I wrote this article for the preview issue of Story for Good, a magazine published by Fireside International. I need to write more pieces about sociopolitical issues and development since I’m getting ready to go to graduate school in September. I couldn’t continue reading On the Road so I returned it for India Becoming by Akash Kapur.
Like the author, Salman Rushdie, I am “a tree of many soils.” My parents’ studies and profession have taken me to different parts of the world. I left a portion of my heart in each of the places I have called home over the past 23 years – Sheffield, Vizaq, Pune, Kodaikanal, Los Angeles, and Anderson to name a few. I am a flower forced to bloom with a phantom attachment to soil.
Three years ago, I was introduced to the works of the famous Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire criticized the traditional model of education and encouraged dialogical education models instead. Many institutions treat the people they help as nothing more than recipients of aid. Freire encourages individuals to “reject their role as mere ‘objects’ [and] become ‘subjects’ of their own destiny.” His belief parallels the plot lines of many characters in fiction that refused to passively participate in their world. Many stories have moved me to tears but Freire’s words motivated me into action.
I studied poverty, development, globalization, and growth on a daily basis in college. I often forgot that the statistics I analyzed were not just numbers but real people, some of whom are my neighbors in India. Stories are more convincing purveyors of truth than cold statistics.
When I recall the face of poverty, she is living in a cardboard box at an intersection in Pune, India praying that the monsoon rains spare her home. Poverty is a semi-naked boy who struggles to eat one meal each day and steals out of necessity not desire. The face of poverty is not exclusive to the East. I am still tormented by a sign a homeless man in Chicago held as I walked out of a mall, “Too Ugly to Prostitute.”
I have seen the face of poverty in every land I have called home. Poverty is everyone’s neighbor in the developing world. Water runs loosely along the dirty tar roads, stray dogs and children punctuate the road in feces and the smell of all things rotten perspires in the air. Poverty is hard to forget.
When poverty is described as the shortage of a specific good – shoes, food, education or income – rather than as a force that deprives human beings of their individual capacity, it restricts the impact of development efforts.
Poor people in the developing world often lack adequate footwear. If an individual or organization simply gives a poor person a shoe, the impact is limited to the lifetime of the shoe. The recipient is dependent on the giver for another pair of shoes. She still lives in her smelly quarter of the slum with more children than she can handle, but now she has a shoe supplier. Let’s consider an alternative method of “charity.”
When poverty is understood as “capability deprivation,” then a lack of shoes is seen as a symptom and not the main problem. When a donor invests in capability building programs – like acquiring a skill as a cobbler – then the woman in our story emerges as a participant, not a mere object, of change. She can now produce and sell shoes, earn an income, and provide food, clothing, and shelter for her kids. Which plot line respects the character’s abilities?
I believe the best way to “give” is to help someone become the main character in their own story. If the poor are always seen as a problem, and not as creative problem-solvers, then we will never address global issues adequately. The people we want to help must be involved in the process of creating change if we want it to be long lasting, effective, and respectful of all persons involved.
People in need, whether poor or rich, are creative problem-solvers. If they are victims of the problem, they should be a part of the resolution. It’s a simple message but it requires us, the giver, to humble ourselves, accept that we cannot determine the path of action for someone else, and still commit to his or her development through emotional or financial contributions.
Freire’s work awakened my consciousness. I now recognize that poverty is a myth because the poor do not lack capabilities, they are simply deprived of the opportunities to develop or use them.