Poverty Professionals

5 Oct

2010 UN MDG Summit Meeting

I could argue that this is not a huge problem for me or my classmates: that we are not yet at a place where we have to live with the tension of being well off off of poverty. I mean, we are grad students – those somewhat silly folks who take out loans to get another degree, scrimp and save (or more honestly, spend any disposable income we have on beer instead of spending it on a mortgage or a vacation or a new car), and dream of the day when we have “real” jobs. I might even sidetrack the entire conversation by talking about relative poverty, by asking what do we even mean by “poverty”? Who’s to say anyone should want what I have anyways?

But that’s a different conversation entirely. Instead, let’s own up to the fact that compared to the people we spend hours studying, researching, and writing about, we’re not doing so poorly. I live a very luxurious life, which does and should sit uncomfortably with the topics I have chosen to study and (fingers crossed!) someday work on . This must be why I keep coming back to this short paper by Ravi Kanbur.

An excerpt:

What is striking about the class of poverty professionals (of whom I am one) is that the good living (granted, not at the billionaire or millionaire level, but pretty good nevertheless) is made through the very process of analyzing, writing, recommending on poverty. To me, at least, this is discomforting and disconcerting. I feel slightly ashamed within myself when I turn up to a poverty conference (perhaps even one where I am the keynote speaker), having flown business class, staying in an expensive hotel and (sometimes) being paid handsomely for attending. I recall many years ago, when I was in my twenties, telling the anthropologist Mary Douglas about how I was starting to do consulting for the World Bank on poverty issues, and how important it was to do this work. “And it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty either, is it?” came her worldly, knowing, reply. The seeds of discomfort sown by that comment have germinated and taken root, and now won’t let go.

I recognize of course the paradoxes of making so much of my discomfort, with the implication that others should feel it too. First, it seems to let off the hook those who make a good living without attempting to help the poor in any way. Surely the moral dilemma of living well in the midst of poverty is one that should apply equally to all, and not particularly and peculiarly to poverty professionals? Why pick on those whose chosen profession is to help the poor, and berate them for doing well out of it? By suggesting that their pay and benefits should not be “too high”, does this not penalize the children of the poverty professionals for their parents’ calling? Secondly, if highly skilled personnel are needed to attack poverty, then what’s wrong with paying the market rate for that skill? Surely the alternative is that these skilled professionals will find equally well paying jobs making widgets, and the attack on poverty will lose its best troops? Surely, the poor deserve the very best talent to address their needs?

And yet my doubts and discomforts remain. Yes, living well amidst poverty should be a dilemma for everyone. But am I wrong in thinking that it should be a problem particularly for those who live well out of attending meetings on poverty? At the very least the moral superiority that they (read I) might claim or feel because they work on poverty has to be tempered by the fact “it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty, is it?”

The point is not to make us all feel guilty about having it good (by our standards). The point is to recognize the tension, instead of explaining it away.

Dogon Meeting Place

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One Response to “Poverty Professionals”

  1. jason October 6, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    betsie! this is something i struggle with all the time. i have never been able to find a comfortable balance, and have remained steadily in varying degrees of discomfort for the last 5 years. its easy for me to explain it away because i work for a broke organization, and i can always point to the “big guys” and say at least i’m not like them. i look up 990’s of all of our partners and see how much they pay their top five employees. often its our entire annual budget times two. but at the end of the day i too am rich, and i made my living because others are poor. the discomfort tends to come in waves, and when its bad i teeter on the brink of selling all i have, and turning my home into a homeless shelter. on most days though i just say a prayer as i sip my coffee, and sit down at my laptop to end poverty.

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