Poverty is…..

By Published On: May 1, 2005Categories: Economy1 Comment on Poverty is…..

"Love is…" must be one of the most annoying cartoon series in the world. Pictures of two cutesy individuals fondly holding hands with some cloying caption beneath.

Worst of all in London I ended up seeing the series every day whether I wanted to or not when the London underground (for some bizarre reason) decided to use the series to encourage commuters not to leave fish and chip wrappers on the seats.

I have been thinking recently that it was time for a new series without the cartoons: Poverty is….

Why? Well, poverty is the reality of life for many people here. Bolivia has 60% of the population below the poverty line, but what that means in terms of daily life and experience is another matter.

How do you turn that statistic into something that can be understood and felt?

What has surprised me is that coming to live here doesn’t automatically give you an insight into poverty. In fact it is too easy to be blind to that reality, to live a cocooned life either in ignorance or fear.

Many middle and upper class Bolivians do exactly that, living in big houses behind high walls covered with cut glass and protected by a security guard who sits in a small booth outside.

Some may talk about the problems of poverty in Bolivia, and some may even be active in development organisations making a difference. But the walls don’t hide the fear: the warnings to take taxis after dark, the stories of robberies in the market, the refusal to visit certain ‘barrios’ in the city.

I was asked by one of my teachers to write an essay this week on how volunteers can confront the reality of life in Bolivia. I started writing about various attitudes that I felt a volunteer would need: openness, political commitment, curiosity, humility etc etc.

But I ended up concluding that it was ridiculous to think that I (or any volunteer from the West) could confront the reality of life here for the majority in Bolivia.

My background, the opportunities I have been given up to now, the fact that I can afford to live here, to eat in good restaurants (and may well be ill if I ate in the market), the middle class high-walled house I am staying in, the choice I have to leave – all put a huge distance between me and the majority of people here. 

Even if I moved in tomorrow with the families who live in make-shift houses and tents on the outskirts of Cochabamba, I wonder how I could really understand what it must be like to scrape by every day not knowing whether you will have enough food that day, and without any hope of the security of a house, good education for your children and proper hospital treatment when you became ill.

That doesn’t mean that I won’t have any insights into poverty here. However from my experience so far it will more be about showing the huge gulf between my life and the life of many Bolivians, than it will be about giving an insight into what it is like to be poor.

This was highlighted for me by an experience in La Paz. I used to walk back to my hotel every night past mounds of rotting rubbish spilling out of bags across the street. It both slightly irritated and puzzled me as I couldn’t understand why the local tourist shops and restaurants did not wrap the rubbish up carefully.

Then one night, I came back at a different time, and saw a mother, and her two young children poring through the rubbish pulling out plastic bottles and other items – looking for anything with the slightest resale value.

My annoyance suddenly seemed shameful and also an indictment of the waste that I regularly cast aside without thinking.

So am I going to work on a series of Poverty is…? I don’t know, but I hope that I can from time to time share small experiences like my experience in La Paz to give a tiny insight into poverty here. It means that I will need to keep my eyes open, be prepared to move from behind the walls, and ask the right questions.

But ultimately, I won’t the best person to do this. I hope therefore while I am here to work directly with Bolivians to tell their own story, to turn the blog from my impressions and interpretations to a space where Bolivians can talk to you directly.


One Comment

  1. Miguel (MABB) May 3, 2005 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Once again, I read your post and think your experience in Bolivia is turning out to be a unique experience for you. But, then again, in order for an experience to be a positive one, it has to be taken in a way that is positive.
    As for your idea of that series on poverty is… I wait with interest.

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