Romanticizing Poverty Veils Relief Aid


BRAMPTON, Ontario — Romanticizing poverty essentially means to simplify the concept of poverty. In this day and age where technology is ubiquitous, especially in first-world countries, people’s attention spans seem to be shrinking. People are more attracted to breadth than depth, spending less time and energy in exploring one specific subject. Information washes up on computer screens in waves and people want to stomach everything but end up digesting very little. Whatever they do digest are likely the wrong things.

In 1985, Band Aid released the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” to fundraise relief money for Ethiopia’s 1983-1985 famine. Recently, the song has been covered by some of today’s popular artists such as on the television show “Glee” and also by the Barenaked Ladies. Although the song is a product of good intentions, the song over exaggerates the state of the Ethiopian famine to an extent which some may find insensitive and offensive.

Some of the controversial lyrics include:

Where the only water flowing
is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
are the clanging chimes of doom
[…] Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow

The lyrics depict an austere and hopeless image of life in not just Ethiopia, but also the entirety of Africa. This type of depiction is a popular choice among donation commercials on television as well where the victims of poverty are just that: victims. As the audience, people in first-world countries do not bother to question further about the situation of the people depicted in the media. The main goal is to elicit pity, not to inspire understanding. In the end, people will believe that by simply donating money will make the problem go away and these donors will not think twice about it later.

However, global poverty is far more complex than people being unfortunate and helpless in an impoverished community. There are reasons behind why poverty persists and grows in some regions. In order to fight poverty, people in first-world nations must understand these reasons and help thwart them rather than assume money can solve the consequences.

So the question is whether it is right for artists to exaggerate the truth and romanticize poverty in the name of helping the poor, or is there a better way of helping that involves more awareness?

Doughnuts Defeating Poverty by Nicholas D. Kristof is a New York Times article explaining in detail the state the Malawi family, Nasoni, living in the village of Masumba. Alfred and his wife, Biti, lost two of their seven children because they could not afford a doctor. Neither could the couple afford to support their eldest son in school after the fourth grade as each term billed $5. The difficult truth is that Alfred has routine personal expenses he makes despite having children who are hungry and uneducated. His weekly expenditures total nearly $5: $2 on moonshine, $2 on prostitution and 50 cents on cigarettes.

Poverty is not just rooted in low incomes but also on self-destructive comforts people turn to in wretched circumstances. In central Kenya, spending on alcohol on average takes precedence over spending on food. Simply providing some people with money will not alleviate their problems because they might splurge the money on their consoling habits.

Separating people from their comforts is also complicated. It is not just a matter of counselling and persuasion. There is an emotional reason they have chosen to latch onto what they believe to be life savers. For a third party to believe a verbal intervention is a solution would be ignorant and insensitive. Flushing out negative influences in their lives requires solid and motivating social and financial structures as well as a bit of inspiration.

Introducing a bank-like system helps families like the Nasonis. Biti’s introduction to a village savings group organized by CARE prevented Alfred from irresponsible spending and the loan she received allowed her to start a local doughnut business. With the family finances turning up, Alfred began to wean off his habits and provided his own contributions and efforts to the family as well.

The Nasonis’ family story illustrated the need for new programs and policy reforms. This is where donated money is allocated and people of the first world need to understand the meaning behind their relief efforts. Understanding the situation of a region and the purpose of an initiative will inspire people to better help in the fight against poverty. Instead of shipping off money in exchange for vague details, people can become informed and motivated in order to make a far reaching impact. People will understand why getting the attention of the government to improve foreign policy is so important because it makes a difference in the policies and lifestyles in impoverished countries.

Carmen Tu

Sources: Evan Lieberman, University of British Columbia’s Okanagan News, New York Times, Metrolyrics
Photo: Soon to be Survivor


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