These two words cannot ever be too far from each other when judging the economy of a country or culture. Emphasis on the word ‘judging.’
Disclaimer: these opinions have nothing to do with actual numbers. I suck at numbers and honestly do not understand them.
However, in the states, I think we too quickly jump to harsh conclusions about poverty. The poor are in your neighborhood, and they are outside of the borders of your country. Frankly, you have no idea what the poor look like at all. Poor is also relative to a lot of things, most of which being the perspective of where you grew up and the cultural misgivings you may have based on location and economy of that location.
“They don’t have stuffed animals! We must get some in the next container going to [insert majority world country here].”
“They still have a flip phone?!?! They must not have enough money for [iPhone or Glaxay latest models fit here].”
“They eat beans and rice all of the time, because they can’t afford anything else. We should send down some [insert American processed food item here].”
“This house we are building in [insert majority world country here] is not the best way and it has to have indoor plumbing, we should [insert American idea of building here].”
“This school is not being run effectively and it should be torn down and rebuilt. How can kids learn in this environment? We should [insert American idea of what school should be here].”
“The kids are not wearing shoes! How can they not have shoes?”
What each of these lacks is perspective on who and how people are poor in this world. Should every person in the world have a basic human right to clean water, clothes, housing, education, food, medical care and employment? Absolutely. However, the version we commonly convince ourselves of in the states has a different perspective on how each of those seven elements are addressed.
A culture with families that put food, education and housing ahead of toys for their children for hundreds of years does not make them poor. Truly, having toys that are going to mold and be continually dirty in their living environment is not realistic, and it most certainly does not make a parent bad at being a parent, quite the opposite. As well as, in Haiti their children love to play outdoors and have killer soccer skills. Seriously, these kids are soccer ninjas. We need to also consider what gifting a toy to a child looks like from the perspective of a parent in the majority world. Is it worth it to take away their dignity by providing something to their child that they have not provided or have lived without? With perspective we start seeing the incredible value in making the parent a hero in the mind of the child, not the visiting American who is only present for a small amount of time.
In the states, we consistently have different choices of food. I run up against issues with this living in Haiti. I crave Chinese and Mexican food ALL the time, and that is WITH having an ‘American staff’ menu when teams are not here. It does not make someone poor because they like eating rice and beans, or spaghetti for breakfast. It we apply a bit of perspective, we might actually ask the residents of that country if they would eat anything else if it was available. If they are anything like the Haitians I hang out with, they really DO love rice and beans…ALL the time.
In regards to housing, we can easily judge poverty by how a culture lives. I once heard a story of a group that wanted to provide better housing, so they raised the money and built an entire community of homes. There was a lot of pride put into that accomplished endeavor. A couple of years later, they came back and found that the community was basically using the homes as barns for their animals. They had placed the front door facing the wrong direction, and their culture believes that a door should be facing a certain direction for good karma. Perspective on the poor can be made clearer when asking genuine, truth seeking questions and actually listening. Living in a mud hut doesn’t make you poor when the entire culture lives in mud huts…it actually makes it normal in their perspective.
And while we have a constant need for more shoes to fulfill requests from our pastors, the kids have shoes; they just don’t like wearing them all the time to the point that some of the boys like playing soccer barefoot. Sometimes we place judgments on cursory surface observations without asking questions, when we do ask those questions and dig a bit deeper we find that a judgment on their poverty based on what we physically see may be a bit off.
“Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. ‘That’s criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year’s wages and handed out to the poor.’ They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them…’” [Mark 14:3-8 MSG]
In Haiti, a lot of visitors easily see the surface as ‘poor.’ Does Haiti have a lot of poor? Yes. But. Haiti has a lot of issues that pour into that and fixing one aspect of their poverty does not fix all aspects, and in some cases makes another aspect even worse. Based on American ideals, consider that the person who gets labeled as poor on the street does not have that opinion about themselves, but does know of someone who is worse off. There have been a lot of countries, organizations and people trying to ‘help’ Haiti’s poor for decade after decade. Of course, all done in their ideals and perspectives of what poor is and what is a basic human right. A basic human right does not include putting air conditioning in orphanages and making sure the lawn is the ideal perfection of green. In trying to help, many refuse to look at the perspective of the indigenous people, and most completely toss out letting them be empowered to make those decisions based on their own culture.
Many times I’ve wondered if no majority world citizen ever saw what the states physically looked like, would they still think it was the promised land? We know it’s not, but they’ve been made to think it is. I’ve gotten into this debate with many Haitians. Instead, would they be more content at seeing transformation in their own country?
Obviously, today’s word struck a chord with me. Many may brush it off as, ‘She is the crazy one who chooses to live in Haiti.’ Yes, yes I am. And I LOVE it. The world tries to solve the monetary problem of the poor, but what if the real problem isn’t monetary? Money will always be mismanaged, corrupt and lost in majority world countries. Money is not going to fix poverty. Donating enough rice to put rice growers out of business will also not fix poverty. Not seeing where relief ends and sustainability begins will perpetuate the expectation that everything should be provided, and that definitely does not fix poverty.
Jesus himself says the poor will always be among us and we can work ourselves into the ground trying to fix it, but when the core problem is sin of all kinds on both sides we have a responsibility to see each others’ perspective through a cultural lens and point out value in each other’s cultures. Well, I suppose that even depends on perspective, but I hope you hear a piece of God’s heart within these words as well because reconciling with God and allowing that to transform you will work towards the Kingdom God is building here. And friends, in that kingdom…poverty of all kinds is eradicated.