Sunday, 24 October 2010

The stories we tell (ourselves) about 'the poor'

This great TEDtalk with Jessica Jackley (co-founder of Kiva) talks about the stories of 'the poor':

Our interaction with the other, particularly when they're geographically, culturally and socio-economically far away, is mediated by the stories we hear and tell about those people. The Gates foundation is trying to change the stories around aid by sharing stories of success – the kangaroo care method that saves babies in Malawi, how fortifying flour can make a real difference to malnutrition. Some critics fear this will simply become a PR exercise for the foundation but the idea is important. If the only stories people hear about aid beneficiaries are of people as desperately poor and needy victims, their interaction with those beneficiaries will always be about people's own guilt and eventually the resentment about being made to feel guilty will stop them being interested. Especially because it isn't true.

Growing up in South Africa at any time is a little bit complicated because of our history, but I have distinct memories of the point when I realised that the 'other' of my childhood wasn't. Because we'd all been forcibly segregated during Apartheid, the people I worked with in my early career had often grown up in townships. The image of townships (at least for me) was the typical picture most Westerners have of informal or very poor areas in developing countries: high crime, unemployment, lack of food, clean water and toilets, people without shoes and dressed in rags and for some reason lots and lots of dirt. And then I met people – intelligent, educated colleagues and friends – who had grown up eKasi and loved it. They talked about playing in the street and the strong sense of community, the great food their grandmothers made and singing in church choirs. They reminisced about school days and homework and sports. They talked about family weddings and 40th birthdays and feeling ill from eating too much. I began to visit townships where people grew roses and kids did ballet and neighbours had feuds over dog mess on the side-walk.

Stories of 'the poor' tend to be static – as if the poor are in limbo waiting for others to take action – and uni-faceted – poor people cannot also be entrepreneurial, strong, happy, sad, lonely, vegetarian, newly-weds, moms and dads, business owners, teachers, housewives, students. These stories are important because they determine how we relate to other people. There has been a lot of talk in the last few months about poverty porn. This is why I think it's a problem. Perhaps the greatest challenge is not to shock audiences into action with stories about the terrible lives of the poor, but to talk about how those lives aren't all about misery and desperation and hunger – in fact, in spite of the difficult contexts, a lot of the time they're pretty ordinary.

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