This blog post was inspired by our founder's TEDx Talk “Rethinking the Paradigm of Poverty” and originally featured in the Month of Microfinance. #MoMF16 is a grassroots movement with a passion for client-centered microfinance and an intense commitment to learning. Learn more about the Month of Microfinance here.
In 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stood in front of hundreds of people at TED Global and delivered “The Danger of a Single Story.” In this talk, she spoke of the myopic perspectives of Africa, including her own experience pitying another African family after being told of their poverty over and over again; she said she was never able to see them as anything but poor. She also described the crippling and unintended consequences of telling just one story about other people whom you do not know:
“It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
Adichie is one of many people in this world who argue for a more nuanced, authentic, and accurate depiction of Africa. That is quite difficult to achieve when the single story of Africa—in particular African women—permeates not only the development sector, but our daily lives as we are inundated with corporate social responsibility campaigns, buy-one-give one programs, and the like.
The Making of a Myth
The single story about African women is part of the “myth making” that has lead to the creation of iconic images of women and simplistic slogans. Those of us involved in microfinance are not immune to this myth making. How many of us tell the story of a single $25 loan lifting a woman out of poverty when there is ample data (that most likely neatly fits with our experiences in the field) that it does not? Does our stories about “empowered women” come from our loan portfolio or from rigorous qualitative and quantitative data collection from the field? This (girl-washing) has rendered the term empowerment nearly useless as it stands for everything and nothing all at the same time. Those who are our intended beneficiaries are rendered silent, denied agency as outsiders construct their identity.
Perhaps we perpetuate these myths because we need something to believe in, something to sustain us as we face overwhelming obstacles of poverty and inequality, pain, and suffering. Our moral conviction and sense of purpose can be so deeply tied to these constructs that we arguably have had no choice but to create and sustain our belief in our own myths. Despite the good work that we do helps millions of people around the world, there are consequences that can be difficult to discern.
Unfortunately (and unknowingly), we have contributed to recurring binary themes that exist about women: women as vulnerable or women as virtuous. Women from the global South, both as individuals (woman) and as a larger homogeneous demographic (women), are portrayed to fit neatly into the predetermined construct of poverty. This is problematic in the sense that it results in policies and strategies that are ineffective (not to mention also locking women into a singular time and place devoid of context). Microcredit is not generating significantly higher incomes on average for the average micro-entrepreneur operating in the informal sector. And yet many of us have focused almost exclusively on the power of women and entrepreneurship while overlooking many systemic issues and holistic solutions.
Poverty is a cross-cutting, complex issue, yet it is often reduced to a simple economic understanding of the net worth of an individual, a net worth that can be molded—or shall I say transformed—by entrepreneurship, the free market, and microfinance. But we should not confuse wealth with well-being; economic activity alone cannot account for what is important in people’s lives. There are other forms of capital accumulation—social, natural, and human—that play a significant role in the health and well-being of people and communities.
Partnership, Not Pity
As microfinance professionals and advocates, we have an opportunity to build solutions and tell stories that move beyond the limitations of traditional economics. It is time to transcend the development trope of the empowered entrepreneur/woman/girl/insert-next-big-thing-here. The lives of the people we serve are far more nuanced, and they deserve to be represented in ways that tell their entire story. If we want to create radical change we cannot continue the myth making that as Adichie notes, (accidentally) dehumanizing the very people we aim to help. We need to unravel the single stories that we are creating about the poor. That process can be quite messy as it requires us to look with a more discerning lens at the normalcy of our beliefs about entrepreneurship, capitalism, development, globalization, and the like. But I firmly believe that if we challenge ourselves to ask the hard questions and become comfortable with being uncomfortable, then we will be able to move away from selling pity and more toward an authentic partnership with the people that we care so much about.