It’s time to listen to the poor
12 Mar 2015 by William Pleitez, Deputy Resident Representative and Chief Economist in El Salvador
Listening to the poor deepens the wisdom of nations. “We must look at things from the perspective of those who are directly affected,” advises Mahbub ul Haq, founder of the Human Development Index.
On this basis, UNDP, with the help of TECHO, conducted fieldwork in 20 poor communities in El Salvador and recently published its findings in the report Poverty in El Salvador from the Perspective of its Protagonists (link in Spanish).
Contrary to what public opinion polls reveal, when poorer communities themselves were asked to identify the country’s main problem, their response was the poverty in which they live.
When asked what “living in poverty” meant to them, most people agreed on three points:
- “Look at what we eat,” said a woman, referring to her diet, which consists of salt, tortillas, beans and rice. She noted that her family was often unable to eat three times a day and had to skip meals. “When things become serious, even if I can’t eat, I try to make sure that at least my children can.”
- “Look at where we live,” commented another woman, referring to the many structural problems visible in the floor, roof and walls of her home, and deploring the lack of basic services. “We live packed in together, in the midst of filth,” she added, with shame, as one of the young surveyors asked if he could use the bathroom in her house.
- The lack of time and space for recreation at home, at school and in the community. “There’s nothing for us to do here,” an adolescent said bitterly. When asked what she does with her spare time, one woman answered, “I gather wood if we need it; otherwise I open my Bible and read.”
When asked about the causes of their poverty, residents offered three main responses. The most frequent was “lack of work.” And that's not because people don’t work. On the contrary, they work very hard, but the work they can find is almost always temporary or poorly paid. “If I have work, I’m happy because I know that even if I don’t earn very much, I’ll be able to eat,” a day laborer explained. “The problem is, I have work today but I might not have work tomorrow. Poverty drains us because we don’t have work every day.”
“Loss of health” was also mentioned frequently. It prevents people from pursuing their few opportunities to work and means families must absorb additional expenses for transportation and medicine. “If you are motivated, working to earn your daily bread brings happiness,” a man in his 60s said. “But watch out - if you get sick, instead of money coming in, it goes out.”
The third reason was the threat of “losing what little you have” in a natural disaster or, above all, from violence or crime. “We love soccer,” a young man said, “but I can’t bring [my girlfriend] with me because when I did, we were robbed.”
Surprisingly, lack of education was almost never mentioned as a direct cause of their poverty. Upon reflection, the explanation was obvious. Those surveyed know that education is essential to escape from poverty, but they also know that the level that their children reach, or is within their grasp, is inadequate to achieve that objective.
Listing to the poor today in El Salvador thus means giving priority to decent work, education, health, food security, public safety, housing and opportunities for recreation – without forgetting that “when everything is a priority, nothing is.”
Read the full blog on Revista Humanun in Spanish.