How Can You End Poverty if You Haven’t Listened to It?
By Anjana Sreedhar and Kate Otto, Everyday Ambassador
Flyers and brochures featuring slack-jawed African infants, bellies protruding. A Southeast Asian child in tattered clothes gasping for water sits beside a polluted river. A group of girls from the Middle East stand barely taller than the babies resting on their hips.
These are only some of the “stock photos” associated with international development and poverty in developing countries. It is after viewing these photos and reading cherry-picked statistics about high infant mortality and low access to education that many well-meaning Westerners become enamored with Poverty—most of all, their role in ‘ending’ it.
For many people, the instinctual response to heartbreaking anecdotes is to do something, and quickly: many make a donation, others share poverty stats on their social media, and some even travel internationally to volunteer in low-income communities.
While compassion for fellow global citizens is commendable, problems arise when we respond to images of suffering with a “rescue” mentality (also known as “White Savior Complex”); by thinking that “we know best” how to help someone in poverty, simply because we ourselves are not currently living in poverty. Such attitudes are problematic because they do little to empower the people living in impoverished communities, or to change the circumstances that limit their lives.
You might be wondering:
How should I respond, then, to images of suffering? What meaningful role could I play in ending poverty?
Our best answer: be an Everyday Ambassador.
You might already be an everyday ambassador if, one, you are an “everyday person” without any magical powers to zap away poverty, and if, two, you nevertheless desire to connect with, support, and better understand people living a life that is very much unlike yours. Do you see hoards of refugees fleeing their war-torn neighborhoods and feel devastated? Do you hear about children still dying of malnourishment in a world where most supermarkets and restaurants throw away food, and feel the burn of injustice?
If you’re saying Yes so far, you’re already a member of the “Everyday Ambassador” community that has been growing since we began our work in 2012—and has expanded greatly since we published our book Everyday Ambassador in 2015, a guide for anyone aspiring to make a difference in the world today.
Everyday Ambassadors want to be of service to the world, but before we jump to take action on solving the problems that plague our world, we always, always, always do one thing first:
Listening is our golden rule: how can we possibly expect to help solve a problem if we don’t deeply understand it? Listening ensures that we can connect across our differences—language, culture, religion, lifestyle, politics—and see why certain problems persist. Listening is key, whether we are conducting interviews in developing countries, or sitting at home scrolling through content posted by people from the countries and communities we aim to help.
For example, in January we ran a webinar with Priya Iyer, CEO of Tulalens,an EA partner organization, on the link between human connection and data. Priya explained how creating a human connection with the expectant mothers in slum communities in India for whom Tulalens crowdsources health clinic information showed her and her team that they were not adequately meeting needs. The women for whom the product was designed did not feel that their voice was being heard. Soon after, Tulalens emphasized a human centered design on their surveys and information collection to ensure that the communities they were working with felt that their input mattered.
Or consider Global Health Corps (GHC), an organization dedicated to eradicating global health disparities and one of EA’s oldest partners, who published an incredibly insightful piece about “bridging the gap between data and faces” in Uganda. One GHC Fellow noticed that a Community Health Worker in her community kept missing her appointments visiting pregnant women, which at first glance seemed negligent. But upon further listening and conversation, the Fellow learned that this worker went through a painful Cesarean delivery of her own, and needed to rest before heading back to work. That changed the entire approach the Fellow took toward addressing the matter.
Everyday Ambassador is not just a thriving community of social change organizations actively working to end poverty and associated injustices, it is also a broader social movement that asks you to do one, single thing in response to poverty, every day: Listen.
Listen to different perspectives of people living in the conditions that you want to help alleviate. Listen to hear what they hope your role could be in the bigger picture. Relying on statistical analysis is not enough; it leaves out the crucial narrative piece that is necessary to understand concerns and circumstances. Only when we listen to the concerns of communities affected by poverty, can we work constructively alongside them to develop ideas that make the most sense for them.
Notably, being an everyday ambassador does not mean that you will, everyday, save the lives of mothers and children in Uganda or empower farmers in Latin America with environmentally responsible seeds (although we have fantastic EA Partners who do just that!) Being an everyday ambassador means practicing kindness and patience with everyone you meet, everyday. Listening will not immediately feed hungry children or improve access to better schools, but it is the first step in using the human spirit and resilience to connect us across our differences.
As an everyday ambassador, you respond to problems with an open mind, ready to listen and learn. You refuse to engage in stereotypes or assumptions about living in poverty. You do your level best to deeply understand situations of global poverty by doing your research, and you realize that just because you have increased access to digital information, new articles and blogs are no substitute for a full, lived experience.
What is our role in the global battle against poverty? Before thinking up innovative ideas, before traveling to far-off lands, before even making donations to charities that pull at our heartstrings: before anything else, and above all, we must be Listeners. We must start by listening to those who are living in poverty, directly and deeply, and moving forward only after building this relationship, this foundation.