Note to the reader: this post was originally posted on my personal blog. I am currently in the midst of a one-year fellowship working with both Fundación Gente Nueva and Fundación PETISOS in Bariloche, Argentina.
Do you consider yourself to be lucky in life?
Twitter, my newfound love (addiction) asked me this, then directed me to an online discussion about poverty and international aid. Completely reorients the conversation, when you stop looking at numbers and start looking at experiences.
Today was the first official meeting of Madres Verdes, a new initiative ofPETISOS. A microenterprise offered to the mothers and family members of child laborers, the team will be producing and selling household and living accessories made from recycled products (think Bead for Life). Ultimately, the money earned from the microenterprise is intended to alleviate some of the monetary pressures that compel families to send their children to scavenge for useful materials in the garbage dump. Very triple-bottom-line.
Instead of jumping right into training and production though, our first day was dedicated to team-building exercises and get-to-know-each-other activities to explore the different realities that we come from. Because the Madres Verdes team is composed of two groups of four mothers, each one coming from one of the two barrios where PETISOS has a community center, they promptly divided along those lines to explain “como es mi barrio.”
The majority of responses that followed illuminated the hardships that these women lived through on a daily basis: “the city still hasn’t installed running water or gas in our neighborhood,” “the bus only comes every hour and usually there isn’t enough space for everyone waiting to get on, so I’m often late to work” and “one of my walls is made of cardboard, but we don’t have enough money to buy the materials to construct a new wall.” The last is particularly difficult, given that Bariloche’s winters are incredibly wet, cold, windy and long (and I say this having spent four winters in Boston).
When it was my turn to speak, I was somewhat embarrassed to share with the group what my ‘barrio’ is like. Unlike them, I do have running water and gas. I have a car to take me wherever I want—on my own time–and I have a house that is not only well-constructed, but has central heating and air conditioning, should the weather outside not exactly suit my comfort level.
However, this kind of mentality is an incredibly detrimental and progress-inhibiting one for the following reason: the way I (and perhaps some of the other women) perceived the situation in that moment was solely through a quantitative lens. Summarizing and analyzing our respective realities exclusively based upon these measures fails to properly reflect the complete story. Because it discounts qualitative experiences of growth, progress, and happiness, it necessarily victimizes an individual lacking basic resources, regardless of whether that individual does in fact perceive him or herself to be victimized. True, 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day—which undeniably compromises several of their human rights—but that does not mean that they are among the ‘unlucky ones.’
If we’re really going to make any kind of meaningful changes to the international aid and development machine, let’s start by abandoning the one-sided poverty pornography paradigm that depicts poverty exclusively as a situation of hopelessness and disrepair.