Make All this Talk of “History” History

One of the big UK charities is running a new spin on the now familiar “make poverty history” slogan. They’re pulling the “over” out of poverty to urge the public to end poverty. The organization encourages you to visit its website to become part of this “poverty over” movement, reminding us that poverty is man-made and so ultimately man can end it. The campaign is eye catching, emotive stuff, an accomplishment in a cynical world awash with charity appeals. But I’m afraid it failed to rally me. I feel extremely grumpy in the face of such noble ambition, but the notion of poverty one day being “over” leaves me with too many questions that campaigners have yet to answer.

Like a shared definition of poverty. How would you define it? People who cannot meet their basic needs for shelter and food? People who struggle to improve their lives? Poverty is, of course, a relative condition: poor people in London might seem quite comfortable compared to the poor of Vietnam. Or perhaps vice versa? And urban poor have always struck me as worse off than rural poor, who can live meagerly but quite naturally off the land. So lumping people together in this amorphous category of “poor” makes it difficult to determine how to assist them. Or whether we actually should assist them.

That’s right, I said it. Are all “poor” people really in need of our collective assistance? One of my colleagues told me how he grew up “poor” in Ireland without any idea that’s how the world labeled him. He thought his way of life was completely normal. As he grew older and encountered all the pity and disdain we reserve for non middle class people, he resented it. We assume that everyone who has very little is sad, pathetic, and poorly treated. But having worked across Africa with thousands of people whom the world would certainly classify as poor, I know that in many cases they’re “better off” than we are. It seems blasphemous to suggest that not all poor people require our help, but maybe if we actually knew some of them that’s what they’d tell us. The reality is that most of us who are so concerned with addressing poverty don’t actually know any poor people. Instead they exist in this anonymous category we call “poor”.

So I find these campaigns vague and presumptuous…and perhaps most disappointingly way too wooly. The so-called “plans” for ending poverty – where they actually exist – rarely offer anything particularly clear or inventive. Most of us could probably point to some causes of poverty. Said UK charity highlights six key contributors to poverty (most focused on developing world rather than domestic poverty – we usually are more worried about poor people abroad than those in our own cities, but I address that in another piece). But the website doesn’t say how the organization will address these issues, and certainly not in the comprehensive way required to render the world free from any form of poverty. The focus of most of these campaigns seems more about initiating dialogue than executing activities. And dialogue is admirable…but if you keep making claims that poverty ending is possible, eventually you’re going to have to say how to do it.

In fact, we so need real public dialogue about poverty, an issue that most have a difficult time acknowledging, much less addressing. A sparking debate about what poverty is in all its different forms, and what members of the public can and should actually do to alleviate the poverty of strangers. Why poor people at home are somehow culpable and frightening, while poor people abroad are blameless victims. Yes, please give me more of that!

But yet another flimsy, feel good campaign filled with definitive verbs, but little else that is definitive? I really wish that show would be over.

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