Packaging Poverty

We were just finishing up our conversation with Clementina when another van full of Gringos arrived. A middle-aged man in a ball cap and shades bounded over to us. “What are you all doing here?” he asked with a hint of accusation. I introduced myself and my students. I began a review of our microfinance program. And, somewhere between “no fees” and “no penalties” he lost interest.  “You know” he interrupted me. “Before we got here…,” there was a dramatic pause and a deep draw of breath “they had nothing.” He swept his hand over the small community of 30-plus families in makeshift shelters. “We built that meeting house. We built those two public restrooms. We are building that home.” He turned to place his eyes on my eyes. He removed his shades. He raised his cap. “You know without us I do not know whether or not they would have survived.”

It was my first do-gooder pissing contest. I lost. He kicked my ass. And, he did it right in front of my students. Ouch! But, he was good. The dramatic pause. The hand sweep. The good ole boy raise of the cap. The brush of the brow. The exhalation. The consternation. Hell, if I was a mission-trip-virgin his hero’s narrative may have captured my heart. It’s a good thing that I carry protection. Not the kind that fits in a wallet. I carry a copy of Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions” in my backpack.

He and I had very different understandings of our role in the story of poverty’s end. Yet, we were both in the business of selling poverty. He and his group had cameras. My students and I had cameras. They had a videographer. We had a videographer. And, every good (social) entrepreneur knows that packaging is everything. A picture of a few women wrapped in brightly colored saris can infuse the rather boring process of giving out loans with the golden glow of female empowerment! A nicely tied ribbon of logic can credibly connect the building of schools with the fight against terrorism! No more flies on the face. Abandon distended abdomens. Get rid of the emaciated cows. Turn those frowns upside down. Today, you can sell poverty to a Western audience with a smiling child. Or, even better, how about a bunch of smiling poor children running towards the camera?

We would all return home to sift through our photographs and edit our videos. We would package their poverty, transform it into a commodity, and deliver it to our respective audiences. And, since consumption is an emotional process, we would infuse these images with a narrative. We would speak for this community. We would share our respective understandings of their story to our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow classmates. I know the story that my students and I told. Having visited his organization’s homepage, I am sure that he stuck with the “they had nothing” story.

In general the stories that do-gooders tell are powerful. Our stories have the ability to do great things. Our stories can also do harm. But, how do we calculate the damage to a community’s sense of self when a bunch of gringos tell its story to bunch of other gringos? I would like to believe that the story my students and I told did the least amount of damage. I do believe that the “they had nothing” narrative is unhelpful. Yet, on our most recent trip to Honduras, almost all of the families were now living in cinder-block homes. They had four walls. They had cement floors. They had corrugated roofs. They had robust doors. With our story, we only managed to lend out a few hundred dollars and teach some financial literacy courses. With their story, this organization managed a significant transfer of wealth and infrastructure. And, they did it in less than three years.

Who has had the greatest impact? If we only use a material definition of poverty, then it seems that this group did. If so, then who cares if they planted a pole and raised an American flag in the middle of this small community (a Honduran flag was also on a pole but it was smaller)? And, who cares if they posted a welcome sign with their organization’s name prominently displayed and the community’s name misspelled?

Seriously, if I was struggling to provide shelter for my family, would I really give a shit how a bunch of do-gooders packaged my poverty? Would I care what a bunch of gringos 3,000 miles away think of me and my community? Maybe not. Maybe packaging only really maters to those who can afford it. Maybe. But, I know my students and I will still act as if it is everything.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (www.shawnhumphrey.com)

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