I can recall being in graduate school in New York having a conversation about Third World development with a fellow student, an American originally from Connecticut. At the time, the end of 2010, I had just returned from a stint with the South African Human Rights Commission and was pretty sour on the potential for poverty reduction. This student was proselytizing on what he felt the problem was in the Global South, rattling off UN statistics as if he had all the answers. The whole time I just stood there and nodded politely, trying to think of an excuse in my head for which to conclude the conversation.
But in the end, as the student lamented the fact that developed countries were cutting back aid programs, I couldn’t help myself.
“What’s the poorest country you’ve ever been to?” I asked.
“I’ve been to the Dominican Republic,” he responded.
“Oh really? Where in the Dominican Republic?”
One of the problems that most Westerners encounter with respect to Third World issues is lack of true understanding. Many Westerners today experience financial problems of one sort or another, especially during this global downturn. However, very few know what it’s like to be poor. I don’t just mean poor, but dirt poor. Poor to the extent where you honestly do not know when your next meal will be. So poor that you have to choose which one of your four children has to sleep outside the mosquito netting because the net is only big enough for three kids.
You can read about these things in books, sure, but one cannot possibly understand unless they have seen the sights, smelt the smells, and felt the gut-wrenching horror of watching fellow human beings suffering what no living person should have to.
Last year I shared some photographs from Spanish photojournalist and friend Omar Havana that went a long way into allowing readers to experience what true poverty is like. The photos, taken just outside the Cambodian city of Siem Reap — a stone’s throw from the Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site — were a lot to take in, even for seasoned travelers of the Third World such as myself who have seen some pretty devastating scenes of poverty before. By far the most popular (and saddest) picture was that of a young boy, who, being so hungry, was about to eat a bag of what looks to be used blood from a medical clinic.
I was able to independently verify the authenticity of these photos by visiting this trash dump myself in February.
Mr. Havana recently returned to the dump to take some new photographs. I encourage FPA’s readership to visit Mr. Havana’s website and view them. Although they could never replace the impact of visiting a place such as the dump first hand, the images are powerful all the same.