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What is poverty?

April 2017 -- Seems like an easy question on the surface doesn't it? I'm sure certain images and words come to mind for you, as they do for me. As we walk this road of continuous learning and development at DSI, this is indisputably an essential question to us. And like so many things, the more we dig, the more our eyes are opened.

Often, the way that us Westerners answer this question has to do with the lens through which we view the world, materially. 'The poor' don't have [fill in the blank here]... a house, shoes, food. Yes necessary things, but take a step back and consider poverty a bit deeper...

In the late 90's, the Work Bank carried out a study called 'Voices of the Poor'. They asked 'poor' people from many different countries to share their experiences and collected findings to better answer this question.

Here are a few voices from their collection:

  • "Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair." —Moldova

  • “{The poor have} a feeling of powerlessness and an inability to make themselves heard.” —Cameroon

  • “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.” —Uganda

  • "It was the rich who benefited from the boom . . . but we, the poor, pay the price of the crisis." —Thailand

  • "Poverty is humiliation, the sense of being dependent on them, and of being forced to accept rudeness, insults, and indifference when we seek help." —Latvia

  • "We poor people are invisible to others - just as blind people cannot see, they cannot see us." —Pakistan

It was concluded (and continues to inform better poverty alleviation strategies and humanitarian efforts) that poverty is multidimensional. It has to do with a lack of things yes, but just as importantly if not more, a lack of self-worth and the value of an individual's life.

In the book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett explains: 

“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. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine...”

So the way we respond must be thoughtful and deliberate, right? Are you saying, 'well of course'? Then think about how charities often work and consider the following statement, also from When Helping Hurts:

"By giving handouts to low-income people who are capable of helping themselves, churches and ministries contribute to the materially poor’s sense of shame and undermine their capacity to work."

I am not saying that there are not times within crisis situations where giving out medicine, food, or setting up shelter are not absolutely necessary, but often in charity work, this becomes the help in it's entirety. I mainly bring this up, to share with you a crucial part of how we think about the programs we are developing at DSI. We do not begin this work lightly. We want to be able to make sure we do not create situations of dependency or an unequal us-them system, but instead a collaborative system. Hence the term 'partners'. We want to validate the worth of each individual we come into contact with. And we do not aim to only impact today, but take into consideration the type of interventions that pave a better quality of life for future generations too.

When I met with Mr. Ngin Saorath, the Executive Director of the Cambodian Disabled People's Organization this morning, he said it perfectly. He said, "I do not want to look at only the next step, but the next ten steps". Exactly. We must do this to plan effectively.

So what is poverty? I guess I can only answer this by saying that personally, I believe that although my poverty may look different, I am just as in need and poor as anyone else. And I have so much to learn and do better everyday.

So I offer this as a summary and a closing for now:

And thank you Elizabeth (Cofounder of DSI and current board chair) for introducing me to this band. I cannot get enough!


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