A poor perspective

Seeing it from their side
Shifting the viewpoint

‘Very happy, very sad, or super determined’ –  the usual spectrum of emotions we assign to poor people, says sociologist Michael Woolcock.

His recent lecture at the Institute of Development Studies – watch it online, below – sets out to change that.

Woolcock begs for a more, well, human way of looking at what it’s like to be poor. How? Through the lens we’ve been using to look at other people’s lives since time began – storytelling, including in its more modern forms. Novels, after all, enable a reader to see the world from someone else’s perspective. A great film can not only show you how differently the same experience is lived from different sides;  a fine example, he says, is  Tambien la Lluvia. And public perceptions of, say, migration or deprivation are more likely to be shaped by reality TV than social science journals. Ignore the popular at your peril.

And speaking of perspective and empathy, there are a few lonely voices calling for ‘a humbler breed of aid worker‘ –  in other words: we should employ more people in the sector who actually know what it’s like to be poor (and who are prepared to put up with more basic conditions than the usual expat).

Neither that columnist nor Woolcock suggest that empathy should replace the appropriate skills and training – and clearly, some professional distance is always necessary – but could a respect for empathy, at least, make a difference?

I love the suggestion by the writer-philosopher Roman Krznaric to create Empathy Museums that aim, not so much to educate their visitors, as to make them feel something. His ideas sound outlandish: ‘You get to experience what it is like to live through a major flood’; conversation booths where you can talk to people ‘who you might not encounter in everyday life, such as mental health workers, off-duty soldiers, Quakers or management consultants’; or the chance to be taught by ‘sweatshop factory workers from Viet Nam’ to ‘make a shirt under the working conditions of your favourite fashion label. At the end you will be paid the average amount that a textile industry employee in a developing country receives per shirt.’ Would people visit? Given the huge success of 2012’s Rain Room exhibition, I don’t see why not.

And if you’re still not convinced, Dr Brené Brown’s talk, visualised by the clever folk at RSA – see clip below – explains why empathy trumps sympathy. Quite simply, the former ‘fuels connection’, the latter ‘drives disconnection’.

The question (for aid workers) is: how much connection is good – and how much are we prepared to seek out?

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