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What is Poverty?

Friday, Nov. 19, 2010

The Human Development Index published a report ranking countries from best to worst based upon their economic stability, frequency of violence, job availability, happiness, ect. In the middle of this list was El Salvador. And with half of the countries of the world fairing better and half worse, El Salvador is the average, a fairly good representation of the world. In some regard, this makes you realize that the world is a pretty sucky place and we often overlook our American privilege and assume its normalcy. But, on the other hand, this report calls attention to our misinformed expectations, our ideas of what we think poverty should look like.

Along with El Salvador comes an expectation of tragedy and a close encounter with poverty. And as residents from the United States, there is no doubt that this is true. But sometimes we get mad at a Salvadoran for having a flat screen TV or think badly of a business that appears to have nice facilities. We say that these things, things that do not fit into our vision of poverty, are out of place in a country as poor as El Salvador. And when we spend time with these nice people with these nice things in these nice places, we feel that we are jeopardizing our experience, that we are not experiencing El Salvador because we are not experiencing what we believe is poverty. But these nice people and these nice things in these nice places are as much a part of El Salvador as any of the violence and struggle. And by feeling disgust toward a Salvadoran that is lucky enough to have the resources for a nice life, we only continue the stereotype of the elitist American, only traveling to impoverished countries to pity those less fortunate.

But it's not just the classic hypocritical situation of blaming another for their wealth when you are just as well off. What I've seen is that we are denying El Salvador the opportunity to be what it truly is with the expectation that it live up to the degree of tragedy we have been told it offers. Even after three months in this country, we still find ourselves making comments about the nice neighborhood down the street and the shoes of the women at our university. We say that we won't shower or wash our clothes because we are living in solidarity with the people of El Salvador, when in reality, Salvadorans are almost paranoid about personal hygiene and would be horrified if they knew how little we clean ourselves. We all own water filters, quick dry pants, and mosquito nets from REI in order to survive the jungle of El Salvador, when all we're really doing is emphasizing the American idea of spending a lot of money to be prepared to go out into the world and pretend to have nothing.

And while this attitude makes us extra sensitive to the poverty around us, we are only beginning to learn what poverty means and are in no place to judge anyone for their relation to it. And our attitudes are ill intentioned, using the right means to reach the wrong end. It seems that any trip taken to an impoverished country is not taken for its luxury, but for its impact factor. And therefore, we want to see the poverty, experience the struggle, and feel the disease. But we do this so that we can say that we did once we return to our comforts and can add 'experiencing poverty' to our resumes. And although we don't hope for struggle and despair in our world, a cell phone or a flat screen TV ruin the dramatics. I'm beginning to think that in order to get rid of this fictional idea, we need to replace the word poverty with the word reality, and thereby eliminate the us versus them tendencies that a division between rich and poor create. Because we don't want this idealistic version of poverty that is used as some kind of inner-conscience for those who can afford to be exposed to it. And I don't know how to stop this kind of thinking, as it is hard to watch a Salvadoran use a Blackberry while hearing a story of another who cannot afford food. However, maybe just an awareness of the discrepancy will be enough.

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Tags: Diana Fitts (El Salvador)

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