Thursday, September 23, 2010

Where are the poor?

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There is no doubt that the UN MDGs summit has been a success. It should be noted that compelling world leaders to make poverty a priority is no little achievement. This is a cause worth celebrating, although we should not forget that similar promises have been made in the past—with little corresponding realization.

However, since I arrived in New York, several questions have crossed my mind. But the most striking and the one which makes me a little uncomfortable is the lack of the other voice—that of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. At best, they are represented by their countless pictures flashing on the television screens and contained in informational pamphlets.

The majority of us here, be it presenters and attendees, have little real life contact with poverty. They are drawn from the highly educated, celebrities and world leaders. While we may have a big heart for social change, I think it is worth asking why poor people aren’t welcome at such events.

I am realizing that humanitarianism in the west has become a sexy brand. Also, a highly racialized one. Poverty and inequality are conceptualized in raw racial terms, and the whiter your skin pigment is, the better your situation is presumed to be. Black corresponds with poverty and all that it represents.

That is why in almost all pamphlets and documents distributed by the various organizations to me, the images contained inside are almost always of the “black” race. It might be an emaciated child crying, a HIV-infected woman at the verge of death. Not to mention names, but there is one particular organization that perfected this conceptualization. The organization, although raising awareness on the need for education around the globe, preferred to use only pictures of disadvantaged black Africans throughout their many pamphlets.

Granted, there is so much poverty in African countries and it is true that black people tend to be at the lower end in most countries. And it is perhaps hard to tell this story without portraying its photographic reality. After all, aren’t the pictures a representation of the reality?

I believe we can move a step further and perhaps address the problem of poverty as a concern for all humanity. One that affects the rich and the poor, the knowledgeable and the ignorant. Where I come from, we have a tradition that believes in Ubuntu—that our humanity depends on that of others. This will help us avoid the “dangers of telling a single story”.

But back to the gist of my essay. How can we integrate ordinary people into the process of development? Is it that people do not have a voice or is it that they are not given a platform?

It is true that some of the attendees, like the world leaders are elected official. To that extent, it can be said that they represent the people. However, anyone remotely familiar with politics knows that you often need to be someone before you get elected. If people were to meet somewhere to discuss my fate, I would surely want to be there and to be heard not just seen. This is one way of promoting ownership and sustainability of the MDGs.

My hope is that such events in the future will try to balance participation, incorporating more indigenous people and more from minority groups. I do not think that poverty can be solved while we continue to marginalize the voice of the poor. This is an area that has been debated for a long time, but more debate is critically needed.

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