Working in microfinance, aid, and development more broadly, obviously requires talk about poverty and change. Too often though, we set out to find answers to poverty without actually knowing what it is. Gaining a clear view of reality, of what it means to be poor and what our role is as partners in the struggle for advancement, is the first step towards changing things for the better. It’s a dynamic process, a constant evolution that requires patience and understanding.
So here is my attempt at understanding what poverty really is:
Poverty is not an unpaved road. Poverty is the business that has to spend extra money to fix their truck because the roads aren’t fixed.
Poverty is not hot weather. Poverty is not having anything to fall back on when drought withers away your harvest.
Poverty is not frequent power outages. Poverty is the business that grinds to a halt and loses its customers because of the outage.
Poverty is not a room without furniture. Poverty is living on land that’s not yours, not knowing for how long you’ll be able to stay.
Poverty is not trash-strewn streets. Poverty is a lack of garbage pickup and a faulty sanitation system.
Poverty is not a choice or a lifestyle. Poverty is feeling trapped by a shortage of jobs and opportunity.
Poverty is not an open-air classroom. Poverty is a mother who is unhappy with her child’s school, unable to put her child in another. Poverty is a failing school system that doesn’t give teachers the resources they need to succeed and the teacher who hits his students instead of talking to them.
Poverty is not a shortage of family values or love at home. Poverty is a single mom whose parents weren’t around when she was young and has to learn, on her own, what it means to be a parent.
Poverty is not a tourist attraction or an act of solidarity. Poverty is the lawyer who gets shot for representing the underprivileged in the face of powerful interests.
Poverty has nothing to do with the look of the place. Poverty is feeling unsafe in your home because of a robbery that occurred down the street the other day knowing that the police never showed up. Poverty is petitioning your local government for a police presence only to get turned away.
Poverty is not a business opportunity. Poverty is choosing between funding your home business (which pays for everything else) or sending your child to school for a year.
Poverty does not define the poor. Poverty is just one part of a poor person’s life. That poor person is also a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a soccer player, a musician, a jokester, a card player, a dancer, and so much more.
Poverty is not just about income and material needs. Poverty is a generation who loses their culture and traditions because they look up to the foreigner, and his way of life, instead of learning about their fathers and forefathers from their past.
Poverty cant be neatly defined on a website or encapsulated in a picture. This post doesn’t even come close to defining what poverty really is. What we can do is understand that there’s nothing we can read, see, or experience that can give us accurate insight into the problems of poverty. This understanding serves to challenge our assumptions and put our relationship with poverty into perspective. The complexities of poverty make it impossible for an outsider to fully understand the problems of a community. Maybe outsiders do in fact have a role to play, but it’s not the part of “hero”. The heroes of this story are the poor.
I am still learning about what it means to be poor, what it means to be Honduran, and where I fit into that narrative. I do know that it’s not up to me to fix things. Its up to the poor to understand their condition and advance their cause. And if in the meantime they ask me to stand with them, I’ll be ready to help.
Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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