Images of poverty mean nothing in today’s world. We’ve all seen the cleft-lipped children, the men and women starving to death in refuge camps, the husband sobbing over the wife’s broken body, the images of houses where twelve people sleep on a dirt floor.
If images alone were enough to motivate us to do something about poverty, these images wouldn’t be in every issue of the New York Times.
Not only are the images so common they are valueless, but the entire idea of “doing something” has lost its meaning. “Doing something” tends to result in overentitled volunteers running around Africa in air-conditioned jeeps, or missionaries imposing their value system on an alien culture. Most damning of all, “doing something” suggests that “we” are acting upon “them,” as if “they” were not capable of acting.
With any luck, Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” will inspire at least some people to smash this paradigm. People living in poverty are as complicated as you or I. They have the same capacities for hope, rage, envy, spite, love, and kindness as anyone. Their conditions are different and have produced different people, but their conditions do not define their selves, only how they live and how they react.
Boo’s fantastic reporting reads like a novel, with vivid characters and painful moral complexity. With her stories, she brings to us the people behind the images, the stories behind the victims.