I hate the word poverty. Not because it reminds me of the destitution at my country’s doorstep—I’m well-travelled and fairly unfazed by that stuff. Nor do I hate it because the word is shamelessly pelted at you by activists trying to make you feel bad when really, that school assembly was already torturous enough to begin with. No, I hate the word poverty because it’s now a buzzword used to oversimplify a phenomenon encompassing a wealth of diverse and intricately linked problems—unemployment, hunger and agricultural inefficiency, for instance. I’m still going to have to use the word in this post, but hell, I’ve hate what it’s become.
Oversimplifying a thing so daunting is dangerous. It makes us oversimplify the solution, and in the end, we run the risk of advocating things we aren’t fully informed about and feeling good about doing nothing at all.
But hey, poverty just means African people are poor, so if we, like, throw money at them, then everything’s totally cool, right? Well… no, not really.
In March of this year I was fortunate enough to be taken on as a crew member on the Oaktree Foundation’s Roadtrip to End Poverty, a campaign intended to lobby the Australian government to expand its foreign aid budget to 0.7% of gross national income by 2020. Oaktree is an organisation run entirely by youth, and the Roadtrip involved further recruitment of a thousand young Ambassadors to travel across Australia, most of whom were fairly uninformed about poverty when they signed up. During Ambassador training, one of Oaktree’s dominant messages was this: sometimes it’s hard to comprehend something as broad and widespread as poverty, so it’s important to simplify it in a way that we can understand it. Cue broad facts, figures and this video in which at least two of the interviews are surely orchestrated. NB: This post does not reflect my view of the Roadtrip as a whole.
As our Roadtrip groups yelled and beat their way across Australian urban and rural centres, Ambassadors found themselves engaging with members of the public—a first for many of the young activists. Here follows a recurring conversation that occurred where the member of public involved was not a left-wing, folk music-loving youth:
Roadtripper: Hi, would you like to support foreign aid?
Aldous the Grouch: But we shouldn’t be supporting the foreign aids, diseases are bad.
R: No, silly! Foreign aid is Australian spending for overseas development!
A: No, we give enough to the foreign aids; first we should solve all the problems we have in Austraya before helping the Africanians.
R: We can do both 🙂
Um, no, we can’t. Because that’s not how finances work. And even if you said we could somehow rearrange our scarce funds accordingly, that would have to be preceded by getting our politics in line.
I had quite an issue here. Ambassadors were taught to argue with retorts like:
a) Australia is a developed nation and therefore has enough money to solve all our problems 🙂
b) International development would open up trade opportunities for Australia! 🙂
c) Last year, Australian aid saved 200 million lives!
These are all flawed, broad views of the aid issue, and being one-sentence arguments, they can each respectively be brushed away with snappy repudiations:
b) These trade opportunities would scarcely be felt in the lifetime of an everyday Australian because poverty-alleviation is a relatively slow process.
The last point, however, is obviously the most interesting, leaving room for further discussion. 200 million lives? Wow. That’s pretty nifty. But how did our aid do it?
Our reluctance to delve deeper into the how is my chief issue with the movement to end poverty, and it links back to an unfortunately common belief held by activists that people don’t pay attention to third world development because people are unaware that poverty exists. As a result, NGOs tend far too much to broadcast poverty porn and tell us how lucky we all are and that just five dollars will buy this kid in Faministan a bike or something.
But of course people know. It’s shoved in their face several times a week.
It’s my belief that the issue of poverty flies so far over the head of the general public not because the message is being aimed too high, but because people are ducking underneath it. They know the problem is there. But they don’t know what they can do about it. A huge problem with aid activism is that it rarely conveys to the public what specific projects are waging the war against poverty. It’s all just shovelled under the dubious umbrella of ‘aid’. The Roadtrip campaigners, ill-prepared for the conservative streak lining many an Australian citizen, argued as if Australian aid was just this magic box into which you threw as much money as you can, wrapped it up, then popped it open again at Christmas to find huge wads of food and economic well-being to share with all your friends. No member of public was ever treated to a breakdown of what foreign aid does—they were never given the chance to be convinced. They were just told that people are hungry, please sign this petition so the government gives more of our money to developing countries, cheers mate, have a good one.
We Ambassadors seemed so eager to spout the problems, but the solutions implemented by foreign aid were, for some puzzling reason, kept mum. Look. They’re here. AusAID’s website contains a strategic regional profile for every single nation in which Australia provides foreign aid, including results. This leaves me wondering, why are we not talking about this? Why are we not spending more time talking about specific projects and results so that we might actually entertain the prospect of convincing people that aid works? This movement to end poverty is so obsessed with urgency and despondency that it often forgets to leave any room for optimism. It’s all a brazen #endpoverty this and #dontcutaid that, but it’s rarely a measured, thought-out #hereishowweareendingpovertycomejoinuspleasethankyou.
Moreover, simply shouting for government aid as if it’s a panacea for poverty transforms the issue into something more closed off than it really is. Perceiving foreign aid as an omnipotent tool leads us to ignore the smaller projects that aid might actually contribute towards. Ever heard of the One Acre Fund or looked at Oaktree’s overseas projects portfolio? I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t, because things like this are more or less never at the centre of activist rhetoric.
Treating aid as a magic box also tends to prevent us from scrutinising the government’s effectiveness. It’s important to recognise that at times, AusAID funding has proved ineffective, having left a disappointingly high portion of its projects incomplete (p. 67) and being notorious for contributing to the phenomenon of boomerang aid by which Australia is a disproportionately large recipient of its own foreign aid. We shouldn’t just be demanding more aid—we should be just as loudly pushing for more effective aid.
The fight to alleviate global poverty is bridled by its reputation as a battle waged mainly by the government and multinational NGOs. We need to bridge the gap between the everyday person and change-making organisations by letting the public know that there are numerous avenues in which they can genuinely help and perhaps even benefit by lending both their resources and skills. What attracted me towards the Oaktree Foundation was that they didn’t simply advocate change; they took part in it by partnering with grassroots organisations in developing South-East Asia. The idea of physically getting involved with development was incredibly enticing, and it revealed to me a world where I didn’t just hand over money, but a world in which I could dip my own head in and see real change. This feeling made me realise that the battle against poverty shouldn’t just be a quest to empower the poor, as we have so determinedly advertised it; we also need to empower the first-world public, the donor at the start of the chain.
If we stop focusing so much on government aid; if we broadened the issue of poverty instead of simplifying it; if we present the fight against global poverty as not one about our government giving our taxes to Africa, but as a worldwide social movement driven by the public and private sector alike, we can majorly transform public perception of the anti-poverty crusade. Without badgering everyone and their grandmother about foreign aid, poverty should be seen as a problem to be tackled from all angles. For the public to start relating to poverty again they must be shown that the fight isn’t futile (because it isn’t), and to do this, activists must break down the idea of a monolithic movement and promote the armies of well-intentioned grassroots initiatives, going on to communicate the results those initiatives have achieved in a tangible way. People need to be reassured that their interest, efforts, donations and loans are not in vain, and they’re not going to be convinced until this movement shows off a little.
If there’s any cause that could benefit from a bit of hubris, it’s this one.