“How to write about poor people”

12 Aug

The Aid Watch blog project of New York University has a satirical advise in a thread by William Easterly that is continuously updated by suggestions from commentators, for anyone looking to write about impoverished people and particularly those in the developing world. 

  1. Use a precise  definition of poverty: living on less than $1.25 a day, adjusted for purchasing power. Give the precise number who fit that definition.                                                                         world-bank-poverty-numberIgnore the recent revision of  this number by 42%.
  2. Do not excessively analyze geographic or ethnographic distinctions amongst poor people.   blank-world-map
  3. Discuss the following: poverty traps, vicious circles, aid financing gaps.
  4. There probably won’t be time left to discuss the following concepts: initiative, savings, inventiveness, resourcefulness, adaptation to local conditions, or local knowledge.
  5. Discuss only income, health, access to clean water, and literacy. Leave it to anthropologists to cover areas like happiness, traditions, ceremonies, festivals, friendships, kinship, love between men and women, or love between parents and children.
  6. ug2_palenga_2boys_05Display pictures of poor children (alternatively women).
  7. Don’t show pictures of poor men, who make your audience think of drunkards, wife-beaters, or janjaweed.
  8. These topics are only for Marxists: power, class, discrimination, oppression, or history.
  9. Your knowledge about poor people should come from other writers who observe these rules.
  10.  Assume that all poor people everywhere have the same interests and views on all subjects.
  11. You can take the views of Western-based NGOs as a proxy for the composite opinions noted in rule 11.
  12. Leave untouched the assumption that poor people are all non-white, but never openly admit it.
  13. You may use the phrase ”these people” as an alternative to the poor, as in “these people have nothing” or “these people still live as their ancestors have for centuries”
  14.  Suggest specific answers that will end poverty in every possible situation, such as a package of microcredit, fertilizer subsidies, and a women’s handicraft cooperative.
  15. Simplify poor people’s cultural, social, and political systems as easy to understand and easy to change. You will not have space to attempt to explain why THEIR societies are so different from OUR intractably complex societies.
  16. It is not necessary to talk to any real poor people, they do not understand how to solve their problems anyway.
  17. Tyler and Sarah and booksquirm inspired the following:vanity-fair-bono
  18. Use liberally the pronoun “we,” such as “we must act now to end poverty.” You don’t ever need to make clear who is “we,” although it is obviously not the poor.
  19.  burning-hutWhen you give an anecdote about one poor individual, make sure it is as extreme and non-representative as possible, such an HIV-positive famine victim being chased by child soldiers
  20. Transitionland inspired:
  21. Do not mention any individuals in a poor community who have now escaped poverty, don’t seek any lessons, it was probably either luck or evil behavior.
  22.  Write about the interests of the poor as entirely consistent with other good things, such as preserving the natural environment and fighting global warming.
  23. Appeal to the voyeurism of your rich audience reading about “the poor,” but do so tastefully.
  24. If anyone does finally object to the label “the poor,” use “the vulnerable” instead. ”Vulnerable”  has the added advantage that it is so vague that you can make up just about any story you want about this group.
  25. Be sure to include statements in the form “X children die every minute because of  diseease or problem Y. Y could be easily eliminated at a cost of $Z (a modest number).” X, Y, Z can be quoted from other people whose methods of estimating X, Y, and Z you do not need to scrutinize too carefully.
  26. Indirectly inspired by many readers: Sarah-McLachlan Suggest to the readers some demonstrative action that they can do to end poverty,such as wearing a white band on their wrist. How these actions affect global poverty does not have to be completely spelled out.

“The outpouring of responses suggests a lot of discontent with the cliches, stereotypes, and tolerance for nonsense in poverty writing, tells poverty writers: “get serious, or beware of ridicule.”

By William Easterly | Published December 28, 2009

Read All and more at http://aidwatchers.com/2009/12/how-to-write-about-poor-people/


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