Extreme poverty is not beautiful

(a version of this blog first appeared in March 2009)

I was in a convoy heading to the Pansjir Valley in Afghanistan once upon a time, when a non-Afghan man in the back seat, a fellow aid/development worker, started talking to a colleague about how beautiful and simply the people lived in Afghanistan, how idillic it was, how it was a shame to bring them aid and development if it meant they would have to give up their beautiful, simple life.

I wanted to stop the SUV, throw him out of it, and let him see how he liked living “simply” for a few weeks.

Being poor is NOT the same as living in extreme poverty.

Dolly Parton and my grandmother grew up poor in Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively: there was no money to buy new clothes when they were children and, often, their mothers made clothes from whatever they could find (such as used potato sacks), their families had to grow most of their food, their families didn’t have a car, etc. But they were resource rich: they could grow and raise their own food, they had access to free, clean drinking water, they had access to doctors for emergency medical care (though a long walk to such), the fathers lived at home most of the time rather than having to live far away for most of the year to send money home, the families never went hungry or suffered from extreme cold, and they had access to wood for the stoves in winter. They never had to sell any of their children in order to feed the rest of the family. There was no danger of a rival tribe or religious zealots or a mafia looking for money or revenge breaking down the door and killing everyone or taking all their animals. Yes, there were hardships: many babies died in infancy, many women died in childbirth, diseases and injuries that are curable/treatable now were deadly back then, many children had to work rather than go to school, people died young compared to today, etc. But often, there was freedom and time for children to play safely around their homes. The whole family could read by the time they were teens. Talk to people who grew up like this, and they will tell you stories of hardship, but also of laughter and family and dreams.

By contrast, there’s nothing at all beautiful about extreme poverty, especially in Afghanistan. Extreme poverty means a family that has no means to grow its own food and, therefore, starves without the means to purchase food or attain food aid. It means women who die in childbirth, and babies that die in infancy, at rates that far exceed most other places on Earth. It means children sold as child brides or slaves in order to raise money to feed the rest of the family for a few weeks. It means a life expectancy of around 40. It means having no resources to build a fire or cook food — if there was food to cook. It means few people, if anyone, in the family being able to read, which means less of a chance of accessing health care and food assistance that MAY be available. It means people dying by the thousands regularly from preventable diseases. It means being a repeated victim of criminals and having no protection or justice because there’s no money for the bribes the police or the militias require. It means absolutely no way, on one’s own, to ever improve life for the family. It means no freedom, no time and no safety to play or dream or plan. It means no control over your life at all.

I’ve never forgotten that guy’s comments. And what’s sad is that I heard it again just recently in a video by someone I consider a dear friend . That there can be any confusion between living off-the-grid and living in extreme poverty is astounding to me.

Want to help combat poverty? There no better organizations than these, IMO, to donate to, and to spend your time reading their field updates:

Also see:
*Another* Afghanistan Handicraft program? Really?

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