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Reflections on my experience working with marginalised communities
It’s been over 10 years since I started working in the non-profit sector. After graduating from university, I hopped around various charities in London before getting a Masters in International Development, hoping to crack into the NGO-world (think Oxfam or Save the Children, rather than Cancer Research, or the Dogs Trust).
I knew from a young age that I never wanted to enter the corporate world. But two other events spurred my interest in poverty-relief around the time I graduated. One was the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, which killed a quarter of a million people across Asia. Seeing the images of devastation on TV and reading stories of families torn apart was truly heart-breaking, and made me want to get involved somehow.
The other event was the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. Bono and Bob Geldof were the key figureheads, but the campaign brought together a whole range of NGOs under a united banner. I volunteered at some of these campaign events, feeling like I was doing my bit to end poverty (my opinion has since matured somewhat).
However, it was only by moving to Thailand and taking up a job working directly with marginalised communities in the region that I realised that my original (Western) perceptions of poverty in developing countries was completely wrong.
Now that I’m on a career break, I’ve had time to think about the lessons I’ve learned working with marginalised communities in South-East Asia, how my perceptions have changed since I started out, and how this relates to financial independence.
Wealth is not always monetary
You’ll notice in this post I say marginalised communities, not poor people. I no longer call people poor, because this reduces their status to a pure monetary level. Sure, maybe they are living at subsistence level, where they have just enough to survive. But marginalised communities typically have other forms of wealth that we overlook.
Their wealth often lies in their community: in hardened circumstances, communities grow stronger and more resilient. If there is a bad harvest one season, the community might come together and share their resources until the next. The community provides emotional, and often spiritual support.
Vicki Robin, co-author of Your Money or Your Life and early financial independence leader, talks of the importance of social capital; building local communities where people take care of each other, without the need for money. Social capital already exists in many communities, but mainstream development prioritises monetary value over social ties.
Land is often another important form of wealth for such communities. Communities that have been settled for generations usually have land title. The land comes with access to other valuable natural resources: water, soil, fruit-bearing trees, etc. But because they may not generate much income from these resources, they are considered poor. They are financially independent in a sense – not reliant on a wage to meet their basic needs.
Job creation matters – but the type of job matters more
If you take a community’s land, give each family $2,000 in compensation, and the parents a back-breaking job in a factory, does that make them wealthier? According to mainstream economic thinking, yes it does. But that’s overlooking the long-term loss of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and strength of the community.
Across South-East Asia, huge swathes of land are being grabbed by governments and corporations, with the purpose of spurring economic growth. The communities are meant to benefit through newly-created jobs in the formal economy. But these jobs are frequently low-paid, precarious, and dangerous – and often designed to produce garments or gadgets for those of us in the West to consume at a rock-bottom prices.
Job creation does matter – younger generations have different ambitions from their parents after all, and they need access to different opportunities. But we have to make sure that these jobs are not exploitative, nor come at the expense of other forms of wealth.
Once the older generations move on, they can usually pass their land onto their children. But once they’ve lost the land, they’ve lost a valuable asset.
Marginalised communities don’t need the West to save them
The world has made huge progress in reducing extreme poverty. More than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990, which is a remarkable achievement.
But most of this poverty reduction was in China, where western charities have had little penetration. Secondly, this is still using a really crude form of measuring poverty, which doesn’t consider wealth in other forms.
I wanted to get into international development because I wanted to save the world, but I realise now that they are capable of saving themselves. These communities know their own needs and how best to meet them.
I do still believe in the power of giving – Western charities fund important health, education and advocacy projects, and can mobilise quickly when disaster hits. But the money will be used much more effectively if received directly by local community-based organisations. The problem is that these organisations work so locally, that those of us outside of the communities don’t know about them.
The other thing I now realise is that social justice is more important than charity. Empowering communities to demand justice and political representation will do much more to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality in the long-term.
It’s ok if I earn more than others in different life circumstances
Bringing these reflections back to a more personal level, the way I think about my own money situation has completely changed since I started working in the sector.
As I wrote in an earlier post about the evolution of my financial blueprint, I used to associate money with guilt. In that first job working with refugees, though I earned a small salary, it was four times as much as my local colleagues, and that didn’t sit well with me. But I eventually made peace with the fact that I was getting paid more than local staff, because my life circumstances are different.
I am incredibly privileged compared to them. My British passport gives me access to most countries in the world, whereas some of my undocumented friends cannot even leave the local town. I have an education, whereas their certifications aren’t even recognised.
But they also have things I do not, such as a close community to rely on, and perhaps family-owned land should they choose to go back to their villages. Meanwhile, if I want to go back and re-settle in my home-town, I will need to pay upwards of £600 in rent, not to mention higher food and transportation costs. Earning a small salary was fine in the short-term, but was not a sustainable life choice.
While I take a breather from social justice work (at a professional level), I look forward to exploring further how it correlates with my newer passion for financial independence.
Have any remarks or dissenting opinions on the above? I’d love to read your comments below.