Experience it for yourself

Last week I watched “Famous, rich and in the slums”, a television show to get the British public in the mood for giving as the annual Comic Relief jamboree approaches. Lenny Henry and three other celebrities went to live for a week in Kibera slum in Kenya. The poverty is dirty and desperate. 20% of children in Kibera die before they reach the age of five. This kind of “immersion” exercise is occasionally recommended for people seeking to understand more about the reality of poverty, including aid officials and politicians. 50 Conservative MPs visited Rwanda in 2007 where they slept in huts and did manual labour.

When people come back talking about life changing experiences they are sometimes treated with cynicism. Critics say the visits don’t teach you what it really means to be poor, because being poor means not being able to leave a week later in business class. Poverty is insecurity and lack of opportunity; affluent people will never really understand that. But the cynics are wrong. Of course you can never understand poverty by spending a few days with poor people. But you have to start somewhere, and there is no better place to begin.

Most people in rich countries have no idea what extreme poverty is like and knowing a little bit is better than knowing nothing at all. When I was 18 I worked for six months with street children in Medellin, the second biggest city in Colombia. I was meant to be helping them but, predictably, did very little of concrete value and spent most of my time being ridiculed for my bad Spanish and having my clothes stolen. But what I saw there changed my life. I had never seen anything more tragic than young kids with nothing, rolling about in the gutter, high on glue because they had no hope. You might say that poverty closer to home is tragic as well, and it is. But I made a decision there and then to dedicate my life to doing something about this affront to human dignity. Of course, the important thing is not actually being there in person, but the ability to empathise. Most people never see extreme poverty first hand, but are still able to empathise, just by hearing about it, or seeing it on television.

At university I set up a charity called Students Supporting Street Kids with a friend. The idea was to bring the reality of street children’s lives to student common rooms, and to make some money. (It’s still going by the way if you want to get involved.) Strange as it may seem, some people see tragic poverty at first hand every day but remain unsympathetic. The elite and much of the middle class in very poor countries are often less concerned than people thousands of miles away about poverty in their own countries. Humans have a worrying ability to blinker themselves to inconvenient realities. Empathy is not enough. Nor is anger. Once the heart is activated, the head must be applied. During his time in Kibera slum, Reggie Yates, one of the celebrities that I had never heard of in the Comic Relief programme, says, “Now all I want to do is understand”. That is the same first step that many people make the first time they are personally confronted with the reality of our unjust world.

The anti-poverty industry is a multi-billion dollar money spinner. You can go to conferences and talk all day about growth, trade, debt restructuring, aid effectiveness, tax holidays, international financial architecture and supply chains and then, as you’re leaving the posh hotel you’ve been staying in, realise that you haven’t once even mentioned the word poverty, let alone thought about poor people. The longer you stay in the anti-poverty business the less likely you are to meet anyone who is poor. The danger is that you slowly forget about the real lives you are supposed to be trying to change for the better. And that influences the kind of decisions being made. The more decision-makers see stark injustices for themselves, the more likely they are to make decisions in favour of the poorest. Immersing politicians in the reality of poverty, even for a short while, can be money very well spent.

Johnny Glennie

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