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.

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