Are Rural Ethiopians Poor?

May 18, 2012

Depends on your perspective, right? Or your priorities. The otheday we posted a picture on our blog of a young man working his grain field with an ox and wooden tiller. Is it accurate to say he is poor strictly based on the stone-age farming techniques being employed? Does it matter how we describe people who live like this?  Whenever we discuss economic status with our Ethiopian friends, they are quick to remind us that every community has members who are ‘Moderate Poor’, ‘Very Poor’, and the ‘Destitute Poor’. They demonstrate this by pointing to the different types of dwellings someone from each class typically lives in. From an American viewpoint, we are thinking, “Come on, are you serious. All these folks are beyond dirt poor, and they need our help. Isn’t that obvious? I mean, they walk miles just to get stagnate water, right?”                 

But poverty and wealth are not the sum of one’s material possessions.  And there is a certain irony in labeling ‘poor’ that which characterized most of the world until a few hundred years ago. In fact, my grandmother mentioned thawhile growing up on a farm in the first half of the last century, her father used an ox and tiller just like the one in the picture above.  When we say we want to help the rural Ethiopians poor, we must take care to define what we mean. 

We need to be clear what we are hoping to accomplish.  Are we trying to help them become wealthy? And for that matter, what is wealth?  For instance, we could provide a sweet tractor for a family, significantly increasing the efficiency of their farming, opening up doors for all kinds of other activities. But we all know they are just one or two dry seasons from returning to the ‘destitute state’ we found them in. And we are well aware of the kind of dependence those kinds of handouts can create. Providing the tractor through a loan provides a greater incentive for using and taking care of their new tool. But that still doesn’t solve the problem with the dry seasons – which would leave them poorer since now they have a debt to pay.
What if we changed the way we described those who lived on less than $2 a day or used ancient technology to farm? Instead, what if we said they had just not achieved their true potential? What if we made clear that our goal was to help improve their wealth of ‘being’, of knowledge, of belief in a hopeful future, of creativity? We might move from pity and misplaced compassion to a sense of partnership.  Wouldn’t that give them greater worth in our eyes, and offer a greater sense of dignity and purpose as we reach out our hand to help.  As we set out to help, we would focus less on what they are gaining or what we are giving to what we are all becoming.