It’s strange to see real poverty up close. Distended stomachs, malnourished children, children with disabilities crawling in the dirt. Elderly people so thin they look like they might snap. Young women whose round pregnant bellies only exacerbate the sharpness of the clavicle bones jutting from their shoulders.
In development communications nowadays, we focus on the positives and steer clear of poverty porn and disrespect, which is a good thing for people’s dignity and rights.
But poverty is very visible in the remote communities of Timor-Leste. More so that anywhere I went in Indonesia.
I find it strange how I can deal with it in a detached way. Obviously I see it and it affects me, but not breaking into tears at the sight of poor people is part of my job description. It’s the development sector equivalent of journalists interviewing the crying person after a tragic event. You feel it, you empathise, but some level of professionalism kicks in first. Also, the people are not sad people – they aren’t sitting around with big empty eyes holding out empty food bowls and looking mournful. Timorese are friendly and smiley by nature. They are getting on with their lives and often when we visit communities people are excited to have guests.
I think sometimes when we see poverty condensed and heightened in a media environment, it can be more aggressive and emotional than in everyday life. In the villages I go to, not everyone is starving. Not every child is stunted and malnutritioned. But there are quite a lot. There is poverty but there is also dignity. That’s the difference between real poverty and poverty porn.
We visit communities and talk to people, and we are obviously aware that they are marginalised and living in poverty. There are the visible signs, and then the lines casually dropped in conversation (eight kids no husband, left school at age 11, had six children but one died, no jobs, subsistence farmers, can’t afford to take baby with rash to the doctor, walks six hours each way to the market to sell vegetables). But then there’s also the real poverty that we don’t see on a short visit. How does the family decide to spend the limited money they have? How do they prioritise? What happens when someone is sick? What happens when someone dies and they are expected to throw a huge funeral with a feast for the whole village? What happens if there are complications in a pregnancy? When will their children have to stop going to school and start working in subsistence agriculture? How many years does it take for their child to complete grade three?
Real poverty is also what is discussed behind closed doors. It’s tied up in who owes which neighbour how many favours. How many days of the year a kid makes it to class. What the limited money is spent on. What happens when there isn’t enough. What a mother does when her kids stomachs are rumbling and there’s only a few handfuls of rice in the cupboard. What a man does when he can’t sell many vegetables at the market that day.
The poverty of information is also a big factor. It’s painful to see cases where families will sell the healthy vegetables they grow in the market to buy expensive white rice instead, believing it is healthier for their children when it has minimal nutritional content (especially when turned into a watery porridge). People not knowing that washing their hands with soap can help stop the spread of diarrhoea in the village. People not understanding how important it is to provide little kids with adequate mental stimulation through play to help their brains develop.
Poverty is complicated. For communicators and policy professionals that is a crucial thing to remember.