The Poster Child for Poverty

By: Nilima Achwal, KF8 Bolivia

I rode on the back of a motorcycle with a loan officer while going to visit Kiva clients on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia. As my hair blew in the wind, I took in the tranquil green pastures, spotted cows grazing, and women in colorful skirts strolling down the dirt road. When we stopped, I exclaimed, “I love this part of town!” “Really?” the loan officer answered in shock. “I thought you would be horrified; this is the poorest section of town.”

I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. True, I had noticed that the area was very poor, but I had thought it was beautiful how each home had its own chickens and livestock and the residents wore traditional clothing. I suddenly felt ashamed, as if I were viewing this community like a sheltered tourist who did not fully realize or empathize with the economic realities of its inhabitants. But on the other hand, isn’t it necessary to see the beauty in poor communities and its people? Isn’t that what inspires me to help them?


I realized that the conflict I was going through has something to do with the specific idea of poverty that the developed world has. Earlier that day, when I was showing a Bolivian colleague my blog post on the Lonely Planet Bolivia website, the first thing to pop up was a picture of the perfect poverty poster child: a chubby-cheeked Bolivian girl with desperate eyes and dirty hair (with absolutely no offense to Lonely Planet—I agree that there are almost always more positive pictures on the site and in the books.) My colleague was understandably upset. “I don’t understand why every time people talk about Bolivia, all they show is the poverty. There are many beautiful and interesting places here.”

She made a very good point. The images of the developing world that dominate the perceptions of most Americans, that is, those that are propagated by the media, are of dire poverty, filth, and crime. This is most likely not a malicious attempt to malign other nations, but a reflection of the stories that sell. People are fascinated by extremes and probably like the reassurance that their own country is the best place to live. Then I realized why I was feeling conflicted–I did not want to be fascinated by my first exposure in Bolivia to what American ideology has taught me is Poverty: women in plaid skirts, men in farmer hats, donkeys, and dirt roads. I did not want to be a tourist of poverty.

I realize now that that is not the reason I liked the poor section of Cochabamba. On the contrary, I saw the care that went into the mini-farms and dairy businesses that the residents owned. I saw laughter, camaraderie, and hard work. If this community of people did not find anything either wrong or shameful about how they lived, why should I? I had no reason to pity them or be horrified at their “condition.”

At some point, the images of poverty that we constantly receive from television and movies stop enhancing our worldview and start becoming disrespectful to the citizens of those nations. We need to be careful not to lump all residents of the developing world into the big black box called Poverty. Not only do developing nations have a million other aspects to them besides their poverty (like colleges, concerts, sports, architecture, cultures, sub-cultures, natural wonders, technologies, and innovations,) but even their poor are surprisingly diverse. The fact is that the Kiva entrepreneurs I’ve met have had many, many different lifestyles and occupations. I have met butchers, make-up saleswomen, and store owners. Some entrepreneurs have televisions and DVD players but no running water. Some entrepreneurs ask me for the Kiva website address, while other people in their very group do not understand what the Internet is. Almost every entrepreneur I meet in Bolivia has a cell phone, though almost no one has a land line. They are elderly women, families, recently married couples, and young individuals just starting out. The faces of the Kiva entrepreneurs within Bolivia are amazingly varied, and I dare to say that the vast majority of their children have neither dirty hair nor sad eyes.

Nilima Achwal is a Kiva Fellow who is working with several branches of Fundación AgroCapital in Bolivia this summer. Lend to an AgroCapital entrepreneur now!


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