In my last post, I looked at the impact of short term missions on the participants, and the common response that goes something like:
“The people I met were so happy yet they had so little. It made me realize I should really be more grateful for what I have.”
While I think that being more grateful in general is a worthwhile goal to pursue, this response of gratitude after spending time in a materially poor community is incomplete.
Gratitude is incomplete because it only requires us to change the way we think about our present situation, without challenging us to examine if there is anything that needs to be changed about our present situation.
Witnessing poverty should cause us to struggle with difficult questions:
Why is this community poor? How do my own community and my lifestyle contribute to this situation?
The causes of poverty are extremely complex, and I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions. These are questions that I have been struggling to make sense of for over a decade.
It’s not enough to talk about giving men fish, or teaching them to fish. We have to ask who owns the lake? Who is allowed to fish there? Who benefits most from the fish that are caught? Is the environment of the lake being taken care of to allow the fish to thrive, or is it being polluted so that life and therefore business cannot be sustained?
While there may be some people who are poor because of laziness or their own character flaws, the majority of people living in poverty are stuck in oppressive systems and unjust regulations that make it very difficult to get ahead.
There are complex global factors that perpetuate poverty. The cliché of a global village is the reality that we live in today, and I want to share two examples of how our lifestyles in the West affect global poverty.
As a result of trying to keep up with ever changing fashion, many of us continually buy new clothes and replace old ones – not because they are worn out, but because they are out of style. In order to produce clothes so cheaply, the majority of our ready to wear clothes are made in sweatshop factories in other countries, where workers are exposed to low wages, unsafe working conditions, and long hours. Because competition for textile factories has become so fierce, contractors have to compromise on safety standards and illegally low wages for their workers in order to win contracts. Our demand for cheap and fashionable clothing drives this competition and results in sweatshops that oppress workers and perpetuate poverty.
Many of us feel better when at least we donate our old clothing to thrift stores and charities. But what happens to all of these discarded clothes? Tons and tons of our discarded clothing is sent to countries around the world, where they are sold cheaply in second hand markets. Although this does create employment for some people in terms of those who sell clothes in the market, the influx of cheap clothing inhibits the development of local textile industries which would benefit local communities a lot more than secondhand markets. Locally made clothing simply cannot compete with cheap used clothing. Kenya, for example, used to have a thriving local textile industry until cheap imported secondhand clothing arrived.
Another example of how those of us from the West impact global poverty is the issue of environmental degradation and global climate change. If you have any doubts that global climates are changing, just talk to some rural Ugandan farmers. Rainfall seasons used to be very predictable – although there would always be some difficult seasons where there was not as much rain, the actual time that the rains began and ended were very predictable, which allowed farmers to know exactly when to plant. In the past decade, the climate has changed and the rains have become much more unpredictable. As a result, small scale farmers are the ones who are hit the hardest with the unpredictability of the rains, as planting at the wrong time can lead to a smaller harvest or even a complete crop failure. For a family dependent on agriculture, like over 70% of Ugandans, a bad growing season can result in debilitating poverty.
Even though it is the lifestyle of those of us from the West that is disproportionately contributing to global climate change, it is the poorest communities in the world who are most affected by the effects of climate change.
For those of us from affluent communities, it’s easy for us to point fingers at poor communities and say “its them – they are lazy, and their government is corrupt, and they are stuck in a poverty mentality.” It’s a lot harder for us to point those fingers back at ourselves and realize “it’s also us.Our demand for cheap and excessive consumer goods is contributing to unjust labor practices around the world, and our lifestyle contributes to environmental degradation which disproportionately affects the global poor, and our country is one of many that enforce unjust trade regulations, and was involved in a history of injustice and oppression that still has economic repercussions.”
This is a complex issue and there are no easy answers, and it’s extremely challenging to live outside of the “systems” that make up our communities, regardless of how oppressive we realize they are. While I have changed some aspects of my lifestyle in response to the intricacies of poverty I have wrestled with, there are just as many aspects of my lifestyle that I struggle to change.
My point in writing this is to draw attention to these issues, and to suggest that spending time in a materially poor community should cause us to examine these hard questions and realize our own contribution to the problem, rather than just to be grateful that we have an abundance while others do not. The solution to poverty doesn’t lie in those of us from affluent communities focusing on how we can change poor communities, it also involves us being willing to honestly and critically examine our own contribution to the problem and commit to change our own communities.