By Scott Breslin former Operation Mercy International Director
I first started thinking about poverty when I was seven years old and living in Izmir, Turkey. It began when a beggar woman with several young children in tow stopped my mother and I as we walked through town. More than fifty years later I still have many questions about poverty and suffering. Over the decades I have observed nine major "events" or experiences that make people especially vulnerable to poverty.
Perhaps you could add more, but consider:
- Natural and man-made events out of our control (earthquakes, famine, flood, and war, bad luck, etc.)
- Personal catastrophes (family death, betrayal, divorce, house fire, accident, etc.)
- Injustices (exploitation, greed, and oppression by others)
- Duty bearer negligence (i.e. parents, spouse, family, community, or government)
- Health issues (illness, physical or mental disability, aging, etc.)
- Wrong choices (including substance addictions, criminality, laziness, self-indulgence, gambling, etc.)
- Broken relationships (interpersonal conflict)
- Aloneness (disconnectedness or rejection from family or community). Frequently a consequence of #7.
- Worldview A worldview is the set of values and beliefs about fundamental aspects of reality that ground and influence all one's perceiving, identity, purpose, thinking, knowing, and doing. For example, there are some cultures whose concept of destiny discourages trying to improve one’s circumstances and other cultures that tolerates or encourage oppressive and prejudicial behaviors to minorities.
The poorest of the poor may experience all these nine causes simultaneously. My heart aches with the thought of it. Most would agree it is a fundamental error to lump all the poor and oppressed together as if they were a monolithic group. Not all people are suffering for the same reasons and therefore not all can ultimately be helped by the same means. If a person is suffering because earthquake or flood has destroyed her home, the solution may be to give the person money, materials or assistance to help rebuild the home and reestablish their livelihood. If someone is poor due to exploitation or oppression or injustice, we might offer immediate help while working for long term legal, social and economic reforms.
What about when the primary root of sustained suffering is worldview? For example, belief (or not) in the inherent dignity and immeasurable worth of human life is a part of our worldview. In my own experience, worldview is one of the top causes of suffering and poverty... the worldview of both victimizers and victims. Yet it is also probably the least talked about and in some international aid circles a taboo topic especially in the case of victims of poverty. After all, none of us want to repeat the mistakes of the past and be arrogant cultural imperialist who push our own flawed worldviews on others. I don’t want that. However, I do want honest dialog. Many of us are convinced that sustainable change is impossible unless it is also accompanied by a change in worldview, including our own. But let's not pretend that all worldviews have equal merit. Let's not pretend that sustained reductions in poverty can be accomplished without change in worldview.