I recently watched Ananya Roy’s TEDx talk about un-knowing poverty, where she said – “To un-know poverty is to make a shift from asking how we could help the poor, to asking how poverty is produced, to asking how wealth, power, and privilege are maintained. To un-know poverty is to make a shift from tinkering with a charity that can do good, to transforming the policies that enable wealth but impoverish poverty.”
This statement perfectly summarizes the reading I’ve done about poverty and exploited people over the past few months. From reading about the lives of impoverished people in a Mumbai slum, to the exploitation of women through sex trafficking, and the problem of female infanticide in India, Professor Roy’s remark in my opinion speaks to one of the driving issues of poverty and exploitation.
After reading the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life in a Mumbai slum, I felt utterly helpless on behalf of these people in this slum. They lived in a slum that was constantly exploited by the police, the local political leaders, and fellow slum-dwellers. As soon as someone in the slum amassed any amount of wealth they would quickly be exploited by the corrupt institutions surrounding them. These people live in a system where upward mobility is virtually impossible due to the corrupt political and social institutions ingrained into the slum.
I’ve recently been reading about the growing sex-trafficking industry and female infanticide issues in India. What is becoming clear to me is that this issue is due to the cultural norms in this society – where a female is seen as a liability to the family since she is not allowed to be the breadwinner. The patriarchal society and dowry system in India is leading to girls being seen as a burden to the family, and essentially a waste of resources as she will be sent to another family when she is of marriageable age. Therefore, this mindset has created an environment where girls are commoditized – sold into slavery, married off as children, or killed, simply due to these old cultural norms set thousands of years ago.
In America we’ve constructed an overly complicated tax system to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor. We’re letting our educational systems crumble such that only those with money could afford a decent education. As long as we ascribe to the belief that the poor are somehow at fault for their status – we are going to miss the underlying problems contributing to the plight of the poor – lack of opportunity, poor education, little investment in health care and mental health programs to name a few.
The main problem isn’t trying to figure out the right charity to invest in or the right community to throw our money into. The challenge is to deconstruct the institutions – political, social, cultural, and legal that we have put into place to keep the poor impoverished.