Examining Poverty through Chasing Chaos

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The problem of massive worldwide poverty bedevils many of the kindhearted among the middle class. These people would like to do something to eliminate or at least alleviate it, but it seems to be an overwhelming problem with no clear solution. Nevertheless, they can be counted on to consider the latest so-called solution to poverty posted on Facebook or to respond with donations when a new crisis arises. Because of this, solutions are sometimes not solutions at all but instead ways of reducing their sense of guilt and responsibility – and, for those that provide the “solutions,” to make money. Meanwhile, knowing that people are attracted to the problem of poverty and wish to understand it better, there are others who provide virtual or literal access to the poor of the world – for a fee. These niche businesses, known as poverty porn, attract money and scorn for both its producers and consumers. What is clear to the critic, however, is not always clear to the consumer, and what looks like exploitation to one set of eyes may appear to be an opportunity to make a difference to another.

Jessica Alexander and her book Chasing Chaos could fall into almost all of these categories, except that of the passive consumer. Without a doubt, Alexander immersed herself in the life of aid worker, just as she seems to have immersed herself in the role of author. Chasing Chaos is earnestly written and honest about much of what Alexander sees. Where the book and the author might fall short is in the matter of what she does not see – and why she does not see it. This, in turn, might provide some insight into the question of who's who is the poverty porn game. Is everyone but the poor to blame for their situation? Or is it the other way around? Do the middle class people who come to “make a difference” during a week out of the year, or who contribute random items to a clothing drive, end up doing more harm than good? And if so, is this the evidence that they are in part responsible for the conditions in which the poor languish? 

Alexander, by virtue of having explored all of these questions to some extent and by even typifying the exploitative nature of poverty porn through the tour guide style of her book, serves as a useful point of departure in this exploration – or at least her book and herself as described in the book do. It is the thesis of this book that poverty tourists and even more engaged people like Alexander herself can be judged for their lack of comprehension about the structural foundations of poverty, but to condemn them for making an attempt at making a difference that is ineffective and naive is itself to lack perspective on the problem, its own kind of naivete. The paper will begin this exploration with the two main characters in Alexander's book – herself and the poor of under-developed nations.

From here, an examination of the world of poverty tourism will serve to develop the central question of where these middle-class people fit into the poverty puzzle. Next, an examination of a specific instance of Internet activism focused on poverty will serve to examine another dimension of the question. Finally, an exploration of the forces beyond individual actors will further illustrate the context within which the problem of poverty worldwide takes place.

There is an effort to be honest – and even brutal – with herself that can endear Alexander to the cynical reader. Here, one might say, is at least a writer who is attempting to reveal some aspect of herself honestly. How she does that is by presenting herself in the most physically unattractive light possible, which immediately tells us the limits of her honesty. “Here,” she seems to say, “I am so honest that you see me ugly, when I am usually beautiful.”

Alexander's hair at one point of the book is oily and clumpy; in the same place we are told her calves and armpits are hairy, presumably an unusual state for them (2). Soon after this period, she attempts to wear sunblock only to end up with a filmy, white clown mask on her face because her skin is so dirty it cannot absorb the cream (3). Later, she pees down her leg when she is attempting to use a hole for human waste that is filled with flies that explode upwards between her legs when she tries to use it (178). There is more of her looking ugly and silly. It is an honest, if limited portrait. It also succeeds in creating a picture of her that is charming and earnest in its fallibility, as if she was a modern-day Lucille Ball in some wacky adventure. It also creates a sense of fallibility that makes other, more substantial claims seem more believable, such as her efforts to get a child airlifted out of a difficult situation when everyone was telling her to give up. 

Alexander the physical can be made to be ugly, but there is little about Alexander the internal that is as demeaning – or, perhaps, honest. She is frustrated by the horrible conditions she works in, but it just reminds the reader that she has chosen to work in horrible conditions. She “hooks up” a couple of times, but there's little to those admissions – certainly no moral assessment. It's what aid workers do, she comes very close to saying.

Then there is an odd accusation, tossed off in the middle of a story about an indigenous aid worker who she characterizes as someone close to her. “With the existence of a parallel economy fueled by international agencies,” she writes, “local aid workers didn't really have an incentive to discourage its continuation – or, by extension, to solve the problems that kept us here and kept them employed” (169). Much of Alexander's prose is ambiguous when it approaches the politics of the situation into which she leapt - “it's hard, nothing works here” would be one way to characterize it – but here she makes a stunning gaffe as she blames a local aid worker for not solving poverty in his country – and, as a result, for keeping her there. It is a breathtaking act of guilt and responsibility transference – and one suspects it is genuine. One might prefer the side of Alexander that is more concerned about being liked. Her attempts to delve into the bigger questions, when they approach this level of ignorance, are difficult to bear.

Her descriptions of the people around her are rather superficial, but also largely inoffensive. There is an “endless flow of colored specks” that becomes families displaced by war (2). There is the driver, Alfred, who appears to her in a blue UN T-shirt and oversized baseball cap (25). He is instantly her friend and protector, but it is early in the book, and one expects that the reaction was real, if somewhat racist. There are the incompetent local workers – Adam, who cannot get the facilities working properly (2), and Yusuf, who is an an elderly man who is supposed to be guarding them but instead, she is certain, is sleeping all the time (6). One senses a frustration with the help, but it is kept partially beneath the surface. It begins to gnaw at the reader, though, in unexpected places. For example, she refers to locals as having “giraffe-like features,” something one cannot but expect never gets used as a descriptor in her cafes in New York (29). Then she states that “The Rwandan women were amazingly put together and stylish” (38). Their secret, she reveals, is a color palette white women could never wear – garish greens and yellows and purples and oranges. If they looked good and she didn't, she seems to be saying, it wasn't her fault; she could never look good the way they did.

Can Alexander be forgiven for all this? Absolutely. Is she an evil woman who worked in international aid for years just to talk about the people she encountered in denigrating ways? Certainly not. The work is thankless, and the ability of a young middle-class woman to tell her story and draw attention to the problems she encountered is, in fact, much more important than the shortcomings her storytelling reveals about herself. In fact, some would suggest that any honest depiction of life in a foreign country will reveal some degree of racism, and an honest depiction of life among the poor will reveal some degree of classism. It just goes with the territory. 

However, the choices are not merely letting Alexander off the hook or condemning her as evil. Her unintentional subtext is extremely important in understanding the phenomenon of poverty tourism and similar misguided efforts to engage with the poor of the world. If, on balance, Alexander herself had a positive impact in a situation beyond her control, in an environment that was constructed without her understanding or approval – and which she to some extent condemns in her book, this does not make her innocent. It just means she is not the top dog, so to speak. Her work within the aid system perpetuates the aid system. 

To argue that someone would do it if she didn't conjures echoes of other moral quandaries born in the 20th century. What is clear from her account and many others like it is that the aid system is hopelessly outmatched by the circumstances within which it operates – and others have convincingly argued that it perpetuates itself for its own sake and not for the benefit of the people it serves. An epithet that is kin to but older than poverty porn is the phrase poverty pimp. Born out of the ghettos of the cities of the North in the U.S., it refers to people who make a living off of the suffering of poor people - those plaqued by lack of financial resources and oftentimes facing eviction. The poverty pimp does not want to solve the problems of the poor – they are worth too much to him intact.

Alexander is not a poverty pimp, but the aid system has been characterized as such, and it casts a pall over the earnest efforts of people like Alexander to make a difference, and it makes their attempts to explain the world they inhabited somewhat fraught. After all, little was accomplished (Alexander admits as much), and it is unusual for such memoirs to explore the root causes and advocate a solution. In the end, then, one might ask what it was all about.

It is also possible, however, for one to read Alexander's book, learn a little about the aid system, visit foreign lands, meet a resourceful, brave young girl who lost her mother at an early age, and feel inspired about the whole thing. This level of read, in fact, seems to be more common, judging by the book's blurbs. This tone, and this attitude, is the beginning of a point of view that could easily go from reading about Alexander's life as an aid worker to wanting to know more about the countries she worked in. There is a whole industry for this sort of person.

Rafia Zakaria, in a column for the New York Times, uses the term voluntourism to describe a short stay in a country with deep poverty, during which time a short-term project – digging a well, doing a barn raising-type building construction – is purported to make a profound difference in the lives of the people the voluntourists have just met (2014). The trip includes photos with the recipients of the largesse of the voluntourists. Zakaria condemns this practice and reminds readers that contributions are made to domestic needs for the poor every day without some sort of spectacle being introduced into the package, without the lives of the people who are being helped being put on display as part of the price of participation. 

Voluntourism is a much more accurate term, even for the donors or simple consumers of stories of poor countries and communities, because it acknowledges the escapism that is an inherent part of the impulse. Even in the case of someone as dedicated as Alexander, there is an inevitable element of escapism. Her own book, in fact, suggests that this might be the very motivation that sends her to the developing world. First, she is responding to the death of her mother, which she responds to by trying to live up to an imaginary picture of her mother. Second, she is engaged in shallow relationships when she is engaged in relationships at all. Her descriptions of the natives in her life are thin and suggest a lack of real interest in them – perhaps stemming from an aversion to getting to know someone intimately. Then there are the sexual encounters, shallow sexual escapades which she unconvincingly attributes to her work in international aid. It is as if she cannot be close to the people she encounters while working in other country. This provides some insight into the tone of her book and also puts her more in the tourist camp than she might wish. 

As Emily Roenigk describes it, the problem with volunteerism – real or virtual – is that it gives the donors the illusory sense that they have some special and powerful position in the world that means if they expend some of their vast resources – vast by the scale of an impoverished nation – they will be able to make a magical change (2014). It is alluring because it says you are special, it says you care more than other people, and it says one simple act will demonstrate that. “Why doesn't anybody else care enough to click this button?” muses the virtual voluntourist, and then feels a thrill of accomplishment through the click of a mouse. Meanwhile, it actually makes things worse for the poor because it stifles their voices and reinforces stereotypes about them (Roenigk). Meanwhile, it is remarkable effective at delivering for the humanitarian aid organizations that proffer it as a way to make a change.

Of course, the reality is that making a change would involve helping poor people determine for themselves how to move forward. This largely involves providing resources with no strings attached and not just getting out of the way but never having been in the way in the first place. In other words, resources from middle-class people help to the extent they are free of the expectations and baggage and agenda of them and the organizations that cater to them. Those organizations include most of the aid groups you can think of. When it comes time for them to make decisions, they are making them based upon your needs and your expectations. Because you demand a meaningful experience in exchange for you meager donation, they create a fiction that tells you are getting exactly that. They get paid, and you get to feel good. Whatever happened to the poor people who were supposedly part of the equation gets lost in the shuffle.

Not every effort to assist overseas need fall into this category. In a column for the New York Times, Amy Ernst described her work with a local organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was harder to get to, and the work was less supported than a worker with the United Nations or a large NGO, but it was also more immediate in terms of its ability to make an impact – when a community was in need of their services, which were to provide support for victims of rape, they were able to arrive without the approvals and other red tape that can take aid workers in larger organizations months to acquire. One gets the impression that Ernst's experience was less about her and more about service; she recommends a long-term commitment and humility for those who would get involved. While some people assume the biggest aid organizations are the best, small groups like the one Ernst worked for provide essential skills and local information (Walker & Pepper 8).

While this comes closer to a response that fits the need, it would be unfair to simply condemn Alexander or the Internet voluntourists. What they require is better information, which begins with a more sophisticated understanding of how the world works and why the help that they think they are providing may not be helpful at all. For example, some researchers question the value of aid camps altogether; what does that mean about the donor to an agency that maintains aid camps? (Black). Examining the National Geographic #EndPoverty Hashtag Challenge can further illustrate how well-meaning people are led astray. The project, as described by Katie Nelson for the website Humanosphere, asks for photographs from people that best describe the term #End Poverty (2015). What they get, as represented by the photos in Nelson's post, are images that reinforce the stereotypes of poor people as powerless and weak and unable to help themselves. As Nelson notes, “There are few, if any, photos showcasing the grit, resourcefulness, or determination of people living in poverty. Rather, these collective snapshots create a single narrative for every person and community experiencing extreme poverty” (2015).

Are the photographers who entered the contest to blame? Certainly, they could be more aware of what it means to photograph a child or a family in such a way as to create an impression of powerlessness, but it is impossible to know whether they have been made aware of this problem with the images they are collecting or if they are simply capturing the most compelling thing they see, which will be reminiscent of the the photographs they have been exposed to, which inevitably leads the least circumspect photographers to reproduce the assumptions and biases of the past. It seems more to the point to criticize National Geographic, which as an institution that sends people around the world should be well aware of the causes of deep poverty and the ways in which it can be challenged or reinforced. As mentioned before, however, these voluntourist opportunities are irresistible to the middle class, and they likely raised the online profile of the organization for the life of the contest. Perhaps the short term raising of awareness was to the people at National Geographic worth the exploitation.

The central point is that it really isn't up to them to decide, any more than it is up to anyone else or any other organization. The poor she be allowed to decide what images truly represent them and what images reinforce negative stereotypes. Likewise, short-term aid projects should be identified and managed by the people for whom they are supposed to benefit. That would require complex types of outreach with unexpected results, since real life in impoverished conditions means one's priorities and crises shift from day to day. These are problems, however, in the face of a culture that wants immediate gratification. So the demands of consumer culture in the developed world meet the realities of the developing world, and slowly, over the past several decades, the decision has been made to cater to the needs of the middle class, even if it is at the expense of the poor. Ultimately, one might argue, driving support to aid agencies and other international groups will benefit the poor. The poor, though, might take issue with that.

It is the demands made on communities by government, corporations, criminals, and military operations that keep the poor and make life so hard. These groups take advantage of prejudices that are a part of cultures around the world to keep poor people in poverty, because they are all in different ways dependent on the existence of poverty in order to maintain power. Aid groups are similarly impacted by the degree of suffering, which is their stock in trade. The more suffering there is, the more business there is. Some would argue that this is cynical and that no one is keeping the poor in their place for personal gain. It would be difficult to prove that absolutely no one is doing so, of course, but one can agree that there is little conscious effort to maintain poverty for its own sake. There does not have to be such an effort. All that is required for the institutions that benefit from poverty to continue to operate as they have been is for nothing proactive to be done. This is what is happening, and this is the problem with voluntourism. It leads people to believe they have done some, that they have made a difference. It is a mistake, though, to blame the hapless voluntourists. Nothing productive will come from the blame. Instead, they must be educated about their complicity in a system that rewards the perpetuation of poverty, whether it intends to or not. 

Many people would dedicate time and resources to the problem of poverty if they could. Many seek out voluntarist opportunities because they are not sure what else to do. Meanwhile, major institutions in developing countries operate cynically and profit from the suffering of their people. Others, too, gain from the number of poor and suffering they serve. The people in positions of power in these countries must be taken to task for continuing with business as usual when the landscape has so clearly changed. The worsening state of poverty is at least an issue among some people, so there is a chance that people who now engage in poverty tourism will think twice. In the meantime, communities will likely continue to bear the brunt of a world that is ultimately not concerned enough about the poor to try and understand what they are going through. This will be the true revolution – of the mind – once we truly consider what the poor must go through and what we can do to help, without an eye to our own experience or the salacious desire to capture the images of exotic people of the bush going about their everyday lives.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jessica. Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Black, Richard. “Putting Refugees in Camps.” Forced Migration Review, August 1998. Print. 26 November 2015.

Ernst, A. (2014). You can help, but get support. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/04/29/can-voluntourism-make-a-difference/you-can-help-but-get-support

Nelson, Katie G. “Is NatGeo's New #EndPoverty Contest Just More Poverty Porn? Humanosphere. 24 July 2015. Web. 23 November 2015.

Roenigk, Emily. “5 Reasons 'Poverty Porn' Empowers the Wrong Person.” Huffington Post, 28 October 2014. Web. 23 November 2015.

Walker, Peter, and Pepper, Kevin. “Follow the Money: A Review and Analysis of the State of Humanitarian Funding.” Feinstein International Center. June 2007. Web. 26 November 2015.

Zakaria, Rafia. “Poverty as a Tourist Attraction.” New York Times. 29 April 2014. Web. 22 November 2015.