Motos and Generosity: Defining What It Means to Be Poor

Hi guys, sorry it’s taken me so long to finally get around to putting up a second blog post. It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind around here lately, and I’ve been struggling with ideas of what to write about. Anyway, I’ll preface this post with a quick summary of what I’ve been working on for the past few weeks. I spent my first two and a half weeks working withNancy, the woman in charge of all of the women’s committees and the direct supervisor of all the asesoras. (The women’s committees make up the majority of recipients of loans from Fundación Paraguaya. Asesoras are the workers who supervise and work directly with the committees and manage all of their loans in the regional offices.) I was able to visit all of the offices in the southern region and got a chance to see a lot more of the Fundación’s projects and the country here. My work withNancyconcluded with a meeting of all of the gerentes (bosses) of the offices in the south. I was then assigned to the office in Luque, about 30 minutes outside of Asunción, to work with an asesora named Mercedes and to make observations regarding the office’s efficiency for a final report. I spent two and a half weeks in Luque and then moved to one of the Asunción offices, where I am currently stationed, to work with a different asesora, Limpia. In the middle of next week I am scheduled to move to an office in Mario Roque Alonso, about 40 minutes outside of Asunción, to work with yet another asesora named Magali. Though I’m not sure how much impact my work will end up having within the Fundación, I’m certainly gaining a whole heck of a lot of perspective.

I met SeñoraVirginiaat a meeting for one of the women’s committees with which I’ve been working. The meeting wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, just a credit renewal like so many I’ve taken part in during the past few weeks. There were no conflicts between the women, no major issues to discuss, and only a few new members whose paperwork we needed to process. WithoutVirginiathere wouldn’t have been anything particularly special for me to remember. As the meeting concluded, Limpia pointed out Señora Virginia who was pulling out a moto from behind a shed and told me that she would be taking me to a gas station where I could catch a bus that went back towards the terminal and my house. I’d mentioned earlier that I had never been on a moto before and Limpia had certainly remembered. It was a bumpy first ride over dirt “roads” and around the trash that collects in almost every open space but I was so excited. SeñoraVirginialaughed at my inability to find my footholds and my tight grip; everyone inParaguayknows at least how to ride on the back of a moto and most also know how to drive them.

At the gas station SeñoraVirginiapointed out where I should wait and told me which bus I needed to take to get back home. She then asked me when I was planning on coming back toParaguay, to which I gave my typical response: “I’d love to someday but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to.” She offered me her number and told me to call her when I came back, that I was welcome to stay with her whenever I wanted, and asked for my number in return. “Sé que soy pobre, pero tengo una corazón grande.” (I know that I am poor, but I have a big heart). This simple statement nearly brought me to tears. After less than fifteen minutes of talking with this woman she had offered to share everything she had with me, a stranger, an extranjera. She is a perfect example of the Paraguayan culture, a culture which encourages sharing in all of its traditions, a culture in which poverty does not impede generosity.

Sitting around the dinner table in the casa de pasantes (the intern’s house) last night I was reminded again of Señora Virginia. We began to discuss the idea of poverty: how it’s defined and who has the liberty to define it. Is it simply a number or is there something more? Many of the women with whom Fundación Paraguaya works don’t consider themselves poor even though they are far below the “poverty line.” The way they see it, if they have enough food, there isn’t much to worry about. The Fundación’s goal is to work with these women until their household income is greater than 489,000 Gs (about $122) per person, per month. This number comes from a report made by the Dirección General de Estadísticas, Encuestas y Censos in 2009 about the distribution of poverty and income withinParaguay, where the authors estimate that 489,000 Gs each month is about how much a person in the urban or suburban areas needs in order to have all their basic needs satisfied. Yet, many of the people with whom I’ve worked seem content in the lives they lead, even when the number of children they have makes the 489,000 Gs per person almost impossible. (How do you tell a woman with 10 children that she and her husband need to make almost 5,000,000 Gs a month? Even a wage for an office worker with a good job is probably around 2,000,000 Gs.)

Fundación Paraguaya is beginning a new program called Ikatu: Eradicación de Pobreza. It sounds like a great program with a lofty goal, but it has caused some tensions with the clients; no one likes to be told that they are poor. Even announcing the name of the program can put the women on edge as it’s pretty self-explanatory: “we’re here to bring you out of poverty and better your lives.” But what happens when these clients aren’t looking for anything better? Most of them are content with what they have, even though they understand that they aren’t rich and that there is more that they could have, because they still don’t consider themselves poor. Is it right to force them to realize all that they lack, to show them our perspective of their lives? Or is it better to allow them to be happy with what they have, to be satisfied with what others define as poverty? Who are we to define poverty when it’s not a reality that we are living?

SeñoraVirginiamay acknowledge that she is poor, but she’s one of the few who will. The women who are receiving loans see them as a way to increase their income but don’t equate that, as we do, with surpassing any sort of poverty line. Sure, they’d like to buy a motorcycle or a car, to buy their kids something nice for their birthday, but these are luxuries not necessities. For most of the women whom I’ve talked with, they’d like more but it’s not a thought that dominates their everyday life andit’s not something that inhibits their ability to enjoy the life they have. They still have healthy families and food to eat, Are we the only ones who think they are destitute, who think that their condition is really so desperate?

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1 comment
  1. Poverty in economic terms is much easier to comprehend than poverty in social terms, particularly in such culturally diverse landscapes that the developing world offers. Within “poor” communities, you will find a great variety of incomes, lifestyles, and priorities. It seems through your experience that there needs to be a much more localized definition of poverty, as well as ways to cope with the disadvantages that come along with it (like a lack of health, educational opportunities, employment, vulnerability to natural disasters, etc.) This is exactly where social entrepreneurship comes in- using enterprise as a tool that morphs into what communities needs most.

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