Wednesday, April 28, 2010

When Helping Hurts Part 2: Your definition of poverty is wrong

Your definition of poverty is wrong.

Well, maybe not wrong according to the dictionary, but chances are if you come from a middle-class American background, the words you would use to describe poverty are not those the materially poor around the world would use.

When asked to define poverty my first impulse is to use the word lack. Poverty is the lack of material resources, which is caused by a lack of other resources: skills, training, networks, wealth, infrastructure, etc.

And while this is certainly true: the poor lack money, if the poor are asked to define their own situation their answers are so much more than a lack of material resources . . .

Cameroon: "a feeling of powerlessness and an inability to make themselves heard"

Latvia: "The lack of contact leaves one depressed, creates a constant feeling of unhappiness, and a low sense of self esteem"

Uganda: "When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior. She has no food, so there is famine in her house; no clothing, and no progress in her family"

Quotes from Voices of the Poor a study put together by The World Bank

Here the author's words are better than mine, so I'll hand it off to them, "While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness."

But even if all this is true, people still need food? And clean water, right? Yes, I'll address those questions in a later post about the differences between relief, rehabilitation, and development.

But, if you'll track with me and accept this is true, that poor people define their own poverty in far more than material terms, this has crucial implications. For if the problem is more than material, any solution will be illegitimate unless it goes beyond the material.

If our diagnosis is incomplete or inaccurate, our treatment will be as well.

We must be careful of a dangerous two dangerous pitfalls here. 1. We must never let a supposed "understanding" of poverty overtake the words and feelings of real people who are experiencing it. Never assume you can "fix" them. 2. An academic flyover of the issue. If the problem is largely one of isolation, shame, and inferiority the solutions require RELATIONSHIPS. This is much harder than any program or outreach or giveaway, but I will argue far more effective and far more loving.

Check back tomorrow or so for the theology of poverty: How did the world get to this point anyways? (if you're a Madison-dweller who goes the Blackhawk Church the answer will sound rather familiar).


Chris said...

Loved this book. Read it on the honeymoon and it's one of my favorite things to tell people when they ask how the honeymoon was: "It was great. I read a really fantastic book." ;)

Makes me want to do something but I'm still praying about what!

Marc Nettleton said...

I know of a group in Jacksonville FL that would be interested in your praying about them. They really like people with tremendous leadership skills, who love Jesus, and are good at sports. I'm just sayin . . .