Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty

I just found out that October 15 is Blog Action Day and the theme this year is poverty. So this post is a day late but I still want to do my part to raise awareness about poverty.

Two thoughts come to mind when I think about poverty. Firstly, we have a lot to learn from poor people. Secondly, we can help in many ways.

1. Learn from the poor

The attitude of pitying the poor has its uses, especially if it motivates us to share what we have with them. What a person really needs, however, is not money but dignity.

We can raise the dignity of the poor by recognising that they are not lesser in any way just because they have less. In actual fact, in many ways they have more than we do.

a. Listen to the rhythm of life

I remember a woman in Vietnam serenely peddling her wares from a small boat in the midst of the most beautiful scenery, while the tourists buying from her had spent a lot of money and time just to enjoy a few days there. The tourists were going back to a hectic life while she clearly was able to enjoy the minutes as they slowly passed. Wealth can be measured in terms of time and not just money, and she certainly was richer than many of us in this sense.

There’s a wonderful story about a simple fisherman who was asked why he did not work harder to catch more fish. When he asked why he should do that, the answer was that he could then buy a bigger boat, get a bigger catch, earn more money, retire early, and sit around enjoying life. His reply? “But I’m already enjoying life now!”

I learnt from the poor to slow down and truly experience living.

b. Freedom and happiness

India has a large number of poor people, yet I have seldom seen anyone as happy as I saw the poor children there. Their home was often a blanket stretched across an overturned table, yet they laughed and played so freely in the streets while our children in developed societies are kept indoors for fear of crime and terrorism.

Ever since then, I have not been convinced that we are any better off than those in poorer countries. The more we have, the more we are afraid of losing what we have, and the harder we work to protect those assets. When you have nothing to protect, you are free from fear and experience more joy.

I learnt from the poor that having no material possessions brings a kind of freedom.

c. The real meaning of poverty

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.
– Mother Teresa

According to Mother Teresa, there are more poor people in developed societies than in poorer countries. This is because more people in big cities, though not lacking in material wealth, are poor in spirit because of loneliness.

We in richer countries are also poorer because we share only from our excess, which is usually not very much, while the poor tend to share everything they have. Those living in slums will often offer half their food to a neighbour even if this means their own children have to do without.

True wealth is having more than you need and being able to give freely, and true generosity is having the largeness of heart to put another’s needs before our own. By those definitions, the poor have far surpassed us.

I learnt from the poor that you don’t need a lot of money to be wealthy and generous.

2. How you can help

Once we regard the poor not merely as people to be pitied, but as equals who have as much to offer us as we can offer them, then we can give in a way that dignifies rather than belittles.

a. Adopt a charity

Don’t wait for someone to come asking before you give. Decide what cause matters to you, and find a charity that promotes that cause. Share a part of your monthly income with this charity. Give them the dignity of being chosen rather than having to beg, and give yourself the fulfilment of knowing that your focused giving is making much more difference than the odd dollar dropped into a donation box.

If you don’t know where to start, consider supporting Save The Children until you find something else that tugs at your heartstrings.

b. Give an education

Education is the way out of the poverty trap for many families. By sponsoring a child’s education, you can change a person’s future and raise the standard of living for her family.

GiveIndia allows US and UK taxpayers to enjoy tax benefits when you sponsor a child in India, while Schools for Cambodia offers tax benefits to UK taxpayers who sponsor a Cambodian child’s education. If you prefer to give help closer to home, you could also check with a school in your area to see if you could sponsor a child whose family cannot otherwise afford to send her there.

c. Offer an opportunity

Give me a fish and I eat for a day. Teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.
– Author Unknown

While it is good to donate to the poor, it is better to empower them. Besides empowering the young through education, you can empower the adults by offering them a business opportunity. The Grameen Foundation disburses microloans to help poor families acquire the tools they need to make a living.

I feel so humbled writing this post. Learning about the many organisations worldwide whose mission is to help the poor, and joining a community of more than 12,000 bloggers all writing about this one topic has helped me realise the enormity of the problem, as well as shown me that we really can do something about poverty if enough of us care.