Poverty and Shit

Over the past couple of days, I’d been really wanting to vent. To scream at Life, to kick It in the groins, to punch It down until It defeatedly raises Its hands to say, Okay, enough now, I promise I’ll stop throwing shit at you.

Everyone should have an Emo Quota. You can only be emo over Life this much/this long, but once you’ve reached your quota, ya gotta stop.

Things have not been going well for me this semester; it’s one big problem following another. A serving of several Big Problems, nicely garnished with a handful of Small Problems.

I was gonna use my Emo Quota today, write about my dish of Problems, but I opened an email from ONE.org (an advocacy group that fights against extreme poverty around the world), and decided that I’d write about that instead. So ONE.org has a new video out, which features celebrities such as George Clooney, Jessica Alba, and all those beautiful people. It’s called The F Word – Famine is the Real Obscenity.

Poverty in developing countries is something that I take deep interest in, but one part in this video particularly intrigued me.
It’s the part where they go:

30,000 children have died in 3 months.
The worst drought in 60 years have devastated parts of Africa.
We know how to stop this.
Early warning systems.
Food reserves.
Better seeds and irrigation.
More peace and security.

I’m taking a policy studies class this semester titled “Applied Policy Analysis: Food Security and the Developing World”. It’s a senior seminar, so classes mainly consist of us doing a bunch of readings beforehand, and coming to class to discuss the readings and talk about possible policy solutions.

One of the frustrations that my fellow classmates and I have is that there is no clear cut solution to poverty and food insecurity. Obviously. And there are so many different paradigms, so many different approaches. Half the class are Global Development Studies students like myself, who believe in the power of grassroots and working with the communities. The other half of class are Policy Studies people who, I feel, tend to lean toward top-down approaches, where you basically try to prescribe solutions to communities, tell them what is wrong and what should be done.

Two very different paradigms to how development should be done.

But the most frustrating thing is this — no matter how long we discuss, no matter how many debates we have, we can never come up with a policy that makes everyone go, “Hmm. Yes, that makes sense. We should do that!”

With every policy there is a risk, there will be drawbacks, and there will always be opposers who think some other method will work better. There will almost never be a unanimous agreement.

Poor countries such as those in Africa and South Asia are in a state of poverty and food insecurity not because of merely one problem. There are a multitude of problems that can’t be solved until a host of other problems are first addressed. So then, the big question: Where do we start? What should we prioritize?

Poor farmers not getting enough from their crops. Well, increase access to markets then, help them sell their crops for income. But there is a lack of infrastructure — no roads to on which to transport crops. Well then, build roads! But then, the government is poor. Do they invest their money in infrastructure? Or in technology (for more efficient farming)? Or in human capital (sponsoring people to go learn)? All these are good and well, all long-term solutions to the problem of poverty.

But at the end of the day, the people are still starving. If you’re the government, what do you do with your money then? A child cannot go to school if he does not have the energy to walk.

That’s the problem with policies regarding development — you have to juggle policies that address short-term needs with long-term solutions, and very often, the two conflict each other.

I found it ridiculously interesting that in this video, these celebrities are going, “We know how to stop this.” We KNOW? Do we, really?

Early warning systems. Food reserves. Better seeds and irrigation. More peace and security.

This leads to another problem that often frustrates the people in my class — terms like “peace” and “human right” are big concepts, vague ideas. How do you actualize them? How can something like “water is a human right” be enforced?

More peace and security.

What the fuck does that mean? What kind of security are you talking about, especially in the context of drought?

Better seeds and irrigation.

But do you know that modern, more efficient irrigation is very, very expensive, not yet implementable in rural areas of poor countries? And traditional irrigation is not environmentally sustainable? If a farmer went ahead and used traditional irrigation which is more affordable, eventually the soil and the environment will be so affected that crop yields will start decreasing.

Again the question — long term, or short term? Irrigation is good for solving food shortage now, but we’ll be worse off in the future. But how much are you able to think about the future when people are starving right now?

I think it’s ridiculous that our beautiful celebrities are talking about solving poverty as though there are a few simple, very obvious solutions. It’s not true at all.

And, is that really the best way? To go into a developing country, tell them what is wrong, what needs to be done?

Should we go into a rural community and say, HEY, you’re doing it wrong. Do what we do. We’ve got it right. Here’s what you should do.

In the many development classes I’ve taken, the general consensus is that a top-down method (basically where developed countries “tell” developing countries what they should do), is not culturally appropriate, is incredibly paternalistic, and at the end of the day, is not effective. At least, less effective than having the communities themselves be involved in problem-identification and decision-making (grassroots, bottom-up).

Of course, there are some people in my class, particularly the ones who’ve never left the comfort of America for the realities of a developing country, still unknowingly, unintentionally suggest “solutions” that are very top-down in nature.

In one example, we were talking about international food aid needing to be culturally appropriate. And this guy goes, “Why does it matter? If someone is starving and you give them food, they should just take it. Why should it be food that they value? They should eat what is given and available to them.”

I was horrified. So were two girls from South Asia. You can’t go into a community, even if it’s a starving one, and give them food that you think is okay just because YOU like it. In India, cows have religious significance; cows are not food. In some communities, eating a cow isn’t even an option. Just because it’s good for YOU, doesn’t make it okay for everyone. You might as well tell them to eat bricks. You can’t go to a completely different culture that values vastly different things from you and impose your own values on them. I feel as though it’s hard for some Americans I know to escape their ethnocentricity.

I understand that everyone in my class, everyone in the video, mean well. Everyone wants to see poverty reduced. But it’s the approach that we use to solve food insecurity that’s the big problem.

Just taking a food security class shows that you are aware, that you care, that you want to do something about it. Just being in that video shows that they are aware, that they care, that they (hopefully) are doing something about it.

But it’s not that easy, we can’t just go in thinking we’re doing a good thing, when we might not be. That’s all I’m saying.


Click here to sign the petition to ask the leaders of G20 to keep to their promises of addressing poverty.

One International Petition

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Maybe I’ll make use of my Emo Quota in some other post.

I have to clean off all this shits that Life is hurling at me at dizzying speeds.

One of these shits comes in the form of the high likelihood of me not being able to go on that fall break service trip to a Native American tribe, due to a different one big shit that had hit me square in the face earlier.

This means that it is likely I’ll be here over fall break (which is next week), not having anything to do.

Oh Life. Such a pain in the ass right now.

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