New Orleans As the gap between rich and poor widens, there is huge confusion from the uppers about what in the world are the lowers thinking and doing. I read an article the other day about the controversy in South Africa over a young family with two children who moved into a house in the settlements with their housekeeper for a month to get a feel for it all. I thought to myself. Yawn. What harm could it really cause, regardless?
On the other hand, I’m approaching the end of Nina Munk’s book called The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, and I’m not sure that I will finish because it’s so depressing. Granted it is hard to clothe Sachs as a knight in shining armor on this quest, not because of his brutal past as a proponent of severe, killing austerity programs in Bolivia, Poland, and Russia, but because he is an arrogant and narcissistic bull in the fragile china shop of the poor. Yet, I’ve read all of his books since poverty became his mission and despite my reservations, I’ve rooted for the success of his Millennium Villages Projects in Africa, because he’s right to shrillingly advocate for more dollars to be spent in development and because if you don’t have a better horse in the race, bet on the one that’s running. Unfortunately he hasn’t raised the money needed, despite the accuracy of his argument of the relative cost of so much change and his own tireless efforts. More painfully from chapter to chapter in The Idealist the failures are deeply rooted in his refusal to listen to the very people living in the villages and understand what he is seeing and hearing. We worked with his institute in New Orleans after Katrina. His books argued for community organizing and popular participation, but I could tell he didn’t understand how to do it, but was just repeating something that sounded right. We reached out to help, but he’s a busy man, but not so busy that he and the rest of us won’t feel the pain that comes in Africa from his project’s failures that are now pervasive.
Reading an op-ed in the Times entitled “Let the Poor Have Fun,” perhaps made this point better indirectly. Talking about the expansion of electricity and the internet to poor villages, the author made the case that it was OK for television sets to be plugged in before hospital incubators. One would follow the other without coercion, scolding, and top-down pressure. Believe me, I’ve sidled up to a computer in cybercafés all over the world in the slums of India, the Philippines, Kenya, and Mexico and watched my seatmates pitch in their coins so that 3 or 4 could crowd around movies or video games at top volume, and never thought twice, because I’m Ok with them learning skills, and it takes skills to be able to learn to use the computer or cellphones or whatever for work, health and life.
The poor aren’t asking to be instructed. If you bother to listen to them, they’re asking to be enabled. With the enough money and tools, people rise to the task. It doesn’t take moving into their homes, throwing millions into crops they don’t want to grow and can’t sell, or wrapping up bitter pills in hard candy, it takes listening, and then working with people to make their change happen their way. Start simple and finish strong. It’s hard, but it works.