Last week my husband and I attended a showing of the movie, Poverty, Inc. which also included a panel discussion afterwards. The movie was educational, inspirational, and thought-providing. It also was convicting. The main premise is that the way we (wealthy, "developed", western world, whichever word you choose) have "dealt" with poverty and those who are struggling is not sustainable, nor healthy. In some respects those who are trying to help are really hurting and keeping people in poverty. The title Poverty, Inc. suggests that there is a huge business in the multitude of NGOs (non-government organizations) and in the system we have created, all in the name of helping.
One of the biggest hurdles is that those who help never ask the ones who they are helping what they want. How do they (the impoverished) see themselves and what would be the best plan to get out of the situation? For many, many years the people who are to be helped were never themselves factored into the equation. They were just told to do certain things in a certain way or they were given things without any idea of how to get those items on one's own all in the name of "aid". It was a very paternalistic approach which on so many levels doesn't work. Not only does the poverty perpetuate but the self-esteem of the one who is being helped is chipped away.
It got me thinking. The crux of this larger global problem is no different than helping a family member or a person in one's community, or coaching a client; each individual has the right to self-determination. Each person knows what they want to achieve or has some inkling that needs to be unearthed. Of course, some might not have the tools in their toolbox to do so, but that would be part of the overall plan- discovering what is needed to learn in order to achieve the goals. And a plan includes steps to achieving goals. Many times even if if the person has determined that they need such and such, if there is not an overall reason for getting those needed things, it is not a plan.
Most people are compassionate, generous and have big hearts. We want to help others. We may in the name of love try helping by providing "aid"; money, food, help, etc. but if the one who needs assistance doesn't ask for it or hasn't determined what he/she wants, the assistance won't be sustainable. As it was pointed out in the movie, sometimes the seemingly generous logical task, i.e. donating used clothes to countries in Africa, unintentionally causes harm- cotton growers and textile manufacturers in Kenya have gone defunct. People say why should I buy clothing when I can get if free? And so an entire industry and livelihood is gone.
The new buzz word is partnership. Those projects that work the best are those that the nationals have determined would be best for themselves and their community. They shared a beautiful antidote of a company in Haiti that is using the local community to make beads and necklaces that are being sold to various stores in the United States. They use low-tech technology to produce the beads and have sold enough to continue employing people. From starting with just one or two employees, currently they are up to a couple hundred. This provides the adults in this community to have a wage and to care for their children. There was a story of a woman who had turned up to the orphanage to hand over her child for whom she couldn't care. (Apparently this is a big problem- parents are "sacrificing" one of their children to an orphanage, knowing that the child will be educated, cared for with food and medicine and may have an opportunity to live a better life with another family. The child has parents but they are at a loss of what to do since there are minimal jobs.) Someone asked her, if you could work would you keep your child? Of course was the reply. The bead group took her in, she learned to make beads and she set small goals for herself. i.e. If I make so many necklaces in the next couple of months, I can buy a small 2 room house where I can live with my children. Powerful. And it wasn't some complicated economical formula. It all started because someone asked her what did she want.
I think that there is a lesson for all of us. What do you want and how do you see yourself going about doing that? What is the overall plan? No matter what our income, we all can feel at times that others are determining our lives and that we have no say in the matter. We need to stop and ask of ourselves and those whom we are helping- what do you really want? How do we want to go about achieving it? We are called to give dignity to everyone and many times that starts with a simple dialogue of listening to their needs. The antithesis for Poverty, Inc. comes down to the golden rule: do unto others as you would want done unto you.