Poverty, Powder Kegs, and Stereotypes

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 11.33.40 AMBy Diana Skelton (France)

Have you ever heard it said that “poverty is a powder keg”? That image has been used by leaders like Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu in an attempt to spur society to overcome poverty — a worthy goal. But unfortunately that same image feeds the stereotype of the poor as violent, dangerous, and undeserving of help. In every country, this prejudice leads society to distrust the homeless, beggars, or street children. People born into extreme poverty know very well how others feel about them. Many mothers fear for their sons as soon as they grow tall, knowing that even while they are still children, they may been seen by others as a threat simply because of the way they look. In every country, there are gated communities where walls and guards protect wealth. Children born into poverty grow up knowing that they and their parents are the unwanted ones who the walls are intended to keep out.

This prejudice about violence and poverty is not only incorrect; it is also counterproductive. Again and again, it leads to policies that do more harm than good. After natural disasters, for example, aid workers may fear distributing aid in low-income communities. This often leads to the technique of sending in a truck, unannounced, then handing out aid packages very quickly before leaving abruptly. Because it is clear that this kind of distribution is not intended to reach everyone and that there will not be enough to go around, the very method of distribution is what creates violence. When we have used an opposite approach by involving a low-income population in planning for a distribution to reach all of those who need it most — for instance the youngest children in a given area — everything went very smoothly, with no violence, because the method of distribution supported natural solidarity that already exists in the community.

To overcome prejudice against people in poverty, it is crucial to begin with a global perspective. This is because even though bias and stigmatization exist in every country, specific stereotypes are often very local. In one country, they may be most strongly linked to the difference between an indigenous population and a mixed population with colonial ancestry; in another country, they may be linked to religious beliefs, or to skin color. In the US, prejudice by urban educated white people against rural less educated white people has led to the insult “white trash” — a terribly violent term when used to describe human beings.

The global perspective that we need to begin with is that of people born into poverty from different countries and continents when they are able to meet one another and to think together. In the same way that it’s important for experts in the fields of science or medicine to consult one another internationally, ATD Fourth World’s practice is to bring together people whose common expertise is in coping with life in extreme poverty, day in and day out. When people come together who have this common experience of poverty, but who also come from places where the stereotypes are different, it makes it possible for each of them to begin to see themselves differently. Someone who grew up always seeing their parents and grandparents disrespected and looked down on may have come to believe that this is normal, and only what their family deserves. Getting to know others with similar experiences in different contexts makes it possible for them to begin believing in themselves—and then to pool their knowledge about how to strengthen solidarity, and how to build the relationships that can strengthen diverse communities.

Bringing together people living in extreme poverty has made possible ground-breaking contributions to the international community. One example is a participatory evaluation of the impact of the Millenium Development Goals, which examines the harm done by development planned from the top down treating the poor as passive recipients or objects of charity. As world leaders prepare to transform the development agenda, we hope that they will draw on the experience and intelligence of people in poverty. These agents of change already play positive roles in society and know how to help create new programs that are more effective, that foster cohesion in society, and that can overcome poverty and stereotypes.

Adapted from a talk at the Horasis Global Visions event in Interlaken, Switzerland, on 6 July 2015.

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