A photograph: an emaciated, starving child clinging to his clearly desperate mother. Most likely an African country, but could as well have been a picture from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, or South America. However, it wasn’t the picture’s content that struck me most, as it sat there in the midst of my Facebook news feed, but its caption: “You think your life is hard?” An address to us in the West, the home of the First World Problem; a stark juxtaposition of the lives of the poor with our lives of creature-comforts and material abundance.
This little piece of text rattled all the wrong chords in me.
You see, by painting this little microcosm of global poverty, all this type of portrait achieves is to perpetuate a culture of guilt in regards to our apparent position of privilege in contrast to their need for help. In doing so, the people portrayed, the “poor,” become nothing more than detached, dehumanised objects of comparison. The way these images are circulated creates a dangerous power dynamic – we, in a way, are elevated from their suffering, voyeuristically peering down into the dark reality of their situation from a position of privileged security. It becomes a case of us and them – we, sitting in the full-bellied luxury of comfort in front of our computer screens, contrasted with the impoverished ‘nameless and faceless’ living in extreme poverty.
This is symptomatic of our distorted Western perception of global poverty, an image severely tainted by the way that the issue is painted in the media and advertising campaigns. Images of malnourished babies in Cambodia, scarred child soldiers in the Congo, and bone-thin men in rags have come to characterise our ideas of what life for the poor looks like. And, indeed, there is no escaping that this is the dark reality of poverty. However, it appears to me that these typified images and descriptors of “poor people” have come to be a stereotyped caricature. The “poor” are treated, in a way, like a detached, remote category of people defined only by their circumstantial destitution, and not as infinitely valuable individuals just like ourselves. This characterised image of a stark material and circumstantial division is the paintbrush that has daubed a limiting, degrading portrait of people trapped in poverty.
These sorts of images, deliberately contrived to evoke sympathy and guilt, and perhaps inspire our wallets, has painted the picture of people who are necessitous, deprived, under-privileged, and absolutely helpless. This inspires a response to poverty out of a kind of benign elitism – the rich giving to the poor, the us giving to them, from a sense of misplaced duty or “doing our bit” or guilt at what we see.
As such, our response to poverty can become more about feeding our own sense of a saviour complex than it is about truly engaging with their need as real people, who didn’t choose to be born in the situation they are in, who are human beings equal in worth to us. They are in need of help, yes, but they cannot be defined by helplessness. They are need of material aid, yes, but their poverty cannot be the measuring line of their worth. This image of the caricature “Poor Person” is a dangerous contrivance, a face for well-meaning charity hiding a dark underbelly of patronisation of those who are poor, and a damaging perception of people as being defined by their social and economic need rather than their worth as individual people.
There is no us. There is no them. There is one family of broken people, beautiful people, infinitely valuable people, sharing one world. No one is more than the other.
Our generosity cannot be inspired by a misguided sense that we are sympathetic gods putting the world to rights. Neither can it be about being guilty Western missionaries doing our conscience-inspired bit to put the worlds to right. We are in a privileged position to be radical harbingers of justice, indeed; but that justice must be inspired from a position of loving equality, not the elevated “us” descending to the deprived “them”. Just as we had no power over being born into privilege, so those living below the poverty line had no choice over their circumstantial material depravity. We have no right to what we have. This radical reassessment of wealth and power should change the way we interact with global injustice. We cannot be ivory-tower watchmen, idly dispensing our spare cash to appease our own consciences by sympathetically responding to some oft-heard about, never-met idea of the poor person.
It is not feelings of guilt or patronising sympathy that people living below the poverty line need. It is solidarity, inspiring radical acts of sacrifice from a position of humble love rather than elevated pride that should characterise our response to poverty. We are not rich gods descending to distant, lesser peoples out of pity; no, we are brothers and sisters positioned with a material abundance, when our other brothers and sisters have a need. We are no less equals because some have more than others; we are family.