Can We Understand Poverty?

By: Karin Jonsson

Damang, Ghana August 1st 2012

Growing up, I imagine that many of my friends’ family dinner conversations centered around the new store downtown, weekend plans, jokes about the news, and stories from Grandma’s nursing home. My family, however, was always a little different; our dinner conversation tended to spin around broken water dams, farmers needing to cut down the forest for new crop lands, old women begging on the streets of Kiev as the socialist safety net collapsed, frustrating language barriers, government officials that have never seen an excel spreadsheet, and young, educated, hardworking women committed to making a life for themselves.

Development has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. As soon as I started to express interest in pursuing it as my career, I got one piece of advice from my father, who spent his whole life in development: ”Go to the field.” Having grown up partly in the field, I understood where he was coming from. How can you manage a project, write policy, execute studies, or design programs without having lived it? No book, no movie, no professor can fully or even partly teach you the complex issues that development practitioners face. So I made that my life’s mission. I took any chance I got to be in the field. I wanted to feel, smell, see, hear, and taste the reality of poverty so I could try to do something about it.

So here I am eating questionable food, constantly sweating, chasing mosquitoes, not drinking any coffee (probably the most challenging thing for me), taking bucket showers, waking up at dawn, going to church on Sundays, eating meat only on Wednesdays, going without electricity some days, being completely deprived of privacy, being tortured by slooooow internet, walking everywhere… all of you who have spent time in the field can continue the list. But then, when brushing my teeth the other day, it hit me: does this really make me understand poverty?

I thought so. That was the whole point. I needed to understand so I could do something to fix it. But all of a sudden we had a moment, my toothbrush and I. This is not it. This is not poverty. It is just a manifestation, a superficial expression of something much deeper. I eat local, cheap market food like any Ghanaian until I get sick, and then I go and buy food that is easier on my stomach. I visit and praise the new community clinic, but the moment I need specialized care, I use my insurance that covers private treatment in the capital. I walk to town everyday until there is an uprising, and then I grab a taxi home. I challenge myself to spend very little money, but the moment I need shoes because mine broke I go buy them. I am in control. I am living in these conditions by choice. Choice. Choice changes everything.

For me, being out here is a personal challenging – almost a game – but I can stop any time. It hit me again when the president of Ghana died last week. The Swedish embassy informed its citizens inside the country: “Your security is our primary concern. In the situation of civil unrest or political turmoil you will be evacuated to a destination of your choice.” Choice changes everything. Poverty is much more than the water, food, electricity, and sweating; it is something much deeper; something that transforms the human spirit; something I can never understand; it is about having no choice. If it rains it rains, if it doesn’t there is no food. If your child gets sick you pray. If you get sick you pretend you are not and go to work. If you get beaten you stay calm and try to keep the family peace. If there is water in the well, the kids stay in school; if not, they have to fetch water all morning.

As development practitioners, even if we can – and we should – challenge ourselves to feel the kind of hunger, heat, exhaustion, and frustration that is a daily reality for most of the world’s population, we have to understand the fundamental limitations of our experience and ability to truly relate. My toothbrush moment was frustrating. After all this time trying to understand, I had to ask myself, “Am I ever really gonna get it?” But then I remembered what a development pro once told me: “To be a development practitioner is not about finding solutions, it is about empowering the people that already have the solutions to realize that they do.” He continued, “I spent 20 years trying to find solutions, but it doesn’t work. Now when I meet my local coworkers I ask, ‘What do you think? I have some ideas, but I really don’t know.’” Maybe the point is not to be able to completely understand, but to realize that we cannot truly relate and simply try to be humble with that fact.

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