The Weird Western Myth of the "Happy Poor"

Saturday, June 21, 2014

After finishing my teaching contract in South Korea, I resolved to get serious about finally launching a (paid) career in global health and started applying for international health jobs in earnest. One of those positions included the Global Health Corps fellowship. Despite my lack of Ivy-league degrees and unpaid internships (because not all of us have money trees growing in the backyard), my French ability is usually attractive to international recruitment programs, so I made it to the semi-final stage in my application for a position with a radio program based in Bujumbura, Burundi. One of my good friends from university, who is currently working in China, was delighted when I told her about my pending phone interview (which contrasted sharply with my family's shock and disdain that I would even consider taking a job in Africa, but I digress). "There is a small Burundian expat community here, and they are wonderful people. A couple of my friends even went to Burundi to visit their families, and they had a great time. The people there are very poor, but they are genuinely happy."

Now, my friend is not a development professional, so I don't hold the comment against her - she was only relaying what some fellow expats had shared with her, after all. But I had to bite my tongue, because these kinds of comments irritate the hell out of me. Not only is it simply not true, but it's demeaning to "the poor" in a way that I couldn't quite articulate until I came across this blog:
Poverty is not just the lack of wads of cash. It is the lack of options, choices, autonomy. It often means disease, children dying young, lack of education, illiteracy, hunger, hard labor, oppression. I don’t know many people in these circumstances for whom ‘happy’ is the primary appropriate adjective.
That the poor are happy is an easier narrative to swallow than that the poor are desperate and will flash a smile, a good attitude, and gratitude when the rich westerner has come around to offer something of short-term benefit.

The other, more nuanced and complicated narrative is that the poor have beautiful smiles and wonderful senses of humor because they are human and fabulously diverse.
Interestingly, when I shared the above blog with the same friend, she made some commentary that was quite profound:
I think what bothers me more than this phrase is when people refer to "the poor." It implies that being poor is not just about how much money you have right now, but a class distinction that is part of WHO YOU ARE. In assigning this as an identity, rather than a condition, it necessarily implies that it can't be changed. It implies an inferior state of being, construing an an imbalance of power in Talking about the "the poor" is alienating--to say that you automatically separate yourself from "those people," and lets face it, the honest truth is that for the majority of people in the world, we have all been "the poor" at some point or other in our lives.
It drives home the point that most people who make these types of comments do it unconsciously - they are just ignorant and, when pushed, are capable of being better. We as a community of development professionals just need to do more of making people aware of ingrained attitudes so they can change them.

Despite her Nobel Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi has always been a politician

Friday, June 13, 2014

Last week, NY Times columnist and foremost white in shining armor expressed his disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and hero of democracy and peaceful protests in Myanmar. Suu Kyi has been hailed as a champion of human rights and was something of an international hero during her fifteen-year, on-and-off house arrest, during which a handful of movies were made about her heroism. She finally went free for good in 2010, to much international fanfare.

She then proceeded to run for parliament, take a diplomatic tour of Europe, and push to change the constitution so she can run for president so she can do what she did when she was first imprisoned in 1990: get elected.

But Kristoff is disappointed. In his recent opinion piece, he laments Suu Kyi's abandonment of her once-noble human rights aspirations in favor of political ambition.
Aung San Suu Kyi should be one of the heroes of modern times. Instead, as her country imposes on the Rohingya Muslim minority an apartheid that would have made white supremacists in South Africa blush, she bites her tongue.

It seems as though she aspires to become president of Myanmar, and speaking up for a reviled minority could be fatal to her prospects. The moral giant has become a calculating politician.
Apparently he, and the rest of the world, missed the fact that Suu Kyi has always been a politician.
But speaking in an interview with CNN on Monday, Suu Kyi rejected suggestions that she has been forced to transition from activist to politician.

“I’m always surprised when people speak as if I’ve just become a politician. I’ve been a politician all along. I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party. And if that’s not a politician then I don’t know what is.”
To be fair, I also find it highly disappointing that she doesn't take a stronger stance against the plight of persecuted minorities like the Muslim Rohingya, whom I've written about before. I personally have admired her for a very long time, and I do wish she would use her influence to take a stand against such violence. But, as Kristoff himself astutely points out, Myanmar is incredibly complicated, and Suu Kyi needs the support of her people - the Burmese majority - to keep her position, from which she can work toward more lasting change. I agree that politicians with influence should not remain silent in the face of injustice, but it's also not fair to paint Suu Kyi as some kind of human rights sell-out.

Kristoff also brings up Obama - another Nobel laureate who, in the view of many, hasn't lived up to his prize - which, I think, drives home a very different, but important point. The lament that the Nobel Peace Prize doesn't mean what it used to is certainly not new. The original purpose of the award, as specified by Nobel, was very specific: it was to go to the person or group who had "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Now it is awarded to democracy activists (like Suu Kyi and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo), climate change groups (the IPCC and Al Gore), champions of development and women's rights, and even politicians and governments actively engaged in conflict (President Obama and the EU). All of these laureates have done commendable things, and probably deserve prizes, but do they deserve a peace prize? Maybe not.

In short, I don't object to calling Suu Kyi out on her silence in the face of injustice, but let's not make her out to be something she's not.