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How to write about poor people, cont’d (the Interactive Edition)

This second post is the result of crowd-sourcing this satire.

I turned to all of you in response to one commenter who really thought I needed to improve the satire quality of the previous post. Another commenter suggests reading the all-time-great classic “How to Write About Africa,” which was of course an inspiration, and whose brilliant author, Binyavanga Wainaina,  I would no more dream of matching than Shakespeare.

An anonymous commenter  (an extremely talented, knowledgeable, and well known writer on global poverty, among other topics) got the ball rolling by suggesting these additions to the list:

11. Assume that all poor people everywhere have the same interests and views on all subjects.
12. You can take the views of Western-based NGOs as a proxy for the composite opinions noted in rule 11.

I then went to crowd-sourcing and many great suggestions have now come in. I have taken the liberty of liberally editing the suggestions to fit the format, the original authors are listed below:

Alanna Sheikh MPH:

13. Leave untouched the assumption that poor people are all non-white, but never openly admit it.

14. You may use the phrase “these people” as an alternative to the poor, as in “these people have nothing” or “these people still live as their ancestors have for centuries”


15. Suggest specific answers that will end poverty in every possible situation, such as a package of microcredit, fertilizer subsidies, and a women’s handicraft cooperative.


16. Simplify poor people’s cultural, social, and political systems as easy to understand and easy to change. You will not have space to attempt to explain why THEIR societies are so different from OUR intractably complex societies.

@altmandaniel on Twitter:

17.  It is not necessary to talk to any real poor people, they do not understand how to solve their problems anyway.

Tyler and Sarah and booksquirm inspired the following:vanity-fair-bono

18. Use liberally the pronoun “we,” such as “we must act now to end poverty.” You don’t ever need to make clear who is “we,” although it is obviously not the poor.

And John was the inspiration for this one:

19. burning-hutWhen you give an anecdote about one poor individual, make sure it is as extreme and non-representative as possible, such an HIV-positive famine victim being chased by child soldiers

Transitionland inspired:

20. Do not mention any individuals in a poor community who have now escaped poverty, don’t seek any lessons, it was probably either luck or evil behavior.


21. Write about the interests of the poor as entirely consistent with other good things, such as preserving the natural environment and fighting global warming.

and inspired by Word_Bandit:

22. Appeal to the voyeurism of your rich audience reading about “the poor,” but do so tastefully.


23. If anyone does finally object to the label “the poor,” use “the vulnerable” instead. “Vulnerable”  has the added advantage that it is so vague that you can make up just about any story you want about this group.


24. Be sure to include statements in the form “X children die every minute because of  diseease or problem Y. Y could be easily eliminated at a cost of $Z (a modest number).” X, Y, Z can be quoted from other people whose methods of estimating X, Y, and Z you do not need to scrutinize too carefully.

Indirectly inspired by many readers:

25. Sarah-McLachlanSuggest to the readers some demonstrative action that they can do to end poverty,such as wearing a white band on their wrist. How these actions affect global poverty does not have to be completely spelled out.

OK I think that’s a wrap, thank you for all of your suggestions! The outpouring of responses suggests a lot of discontent with the cliches, stereotypes, and tolerance for nonsense in poverty writing. (I don’t claim to speak for all of you, feel free to disagree.)  As I have said before, remember that satire is the weapon of the weak. None of us have much direct power to change the unaccountable establishment’s “consensus.” But we can tell poverty writers: “get serious,or beware of ridicule.”
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  1. Tyler Ahn wrote:

    Lump all the poor folks from all the poor countries as from the south and that all the rich folks from the north are going to save them by dumping food/money/whathaveyou

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  2. Alanna wrote:

    Assume all poor people are non-white.

    Assume poor people have no discretionary income.

    Make liberal use of the phrase “these people,” ideally in the context of “these people have nothing”

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Ian wrote:

    Assume that some combination of microfinance, subsidized fertiliser and women’s handicraft co-operatives is the answer for all countries and all situations

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  4. Sarah wrote:

    Include in the article the ubiquitous picture of white hands cradling the earth to send the subliminal message that white people are the answer to all of the poor people’s problems.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Saundra wrote:

    Infantilize developing countries. Assume that their political systems are less complex than our own, their culture more straightforward and easier to change, their people less intelligent, and their social problems are simpler to solve than our own.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  6. Ray wrote:

    When you write, assume that every single problem in Developing Countries are easily resolved by throwing money to such countries.

    Always ask more charity from Developed Countries, and forget about the institutions that govern Developing Countries.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  7. John wrote:

    Make no distinction between children laboring in a factory and children working on their family’s farm to bring in the harvest. Better still, do not qualify the term “child labor” in any way; let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps with their own Dickensian imagery.

    Never skip an opportunity to write about poor people making handbags, jewelry, or children’s toys out of trash, then selling it to tourists. Call attention to the irony of this arrangement in the most ham-fisted manner possible. Assume that there will always be a market in the West for buying these products. Further assume that all involved are ecstatic about this. Don’t paint it as a mere transaction between a producer and a consumer. The “producer” is in fact a hero for repurposing cast-off items, and the “consumer” is likewise a hero for supporting the enterprise.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  8. booksquirm wrote:

    Assume ‘we’ the reading and writing community are as monolithic as ‘they’ are: it keeps the grammar and narrative simple, expands your opinion into a shared viewpoint and means you don’t have to worry about what they would think if they ever read any of it.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  9. Alanna wrote:

    One more: assume that poor people are special/know what really matters/spiritual/close to God or nature because of their poverty

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  10. J. wrote:

    Take any of the above (perhaps especially 16 and 17) to the opposite extreme:

    – Assume that societies, cultures and problems are so utterly and hopelessly complicated that only the most incisively brilliant researcher (the one doing the writing at a given time) is the only person capable of really “getting it.”

    – The poor are the ONLY people who can possibly think themselves out of the predicaments that they’re in. They see their situation for exactly what it is, in all of it’s layered complexity. No need to analyze anything or try to do any thinking outside the box. Just ask a random taxi driver: he’ll know the solution offhand.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  11. solarafrica wrote:

    Of course you must provide visual support for your article, an picture of a small black child with enormous eyes does the trick, no matter what topic you are addressing.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  12. John wrote:

    Remark that different cultures have different perceptions of wealth. Refrain from elaborating or mentioning this idea again as you continue writing what you were going to anyway.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  13. Divya wrote:

    Poor people are always darker
    Poor people are always dirty/muddy/unkempt/wear loose clothes or none

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  14. John wrote:

    Ask a Poor Person what their greatest ambition is. Write about it only if their reply is heart-breakingly naive in its optimism, or soul-crushing in the drudgery of low expectations.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  15. John wrote:

    Use extreme examples to illustrate the norm, but don’t make it clear that this is what you’re doing.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  16. mike wrote:

    Assume they like to eat, drink clean water and not suffer from AIDS.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  17. Assume the poor are morons. Or…

    Assume the poor possess mysterious genius

    Don’t seek out the people who made their way out of poverty in a certain community to find out how they accomplished that. Assume it was a fluke.

    When a poor person tells you he or she believes something that is scientifically untrue (this most often happens in health contexts) assume that incorrect belief is deeply rooted in the local culture and not simply the product of poor education.

    Assume the people you talk to are looking out for everyone in their community, and not just themselves.

    Assume the men you meet speak for the women in their community or vice versa.

    Assume the poor people you meet have always lived as you see them live today.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  18. John wrote:

    1. a lot of people have never actually seen a poor person but they have a dorothea lange exhibition. use that as a reference point.
    2. the poor come in two varieties: racist and salt-of-the-earth.
    3. the poor have done nothing to deserve their fate. except in cases when they HAVE. but in those cases, they’ve apologized and/or reformed their ways — which is just like having done nothing to deserve their fate.
    4. you can’t understand poverty by citing a few statistics.
    5. to understand poverty, one need only look at the statistics.
    6. single people are rarely poor. just families.
    7. previous efforts to combat poverty have failed … “but this time could be different.”
    8. there’s a young, dynamic mayor somewhere who’s doing something.
    9. the face of poverty is changing.
    10. the face of poverty never changes. we must break the cycle.
    11. there are simple solutions to cure poverty that pay for themselves and will absolutely, 100% of the time, you-can-bank-on-it, work … why we’re not already doing them is unclear.
    12. poverty generally happens below the Mason-Dixon line in America.
    13. there are no poor Canadians.
    14. when discussing uncomfortable stereotypes, imply that they are true but state that they are false.
    15. the magic-bullet theory of eradicating poverty is easier on everybody: editors, headline writers, philanthropists. everybody.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  19. D. Watson wrote:

    Something I think you would be interested in, filed under the heading “If this is how we keep our own house, why do we think we can help anyone clean theirs?” The sorry state of the San Francisco government.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  20. Matt wrote:

    Never, under any circumstances, utter the word “corruption.”

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  21. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Be certain to use the voyeuristic label “poor.”

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  22. David Brown wrote:

    Assume “they” are the problem and “we” are the solution.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  23. PaulH wrote:

    Point out, earnestly, that only “pro-poor growth” helps alleviate poverty.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  24. PaulH wrote:

    Suggest that it is up to “development partners” to formulate growth strategies for sustainable development

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  25. LOL! Loved #20

    The “poor” are obviously corrupt or… well..poor.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  26. Assume that the poor are incapable of speaking for themselves or representing their own interests. Otherwise, it’s impossible for your readers to present themselves as a “voice for the voiceless.”

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  27. Carrie wrote:

    Don’t actually use the word poor. Say “vulnerable” instead. It’s more politically correct and it leaves you an out. No one REALLY knows what it means but everyone nods along very seriously.

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  28. Ben wrote:

    Suggest that a certain number of poor children die every second from ______ because of your inaction.

    Point out that if the West just spent _____ on development programs instead of ______, there would be no such thing as poverty.

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  29. Steve wrote:

    I like these. 17, 18, 21 and both of J’s comments in particular.

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 3:51 am | Permalink
  30. lorenz wrote:

    …assume the “poor” want/need “our” “help”.

    …highlight program transparency by putting information online – of course, this transparency is mostly only reaching those with internet connection, computer knowledge, and education, while it is not reaching the people receiving products or services from NGOs, Gov’t, etc…

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 5:35 am | Permalink
  31. Wendy wrote:

    Write about the poor as though “they” are one unit…actually, a seperate entity…similar to “us” human beings but not quite the same. Then, propose a solution to ‘their’ problem and debate your solution with other ‘human beings’ from various disciplines, presuming that one side is correct~ but be sure to never include the opinions of “them”.

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  32. Word_Bandit wrote:

    I so disagree with Carrie.

    My critique has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with the problem of labels. It’s rooted in how language shapes and changes problems and ultimately realities.

    The poor (a class with which I am well acquainted, even though it presumably doesn’t count because I am an American, and Americans don’t “really go hungry”) don’t need to be branded–it’s a label that ultimately binds the person to a social condition that we too easily identify once we’ve walked through the fire.

    “Poor” becomes that thing that you are when you are not like the rest of so many others, when you don’t know if you will survive it through another week, or even if you want to. This is a trauma state, and the label of “poor” becomes something like a PTSD trigger.

    That condition is a complex matrix born of fear, want, social inadequacy, and feelings of abandonment.

    The complex relationship between poverty, psychology, and socialization cannot be dismissed as a mere gesture of political correctness.

    There is a fine line between trying to use language to describe (describe a reality that you’re looking at objectively and giving a label to), and psychologically robbing others bit by bit of the dignity they have as humans.

    Value, dignity, worth, potential waiting to explode on the horizon like a bright shining light, if they don’t have to carry around that ball and chain of “poor” that socialization (via those who have) bequeaths to them.

    Perhaps I’ll write a personal anecdote about being “poor” while living in Manhattan, and how it felt when I was looked at for being one of those “they” were grateful not to be.

    Right now, I don’t have time. Thank God I am on the “other side” of a very arbitrary reality.

    That is why “vulnerable” may well be a better word choice . . . not because it is ambiguous, but because it is malleable, less definitive, less writ in stone.

    “Poor” is a class, a social condition from which those living in it often see very little hope of escape.

    “Vulnerable” allows the person to see a wedge of hope, and the possibility that they rise above a hard reality to “stability.”

    Apologies for editorial oversights.

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  33. Jarett wrote:

    Consider the billions of dollars stolen by corrupt leaders as unrelated to the development of poor countries.

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  34. Jeff wrote:

    Wow.. Lots of ideas about how to write about the poor. My humble addition:

    Whatever you are proposing to do for the poor must be presented as the magic bullet that has heretofore been overlooked, but which is cruelly beyond the reach of the poor and requires lots of money to increase their access to the magic bullet.

    Posted December 29, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  35. mike wrote:

    Assume there really are no poor people, or at least none who don’t choose to be poor, and therefore deserve what they have.

    Assume hard problems solve themselves, or if not, there’s nothing I can or should do about it anyway.

    Assume those who point to poverty, inequality, or other social or global ecological problems simply fear mongering.

    (ahh,…. I think I’ll sleep better tonight.)

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  36. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Assume that setting a target to reduce poverty and spending money on this intention constitutes an aid output.

    On an enthusiastic day, assert that a target is an aid outcome and an aid impact.

    Disregard the absence of any practical method to achieve the proposed outcome.

    Manage evaluation to prevent nasty surprises.

    Remember the golden rule of marketing that perception is vastly more important than reality. Don’t let reality get in the way of perception.

    Posted December 31, 2009 at 7:14 am | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. By uberVU - social comments on December 28, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bill_easterly: Let’s crowd source satire! Send in your own suggestions for “how to write about poor people” (2 great ones in so far)

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