In a recent blog post, Bill Easterly bemoans the tendency of the aid industry and media to paint the poor with a single brush, to define them by the resources and opportunities they lack. He recounts a recent visit to an Anglican Church service in Northern Ghana as an example of how many Ghanaians see themselves, not necessarily as poor, but as religious. Our classifications of people as “poor,” “vulnerable,” “OVC,” “PLWHA,” and a host of other acronyms is rarely how the people we study and purport to help see themselves.
This is a welcome reflection, but hardly goes far enough. Must we replace one broad brush stroke with another? Outside of some really excellent literature (Return to Laughter comes to mind), writing about the developing world tends to be all plot—whether that’s misery or success—and very little on character development. In the end we’re missing that identity of the poor (or anyone else) isn’t just multidimensional, it’s individual.
About a year ago, I spent a few months in Northern Ghana as well, working with an incredibly talented and dedicated NGO team. While I spent only a few days with the same participants in our programs, I spent a lot of time with the staff, all of whom were incredibly different. D. was a serious hot-pink-wearing diva on the outside, so much so that you wonder about her ease digging in the weeds with farmers. But, deep down she’s seriously hard core, just a little too confident to show it off. My supervisor was bubbly and fun, the master of all icebreakers. Without ever appearing angry or pushy, he managed to get everyone to fall in line always, just as it needed to be. R., one of the drivers was perhaps one of the most curious, adventurous people I have ever met! He was always stopping the car in the middle of some remote village and announcing that this was the best place in the country to buy [guinea fowl eggs, bush meat, charcoal,…]. In Nadem, a little town in the far North, he asked me to make a really tough decision for him: which cassette should we listen on our 8 hour drive home, Celine Dion or Dolly Pardon? (Dolly, of course!!!) Even as a driver, he was incredibly passionate about the work and learned more about it, I’m sure, than many of the staff! He still calls me to tell me what some of the farmers groups I visited are up to now.
Why does it matter so much about how we think and write about the poor people that we aim to help?
It seems to me that overly generalizing keeps so many interventions off the mark. They don’t fit experience, the marketing doesn’t appeal to desires. We don’t allow for much individual expression. We are overly pragmatic, but real people rarely respond to purely utilitarian solutions. (How many of you drive Hyundai Accents?)
We get frustrated at people not using mosquito nets. Have you ever slept under one when your bed is about 20 inches wide? I’m no martyr, but this is one experience I have had. It’s misery! Chemically soaked netting shrouds your sweaty head, catches your feet and shoulders. The net blocks whatever merciful breeze there is that might make sleep possible in the swampy air tropics. After multiple nights of not sleeping, you wonder if malaria would entail less suffering; sometimes it does! Our nets give a solution divorced from the reality of human experience.
Only by appreciating that they are people first, with desires, love, families, interests, curiosity, sensitivities, emotion, can we effectively respond to the demand for services that advance development.