How would you define culture? When you think about the culture within which you live, ascribe to and practice perhaps you think abo
ut your nationality, your ethnic background or religious affiliations to provide definition. You consider the language you speak, the events and milestones your honor, even the food that you eat – its preparation and composition. All of which speak to culture. A number of anthropologists have argued for a purely cognitive definition of culture. The idea is here that “culture” may be limited to the communicative and meaningful aspects of social life: from language to the meaning carried by symbols, persons, actions and events. This definition I particularly like by Geertz, a renown sociologist who refers to culture as “… a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” … I am going somewhere with this… So, keep this in mind as you keep reading…
For the last 6 years I have been working full-time in the field of public health and development in Africa. Prior to that, I was a student of the same disciplines. I read about methodologies, theories and concepts around improving the quality of life for communities living in poverty. I did research in Kenya and Tanzania on community perceptions on illness and material need. Someone once said that the best teacher in life is experience. I couldn’t agree more. In these past 6 years of my professional work, I have been fortunate enough to have been submerged into the lives and cultures of people whose daily routine is about survival. I say fortunate because, it has been a true blessing that allowed me the change to internalized a true understanding of something I will refer to as a culture of poverty.
I started my career, an idealist. I believed that if people had access to the tools and resources they needed, like some kind of a mathematical equation, you would see families rise above poverty and into a life of self-sufficiency and health. In my idealist mathematical equations I did not think about the decades of investments made into economic development and poverty reduction initiatives, still leaving countries, like Kenya with populations in excess of 60% living below the poverty line. It wasn’t until I worked here, and began engaging with the plethora of development agencies and organizations working towards the same end, “poverty reduction,” that I saw, development to them as more of a business, one that they need to continue. Where people are “developed” only to a certain point, a certain threshold, where they may be better off than they once were, but is in no way are stable or self-sufficient. They are still in need, waiting for the next donor to inject any amount of funding for a project or initiative to “better” their situation. These were the things I did not consider until I moved beyond wanting to learn and understand systems and approaches, and began paying attention to people.
I still do not know what the most appropriate terminology is for countries where poverty is dominant. I am not comfortable with any of them to be honest. I find them all very patronizing. The “global-south” implies being lower or below. “Developing” implies that these countries are behind, slow or backwards. “Third-world,” implies some sort of triage or hierarchy. These to me all capture a perception that is demeaning and does not represent what their state is or what the issues are. I could use any of these implied definitions to speak about the U.S. or the U.K. at so many levels beyond economics even. These countries are not lacking resources or capacity – it is just not distributed evenly across the broader population – for reasons that are not related to being lower, behind or backwards. So to ease my own discomfort, I will not refer to any of these areas of the world by a title at all. But rather the very thing that I have been able to isolate that has been an impediment to growth: A culture and mindset of poverty, which you will find in every corner of this globe, (which is one world anyway).
A culture of poverty is a mindset, attitude, and application of behaviors that exist within individuals, families, communities and even national structures/institutions which is in persistent need and waiting. It transfers through generations. It is one that is convinced that change can only come from the outside, rather than within the self. It is a belief system that self-driven growth and change is limited, and freedom from need is dependent on others to achieve. It is lowered expectations on one’s potential, and living under layers of excuses to account for stunted achievements. “I have no one to sponsor me…I have no one to show me…. I have no one to give me… You know, they are corrupt and won’t hire me…”
I am not sure the root of this culture but I can only imagine it is the effect of decades of poorly approached “development work” where money is poured into communities skewing markets to be dependent on external resources and leadership, and no thought of sustainability built in. Projects set up by NGO’s that were never intended to get people out of poverty, but only to get people to a point still kept them needy enough that a proposals for more money could be developed. I suspect it is related to, governmental leadership that for decades also has mismanaged national resources requiring multi-national support to address funding gaps ensuring basic national health services are available, roads are maintained and other infrastructure in place. And beyond that, I suspect really it is partly the destructive legacy of colonialism – a system which distorted every level of social function, and intended to keep countries subservient. Truth is there are a lot of reasons why any one person or group of people could adopt this culture and have it so normalized in day to day life, that survival in itself becomes enough. But, no matter its precise source, the only way to really empower communities to rise up from impoverished conditions, is one that breaks through this cultural barrier.
Working with youth becomes particularly exiting when you realize that addressing this pervasive culture is the key to unlock an individual’s potential, because youth are not yet set in their ways. They have that idealism, I relate to so strongly, that makes anything possible. Its not about an investment of external resources. It is about reinforcing a belief in someone’s potential. Its about letting them know their dreams are not as far-fetched as their present circumstances may make them seem. It is motivating them to take ownership on their future – to know that their journey ahead is determined by how much they allow themselves to strive for, work towards, fight for even and have faith in. Each one of us, is the greatest limitation that we have in this life. And for every person that SFH works with, we work against this culture of poverty and watch a transformation occur. It is not instant, and often comes with some struggle, stumbles but ultimately there is a rising up in self-assurance, and self-belief. It has been amazing to be able to understand that this slight difference in approach makes the fruits of our labor so much more meaningful and effective than simply sending one to school or setting up a business. It means a life is changed. Success is not a gamble, because it is now within the reach of every person who desires it, and is in their hands. We have seen our students accept responsibility for what they do with the opportunities they have given, and thrive to establish careers they are passionate about. They strategize on how to make their visions reality without waiting for someone to show them or give them a lead on how. Beyond this they also believe that they need to pass on this mentality- and mentor, even some sponsor, other youth in their lives or with SFH. If that is not true growth, true empowerment, true self-development true freedom from a life of lowered expectations and need– then I don’t know what is! This is the difference between SFH and other programs… and it’s a difference that is as stark as day or night.