“What the poor are to the poor is known only to themselves and to God.”
– Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Throughout my studies at Berkeley I always try to ask myself “What would Fatou Gaye think?”. Fatou Gaye has not written any academic papers, conducted any groundbreaking research, nor given any illuminating lectures. She does not know whether she agrees more with Sachs or Easterly. Fatou Gaye lives in the recently declared Islamic Republic of The Gambia in a small rural Wolof village. She has seven children and spends most of her time fetching water, cooking, farming and sweeping. She understands poverty. She has lived it her whole life. I was fortunate enough to live in her compound for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and I was reminded of her wisdom whilst reading the list of criteria that people in The Gambia gave of well-being in Robert Chambers’ “Whose Reality Counts”.
Fatou used to tell me you can’t put a person in your pocket, and I think her meaning was that people are more important than money. Her incredulity at hearing of my minuscule family (I am an only child, with an only parent) and how I didn’t know the names of all the neighbors whilst growing up showed me Jodha’s paradox, that although Fatou was income-poorer than me, she was better off than me on many of her criteria for well-being. I say this not to romanticize economically poor rural life but to try to show the fluidity of well-being that we are often blinded to in our studies of economics.
I agree with Chambers, that as a person who is not poor, and will likely never be poor (less than $2-a-day-poor), it is a trap to try to think like someone who is poor. How can one know? Yes, you can spend time with people who are poor. You can talk with them, you can study them, you can spend a day in their shoes (think Orwell in “Down and Out in Paris and London” or most Peace Corps services). But you can never reconstruct your perception of reality to match theirs. You can think you are reaching closer levels of empathy through concerted effort but there will forever be an ivory barricade between one who is poor and one who is not. In accepting the Sisyphean task of trying to understand the reality of the poor it is tempting to slip into inertia. If I will never know the reality of poverty is there any point in trying to learn? You may never know the reality, just as we will never understand all the secrets of the universe, but that does not mean that you stop asking questions. As Voltaire once said “Judge a man by his questions, rather than by his answers”. He never said what he judged women on, so I am slightly hesitant to quote him.
Chambers, although acknowledging that he is not poor, does not really accept his role as a privileged white British man in the development discourse. He accepts that we can never escape from our conditioning, but he is not talking about himself as a white man, he is talking about the collective rich world. Is it necessary to recognize, or even apologize, for your position as a white privileged man when espousing your views? Apologizing perhaps seems futile and even condescending, but to dismiss the often detrimental, to put it mildly, role that white men have played in the development process leaves one open to shrouding beneficial doubt in blinding confidence in one’s ability to be somehow remarkably different from one’s forebears. Chambers highlights that the development industry is still dominated by mainly middle-aged white males and I’m reminded of this as I look at the majority of the faculty at Cal that teach us about development. Yet I say this as a white British male, looking to forge a career in the development sector. I’m tying myself to this system and I can’t help but hope to be one of the privileged white men in the future. What I need to remind myself, if I am ever fortunate enough to be in any way powerful, is that I take Chambers’ advice and continue learning by experience and continue to challenge myself to try to step out of my privilege and sit, listen and learn from people who are materially poor.