Traveling to Discover Humanity, not Poverty

In the Critical Development Forum, we are constantly debating whether travel and/or volunteer service  to the global South is necessary to become a “global citizen” and develop solidarity with the globally poor and marginalized.

Inevitably, we reflect back on our own experiences. Most of us who traveled have the same story of being shocked by the depths of poverty and suffering and coming back deeply disturbed by the injustice of it all. Indeed, this is what I’ve often told people as I described my path to activism. (I even mention something like that in the first post of this blog.)

Yet as I read through my old journals from working with Engineers Without Borders in Bolivia – my first real experience abroad in the global South – I realize that I have my own story backwards.

Travel in the global South helped me discover the humanity of the poor, not their suffering.

From my journal, dated 9/8/08, about a week into the trip:

(These are the unedited thoughts of an 18 year old engineering student with no social, cultural, historical, or ethical preparation for a trip into rural Bolivia, so please excuse me if the tone is a little patronizing and puts development into a chronological box.)

The people of Yanayo truly remind me of what I imagine Afghanistan to be like. The people are so nice and unbelievably cute…The most amazing thing for me, in a nutshell, is how similar they are to you and I. They laugh, they giggle, they dream, they are human. Yet for some reason or another they have been born into a place so poor that, if you took away the $2/month electricity they can barely afford anyway, could have just as easily been mistaken for a village two millenia ago. Literally. I swear it’s like traveling back in time to an almost perfectly intact ancient civilization. Why was I so surprised when Jesusa, a 31 year old native, smiled and giggled? We are all so similar.

Jesusa on the road

This lesson – seeing a desperately poor person happy and laughing stuck with me forever. I can still remember my surprise watching Jesusa giggle as we bounced along in the 4×4 on the rugged roads from Cochabamba to Yanayo. She was sitting to my left, and was laughing at a joke from Donee. It is so vivid in my mind – few other memories stick out the same way.

Why was I so surprised to see a poor person laughing – simply being human?

I had been fed an onslaught of images and descriptions – from the media to NGOs like EWB themselves – showing and describing poverty as synonymous with suffering, sadness, and a lack of hope. Had I seen the poor in the U.S. smile and laugh? Of course – but to me that relative poverty and the extreme poverty of Bolivia were separate. And relative poverty was familiar – extreme poverty was unknown and the images I saw of the “starving children in Africa” were always nameless – robbed of a human identity.

(A fascinating analysis of the images used by NGOs – in particular the way the namelessness dehumanizes the poor – is here.)

This realization – that the poor were human, and often quite happy and hopeful despite obvious struggles, is perhaps the strongest motivation I carry with me today as I struggle to find a way to fight global injustice. Yes, experiencing – if only transiently – the living conditions of the poor drives my understanding of injustice. But my passion to fight it comes from knowing that the poor are as human as you and I. And they deserve nothing less than we do.

Does that mean they want what we have? No. In fact, “discovering” that the poor are happy in spite of all the problems we think they have teaches us an even greater lesson: we don’t really understand their problems.

Humans are complicated. It’s a lot harder to deal with a human being than with a “poor person.” Suddenly all the preconceptions, things I think I know and assume are useless. And I have to start from scratch. Like I would with any of you to understand your hopes and dreams; your vision of “development.”

So the greatest benefit of travel in the global South may not be to bring greater awareness of the tragedy of poverty. No doubt that’s a useful corollary. But you can read about poverty in books. You can only understand humans in person.

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