Helping Comes from Listening

During graduate school I worked in Mumbai, India, on a project involving poverty and child prostitutes in slums.

Under a monsoon sky that seemed to be hanging so low you could touch it, we were waiting for a simple part for a water pump to be delivered (delayed due to incredible bureaucratic hurdles from international organizations).

Wandering through the slum, I met an international relief worker from the UK. We walked through small alleys lined with mall huts filled with families and cages where women were held. It was an overwhelming and surreal experience. In the midst of this, the relief worker said: “I just want to help these people. I came to help them live with dignity.”

A young woman looked out from her shanty doorway and said: You can’t give me dignity. I wake every day to take care of my family and fulfill my duty and destiny. What you can give me is a chance — to get out of here, to send my children to school, and to have a voice.

I did not know then how that experience would manifest itself, but it was a life-changing moment. Almost 10 years later, I am starting to see its lessons.

The best kinds of help we can provide to those who are struggling is to increase freedom and opportunity. Poverty means more than being without certain kinds of goods and services. It means the loss of individual freedom, choice and voice. People living in poverty often say they feel marginalized and ignored. It often means some other group chooses what is best, instead of hearing the voices of those in need.

I learned many things over the years from this young woman. One of those lessons is to ask myself in my work helping the poor: Am I listening to their voice?

Bina Patel is Director of the Oregon Asset Policy Initiative at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank. She was selected by The Oregonian to be one of twelve Community Writers. This piece originally appeared on