It is clear that the work of one person can have great implications on a vast number of people. Often we think of this in the lens of power relations- “Great Men” who conquered, built, and live on in myth and legend.
Those are rare exceptions. Most people who do great change labor away in relative obscurity. They’re motivated on a more personal and local level- not to change the world as a whole but make a small part of it a little bit better.
India gives us a good example, with individuals or small groups building roads and tunnels from scratch in order to better connect them to the rest of the world. Despite government neglect these cases have rural people with basic tools literally shoving mountains aside to make the lives in their community easier.
The most famous case is Dashrath Manjhi, who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a hill, over three hundred feet in length. Due to the long and difficult travel to the nearest hospital, his wife died enroute, and he began a constant effort to make sure such a thing never happened again. He finished in 1982.
He’s far from the only case; Ramchandra Das was inspired by Manjhi’s work and completed his own one-man tunneling effort in 2009. His work was prompted by an interaction with Manjhi himself:
“I pleaded with Manjhi to cut the hill that isolated my village. He chastised me and told me to be a man and cut the mountain. I followed his order.” (source)
They are part of a series of unofficial civilian-built roads and tunnels.
This isn’t to say that the developing world should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fix their problems themselves. Hell no. But it’s amazing to see what dedicated people can do, and how we can learn from their example. People like Manjhi and Das challenge us to examine our problems and figure out innovative ways to solve them ourselves.
Archimedes was right. Give someone a place to stand, and they can move the Earth.