Poverty is not misery

by David Week on 21 September 2010

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Many events and situations can make people miserable:

  • natural disasters, in which they lose their homes, livelihoods, and loved ones
  • internment in refugee camps with uncertain futures and time frames
  • conflicts in which they are daily put in fear of their lives.

But poverty, in and on of itself, does not cause misery.

I met a photographer once at a dinner party once. We started talking. We talked so long that all the other guests left, and finally the hosts said: “We’re going to bed: turn the lights out and lock the door when you leave.”

He told me about being hired to produce photographs for the annual calendar of A Very Famous NGO. They flew him to Bangladesh. There, he said, he found he had two major problems:

  1. Finding people that looked miserable enough to meet the Very Famous NGOs brief
  2. Once he’d found them, getting the laughing, smiling, clown kids out of line between his camera and said miserable looking people.

Unfortunately, the whole face of aid has been tinged by the image of misery. Humanitarian aid certainly often deals with people in despair. But development aid does not fit this picture. As a development practitioner, I am confronted with this fact regularly. On one of my first assignments outside of Papua New Guinea (where I cannot today recall ever meeting a miserable person) was to Tamil Nadu in India. There, a colleague and I were tasked with doing a settlement layout for a self-help housing project for rickshaw-wallahs. In preparation for the task, we visited some of the urban slums where they currently lived. I remember being shocked at the smiles: not just children, but adults, too.

I was even more shocked when I returned to Sydney, and walked down Pitt Street. For the first time, I looked at people’s faces as I passed them on the street. There was engrained stress. There was tacit misery. I still have a project in the back of mind: to take random photographs of faces in an Indian slum and an Australian city, and exhibit them side by side.

Last week, in Lesotho, I visited a school. This is what greeted us as we pulled up in our vehicle. This is a reminder that poverty is not misery.

  • MJ

    I agree with your basic argument, but I also suspect many of the poor people you were engaging with were happy and smiley because you had come there to help them, they understood that, and wanted to show their gratitude. It may be that they actually are happier than city slickers in Sydney, but your experiences do not amount to very much evidence. For a really nice take on the photographing poverty debate see http://waterwellness.ca/2010/04/28/perspectives-of-poverty/ (HT: Barefoot Economics).

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