What if our efforts to fight poverty have hurt more than they’ve helped? Do good intentions always equal good impact? What if we’re part of the problem?
Last Monday, my fellow intern, Kelly, wrote about the importance of working with—not for—the poor. Dignity is more effective than pity; the poor need a seat at the table, not a handout. Unfortunately, the poverty industry as we know it has far too often maintained the us vs. them mentality. Donations of money, food, clothing, and much more pour in; while this can be a boon for people in poverty in the short term, this variety of long-term aid can leave economies, local business owners, and individuals worse than it found them.
That’s all a little confusing, though, isn’t it? Phrases like “the poverty industry” can make us want to run far away from any such discussions. What does all of this really mean, anyway?
There are two things that have been most helpful to me in learning about poverty and how we should (and should not) address it. First is the documentary Poverty, Inc. I saw this film for the first time last year, and I haven’t stopped talking about it since. In a mere 90 minutes, Poverty, Inc. introduces viewers to stories of success and failure in poverty alleviation, explanations of why the system works the way it does, and solutions for forward movement. I can’t recommend it highly enough—get yourself on over to Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes, and watch it.
The second thing that’s been helpful to me is getting involved with organizations such as Mocha Club. The reason I applied to this internship at all is that, after getting to know Mocha Club last spring when I helped organize a showing of Poverty, Inc. on my college campus, I was impressed by the candid, honest way that Mocha Club seeks to help those in poverty in Africa and connect them to people here in America. Mocha Club wants to work with people in poverty; they help us break down the notion that poverty alleviation is a simple idea, and Mocha Club seeks to do this work in a humble manner that listens first to community members and workers already on the ground.
So what does all this mean for you? Go watch Poverty, Inc. Ask good questions. Find winsome, honest nonprofits like Mocha Club to support. (Go back to Kelly’s post from last week, and read the book she mentions, When Helping Hurts!) Poverty alleviation and relief isn’t impossible—it’s just not simple. But it can start with people like us taking steps to effect a cultural paradigm shift in the way we talk about the poor. It starts right here.