I absolutely love language.
I was not offered the option of taking a foreign language until I was in high school, so in elementary school my best friend and I endeavored to become fluent in gibberish languages based in English. In fact, we spoke two gibberish languages fluently and dabbled in a third, driving our teacher and classmates crazy. I was particularly fond of Pig Latin, because it is possible to mangle every syllable making it neigh unintelligible.
But truly this only scratched the surface of my interest. Through learning French and my subsequent classes in linguistics, I learned about the wealth of cultural meaning contained within a single word. This is particularly true with the English language, where a single word can have several different meanings even before you take cultural context into account.
With all of this in mind, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I flipped out when I read William Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden.
For those of you not up on your international aid and development gossip, Easterly is a Professor in economics at NYU and a former World Bank employee. His book, The White Man’s Burden, is one of his best known books and certainly one of the most popular modern critiques on international aid.
While there are several things he writes about that I agree with, there is just one sticking point.
I despise the way he speaks about the people he is supposedly interested in helping.
That phrase infuriated me.
The word poor has a wealth of meaning in the English language. I imagine that Easterly meant to use it to qualify the group of people of which he was speaking as ‘characterized by poverty’ and ‘lacking in material possessions’, but the word ‘poor’ implies so much more.
Qualifying a group of people as ‘poor’ marks them as less than adequate, small in worth, and (my favorite) inferior in quality or value.
How about the synonyms for ‘poor’? If you are a part of ‘the poor’, you are bad off, beggared, broke, destitute, indigent, needy, suffering, reduced, weak, barren, feeble, puny, sick, worthless…
In defining the people who have needs in developing countries as ‘the poor’, he takes away their power and their worth. He defines them as objects to be pitied and acted upon. Even if he does not mean to do so, all of these other definitions are tied into the word ‘poor’ and color every usage.
These people have deficiencies in their lives, sometimes major ones (like water), but it does not make them people to be pitied. Poverty means nothing more or less than a lack of money for necessities. It should not incite the sort of value-judgement that using the word ‘poor’ instigates.
This problem is not unique to Easterly. It seems to be endemic within wealthy Western culture, starting with the advent of international aid. But it has got to stop.
I will give Easterly credit for attempting to give power back to ‘the poor’ through his book, but I feel like he’s missed the point entirely. Development needs to start with the community itself, but your work is more than your actions on the ground. The way you speak about your work is just as important and will play a huge role in the relationship between developed and developing countries.
Working in international development, we have to be cognizant of how we speak about our work. We tell stories about places that most of the people with whom we speak will never see. The only image they will have is the one we paint, so we must choose our words wisely.
The community I am working with lacks access to clean water, and occasionally that means they are also resource-poor (one of the more innocuous uses of the word). But they are a community rich in history, family, and ingenuity.
Which do you think is more valuable?