped into poverty, he is making available a new resource for the social sector’s work on poverty alleviation, who, unlike social workers, is able to entirely focus on building self-esteem.

Through a 2-year so-called “buddyship” program, the volunteer’s mission is to provide an unconditional presence to his/her buddy. As friends and even coaches, they help their buddies regain confidence, and are trained to neither judge nor give advice but rather enable them to find the right solutions for themselves. This is done by (re)creating social connections with existing or new networks and identifying opportunities for positive change. Feeling for the first time included in their own society and having some agency, people supported by their buddy incrementally make life-changing decisions on their own and see their situation improve.

Besides concretely supporting people in extreme poverty in their journey, the buddyship serves as a nucleus for a broader societal mindset shift towards “poverty preventing” approaches. Theo is using it as a data-collection and demonstration tool to show that people in extreme poverty are not responsible for their situation but victims of a whole system. This way, he reveals to the society its latent misconceptions about poverty, starting with the volunteering buddies themselves. Theo purposely recruits people from privileged backgrounds as volunteering buddies. As the experiences serve as an eye-opener for them, he can then rely on them as ambassadors among similar groups that still need to live through this mindset shift. Having built the buddyship in a way that it is easily scalable from the beginning, Theo is best positioned to unite a critical mass of unconventional allies who have come to a new understanding of the shortcomings of current poverty alleviation policies, and are able to reach other organizations and institutions previously not concerned by the issue. Together with under-privileged and privileged buddies and relying on the data and learnings collected through his action-research format, Theo raises awareness and creates a diverse and representative movement. This includes stakeholders ranging from influential networks like unions to representatives of the education and housing sectors. They are united to build knowledge, create momentum, and urge the Belgian government and further European institutions to move away from the current “poverty fighting” policies and towards “poverty preventing” policies and laws, that would nip the creation of new endemic poverty cycles in the bud.

The Problem

In 2017, according to Eurostat, 21.7 % of the European Union population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion. When considering people in extreme poverty specifically, this rate is 6.6%. Extreme or endemic poverty is defined as persistent long-term poverty of a particular people or region that may span not only for multiple years but may extend over generations. In spite of costly social policies and considerable efforts from the citizen and social sector for decades, this phenomenon persists in Belgium and across Europe.

Being an extremely complex issue, poverty remains for many in society a black box leading to deep misconceptions about the reasons why people are in poverty. A common paradigm is that poverty is an unavoidable negative externality of our system, a fatality that cannot be permanently healed. Another common prejudice is that poverty is mainly due to an individual’s incapacity, lack of will, or even laziness that encourages them to take advantage of governmental aid provided by the “welfare state.” Furthermore, since the majority of citizens are not personally affected by poverty, their understanding of it is generally based on popular narratives (“If you want, you can!”) that prevent them from understanding its systemic causes and feeling concerned or outraged by it as changemakers or voters. As a result, the poverty problem is approached by European governments as something to fight vs. something to prevent, also because it falsely appears to be less expensive. Governments’ policies keep financing mainly immediate solutions to heal the symptoms, outsourcing poverty alleviation to the social sector. The latter ends up being overwhelmed by the necessity to help people in extreme poverty survive, with no resources to tackle structural causes.

A uniting feature and root cause of the situation of people in extreme poverty is that they have developed a self-limiting belief system stemming from their low self-esteem that finds its origin in the sum of negative externalities and hardship they encountered throughout their lives, and sometimes over generations. Hence, extreme poverty is experienced as an intergenerational trauma, which leads to coping mechanisms that reinforce low self-esteem and social isolation. These thought patterns and coping mechanisms result in the infrastructures (free healthcare, public education etc.) and help (training, return to employment etc.) developed by the social sector being ineffective for a public which has cultivated unconscious limiting beliefs regarding its ability to successfully leverage these opportunities. Thus, poverty is passed on from one generation to the next: according to the OECD, it takes on average 4 to 5 generations for the offspring of a low-income family to reach the average income. Lastly, highly isolated people in extreme poverty are often only surrounded by professional social workers whose job is to find solutions for them (housing, childcare etc.) and charities helping meet their essential needs (eating, sleeping, health etc.). Consequently, the nature of the relationships developed is one of caregiver-beneficiary, a transactional relationship that exacerbates the lack of self-esteem vicious circle, as it maintains poor people in a socially isolated, receiving posture, disempowered and unable to make decisions by themselves.

The Strategy

Theo has developed a unique empowerment approach, based on behavioral sciences and psychology. It consists of pairing volunteers with people in extreme poverty through a 2-year “buddyship” program. He identifies people in extreme poverty by closely collaborating with social organizations such as social centers, shelters, food distribution centers, etc. and gives them the opportunity to be put in touch with a volunteering buddy to start a friendship. However, creating a space for friendship is not sufficient to achieve a boost in self-esteem. This is why Theo equips the volunteers with the right posture and specific mindset. They are taught to be present and supportive no matter what happens, never telling the person what he/she should do, but rather helping him/her unearth the sources of power within them that can be stimulated to overcome social isolation, take decisions and, hence, rebuild self-esteem. Every new volunteering buddy goes through a 6-day blended training that combines workshops and practical sessions. The training, which has been developed in cooperation with academia, social workers, education, and Neuro Linguistic Programming experts, contains three foci. Firstly, the trainings provide insights on the reality experienced by poor people to develop the volunteers’ capacities to have empathy and recognize own biases. Secondly, the volunteering buddies learn techniques inspired by the Thinking Environment Theory to be able to build trustful relationships. Lastly, methods drawn from Appreciative Inquiry are discussed and applied that help the volunteering buddies to identify and reinforce strengths of the poor people which helps them widen their social network and take first initiatives and steps.

Theo has carefully chosen to rely on volunteers (vs. social sector professionals) who have no prior understanding/ experience of poverty for specific reasons. The volunteer status, as an unpaid person wanting to spend time with someone with no expectations in return, is key in Theo’s strategy. It is a symbolic yet essential signal as it proves to the person facing difficulties that he/she is worth receiving someone’s attention and dedicated time. Choosing to work with non-experienced volunteers also allows Theo to more easily challenge the default “charitable” attitude that regular volunteers or social workers can often adopt, and which would lead to beneficiary-caregiver dynamics that are counter-productive in a process of re-empowerment. As a result, volunteering buddies help their buddy consider him/herself differently, which makes the work of social organizations easier and more impactful. The essential support they provide becomes an available resource for people who have decided to bring about change, and intentionally ask for help. To ensure that the work initiated during the buddyship program is taken over by social workers, ATK has developed collaborations with dozens of social organizations working in education/training, return to employment, health etc.

Up to today, ATK has trained about 1,000 people and has matched more than 800 buddy pairs, mainly in the city of Antwerp, 4 other cities in Belgium and the Netherlands. The majority of participants confirm that their family relationships are getting better, that their mental health is improving and that they are seeing new positive outlooks for their life. As a result, initially relatively passive, some of the buddies even start making structural decisions to improve their lives. After only 6 months, one third of them see their social connections flourish as they start to develop and foster more social interactions, follow trainings, or even obtain jobs.

Theo’s ambition with ATK is to reach 5,000 people in deep poverty by 2023, with further expansion planned throughout Belgium and beyond. Nonetheless, Theo did not build ATK as an organization but rather as a blueprint available to any other organization in the world willing to replicate his model. This is the reason why he has embedded his buddyship program into a rigorous action-research project. The ATK team has developed a science-based approach to measure not only the evolution of empowerment-levels but also the impact the program has on concrete life situations. Through scaling the number of buddy pairs, the model is improved and becomes more accurate and validated, yet transferable to other actors. To guarantee this replicability, from the beginning of his journey, Theo has made sure that all tools (trainings, follow-up app, matching process etc.) are open source under Creative Commons Licensing and built in a way that allows anybody to easily use them.

Convinced that working on self-esteem is a necessary but not sufficient condition to unleash people in endemic poverty from the trap they are stuck in, Theo wants to urge society – and consequently decision makers - to adopt a preventive approach to poverty. This should contain more actions and investments but also a modification of the Belgian Constitution to switch from the current best-efforts obligation to a performance one where the government has to provide dignity, social housing, and education/jobs for everybody. To do so, he is building a movement to make poverty prevention an inescapable subject for everybody in society by relying on his allies and the knowledge/data gathered through his action-research project: this is the second stage of his strategy. Indeed, the large-scale action-research project allows him to create an eco-system of a diverse network of committed individuals and organizations sharing the same understanding of the systemic roots of poverty and the same feeling of urgency to exert change, together making up an essential first critical mass of allies, starting with the volunteering buddies and the people in generational poverty themselves. Through their buddyship experience, the volunteering buddies become strong allies with a clear understanding of the problem. ATK can then rely on them as influential ambassadors with strong skills and professional networks, as it is part of Theo’s strategy to source volunteers from privileged backgrounds. Therefore, their voice is extremely credible within the groups they operate in (other citizens from privileged backgrounds, corporations, administrations, politicians etc.), groups which precisely need to operate a mindset-shift when it comes to poverty. The people in generational poverty who have become buddies are also strong allies as they are involved in the training sessions and share their stories outside ATK since they are the best evidence that breaking the vicious cycle is possible and that there is a causal link between self-esteem and poverty. As an example, ATK recently organized a successful meeting between buddies and the King of Belgium to raise his awareness through personal testimonies.

Eventually, Theo has understood that gathering a critical mass of allies is not enough if you do not equip them with the right emotional and factual arguments to spread. He will work on new narratives, inspired by the buddies’ stories, to release mainstream communications demonstrating that ending poverty is actually possible and that people should all demand it. Additionally, to speak the language of the public decision makers, he will develop strong and irrefutable economic arguments, with the support of a dozen economists currently working in a taskforce evaluating the actual cost of fighting poverty vs preventive approaches. Once the sense of urgency among policy makers has emerged, Theo is preparing to launch pilots that will show that investing in preventing measures related to education and social housing (the lack thereof being the second biggest contributor to deep poverty) will have tremendous effects on self-esteem.

With regards to its movement-building, through the action-research and the interest triggered by his novel approach to eradicating poverty, Theo has developed connections with many different types of partners. This is about 40 partners across Belgium (social organizations, corporations, public instances, educational experts…), constituting a learning hub on poverty, an actual ecosystem of organizations that already helps Theo raise awareness on the issue in order to trigger a bigger movement. Besides the expansion of the movement within Belgium, the buddyship model is getting international traction, with Rozendaal, a Dutch city, just having started their first buddyship program built on ATK’s blueprints and measurements. In the next year, Theo aims to test his idea in Eastern European Countries and spread the open source format widely.

The Person

Theo was raised in Flanders and is the oldest of five brothers. Whilst most of his family pursued a steady civil servant career, Theo was driven by his curiosity to explore the world and leave his own mark on it. This has led him to take on many jobs, launch several successful enterprises and wear many hats, always eager to learn. Among them, he became a pilot for the military, a fruit farmer, he created a construction company in South Africa and founded a Business Center in Antwerp. Throughout his life, he has been involved in social projects in his local community, including the co-creation, with a doctor friend of his, of a movement that led to the adoption of preventive political measures to stop the spread of colon cancer in Belgium.

Despite all these involvements, the most decisive change to Theo’s perception happened when he struck a friendship in the early 2000s with Michael Windey, a Belgian Jesuit priest who founded the Indian NGO ‘Village Reconstruction Organization’ (VRO). Theo was travelling to India for business and met Michael on the plane. After they got to know each other, Theo agreed to become a volunteer, raising funds in Europe for VRO, as he saw in Michael a potential partner to help him solve a problem he was facing in India. However, through conversations with Michael and several field trips to India, Theo started to become more involved in the organization and ultimately became one of its leadership figures for two years. Interacting with the poor in India made him realize how complex individual misfortunes can lead people to fall into poverty and remain in it for generations, even in a rich country like Belgium offering a lot of support. Wanting to better understand the complexity of poverty, he started studying the topic by reading books, attending conferences, and talking to people in the field, both in India and Belgium. This is when he realized how existing mechanisms aimed at fighting poverty were only focused on symptoms, and when he experienced a growing feeling that all this made no human nor economic sense.

In the early 2010s, he became a volunteer Chair for the largest Food Bank network in the Antwerp region. Having the opportunity to observe first-hand poverty alleviation actions in his own region, it became obvious to him that he needed to act. He started thinking of solutions with his Food Bank colleague, Marijke. Whilst still running his business and leveraging his network, Theo was able to confront his ideas with world leading experts on poverty, systems dynamics, and movement-building. Unconsciously, this side project became his main occupation and as soon as he got the opportunity to sell his company, he did without hesitation, formally creating ATK in 2013. Since then, he has been relentlessly working towards his vision of a society which only sees poverty as an obsolete, irrational idea of the past, comparable to past voting restrictions imposed on women. In only a few years, Theo has managed to project his vision in Antwerp and beyond, being now recognized as a key stakeholder in the fight against poverty being featured in documentaries and publications as a leader in the field.