Author: Jill LaLonde, Executive Director
As a Development Studies graduate student, I arrived in Entebbe, Uganda, my first trip to Africa. I spent a day making my way north by bus to Adjumani and Moyo Districts, where I would spend the next six weeks researching public health measures to treat various neglected tropical diseases in communities that had been displaced by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that has perhaps been Africa’s cruelest and most enduring armed rebel group over the past few decades. My general observation was that Uganda was poor. What I saw mirrored pictures I had seen growing up – kids in torn clothing, no shoes, leaking thatched roofs, swollen bellies –Northern Uganda was so obviously living in poverty.
“I hope by writing this and continuing to learn from others, we can better recognize our own individual blind spots, and also the strengths and opportunities we have for bettering our global community. “
In the years since that first visit to Uganda, I’ve had the great privilege to work as an international development practitioner. I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the complexities of our work and to pick up more nuanced ways of talking about it. As I reflect back on my early days in development, I think I could have done a better job at explaining my work and the industry to others. I hope by writing this and continuing to learn from others, we can better recognize our own individual blind spots, and also the strengths and opportunities we have for bettering our global community. I’ve come to think that dissecting the way we talk about our work is a good first step, including exploring our use of the word “poverty.”
As an economic statistic, in the true sense of measuring income and thus a person’s ability to meet their own basic needs, and as a way to measure and monitor changes and trends, talking about poverty can be useful and productive. However, in the international development context, “poverty” is oftentimes used as a default to talk about large groups of people we are working with, such as in “addressing poverty” or even labelling “poor people.” I’ve come to believe that generalizing such complicated issues limits solutions.
As globally engaged citizens, when we talk about people being in poverty, I hope we can be mindful of the weight this language carries when used without context. A danger in using vague language on its own is that it can neglect the complexity and uniqueness of each individual’s situation – the “why” they are poor – reasons that might include a history of conflict, lack of income-generating opportunities, or dysfunctional schools, amongst countless others. If we over-generalize, we might unintentionally imply that poverty has a simple fix.
Following on this, we might best serve the global community by being compassionate without invoking pity. With the latter, we risk perpetuating a savior’s complex, feeding the idea of us and them, and our power and duty to correct injustices. The thing is, this desire to help is what powers global good, so we don’t want to stifle it. However, we can shift and focus our language to highlight the inherent resilience, hard work and untapped strengths of those we seek to partner with. We can talk about partnerships, working together, and building community.
There is no shortage of complex, global challenges to solve, so let’s maximize this good intention so it can have the biggest possible positive outcome. There are two things that I have been trying to change in my own communication, and I hope other well-intentioned individuals will consider them too.
First, I am working to be more specific about the challenges we are trying to solve. I think we can all be advocates in conveying the complexity rather than the simplicity of international development, and we will in turn think more broadly and creatively about solutions. When talking about poverty, let’s talk about the things that lead someone to be impoverished in the economic sense. We can talk about lack of opportunity for individuals to earn income, for women to thrive, or for entrepreneurs to obtain capital for their business. The better we can convey the complexity of the problem, the more holistic, empowering, and successful the solutions will be.
Secondly, I hope we can continue to drive ourselves and push others to do development with dignity. We can give agency to individuals by asking rather than assuming what they need to better their own lives, and how we can support them in reaching their goals. We can bolster their abilities and opportunities to lead their own development, to own the solutions, and to be resilient. We can tell stories that demonstrate the innate creativity and resiliency in people. This is why I love working for OneVillage Partners; we build the capacity of individuals and communities to determine their own solutions, and to set their own definitions of success.
After arriving at Ogolo IDP Camp in Northern Uganda, I was fortunate to have had the encouragement from a wonderful advisor and anthropologist to not just observe but to do everything I could to get to know people. When I left, the word “poverty” was no longer the best descriptor of this community for me. What I learned was that a community of strangers, brought together by their forcible displacement from the Lord’s Resistance Army violence, was demonstrating incredible resilience, creating order, sharing fertile land, mobilizing themselves to treat disease, and working tirelessly to get kids back to school. The relief organizations had come and gone, but despite that, the community had come together to figure things out the best they could with the resources they had. There was an incredible sense of community, of relationships and desire to help others. I wanted my friends and family to see the resilience that I saw, and this language was a better way to convey that.