Musings About Poverty

Last week I wrote about my unforgettable experience with poverty tourism. Since writing that post, I have begun to question whether philanthropic and governmental support will ever eradicate the type of poverty I witnessed. Most international development scholars are quick to explain that poverty doesn’t just happen. To them, poverty is not merely a lack of money, food or shelter. But if poverty is not an accidental occurrence, then what is it?

By many accounts, the Earth has enough space, food, water and raw materials for all to have there needs met, yet, poverty still exist. Perhaps, I am defining poverty the wrong way. According, to Istanbul Principles on Development Effectiveness and the Siem Reap Framework for Action, “poverty” is not merely a lack of food, money and shelter. And it is especially not a lack of material goods.

Instead, poverty is:

  • To be poor is also to lack control over one’s life and resources.
  • Poverty is not simply a matter of scarcity: it is the result of human interaction. People keep other people poor.
  • Poverty is exclusion – from social, economic and political processes that affect one’s life.
  • Poverty is political – reflecting inequality and injustice.
  • Poverty is indignity. Poverty is the denial of access to the resources, capabilities, security and power that people need in order to realise their human right to live with dignity.

Of the five principles above that I borrowed from the Docha Network Blog, the last one resonated the most with me. In retrospect, the tour group I was with probably did everything to inadvertently deny the residents of that villge their dignity. We made no effort to personally introduce ourselves or to acknowledge them people. Some may argue that bringing tourists into the community makes us more aware and creates an opportunity for the residents to make a living. But would you want to make a living in this way?

I then thought that I should find a local NGO I could anonymously donate money to. But upon further thought I concluded that I did not have enough information to figure out if there was a specific NGO that helped those in that area. It was a sobering reminder that donations alone will not resolve this global issue. And in a moment of emotional anguish I thought to call the tour operator and file a complaint, but I also decided against that option. Because I am outsider (or foreigner as some referred to me) and have limited understanding of the situation, and my complaint may do more harm than good. For all we know, that village received a monthly payment for allowing the tour company to traverse their land. And how do we know that the company does not employ residents of that area providing a reliable source of income for them?

And if this practice is undignified but provides a mechanism for income generation, who am I to think it shouldn’t happen? Moreover, if tourists stopped passing through that village, what would happen?

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