“Why aren’t you working?” – A question that should be more loaded than you think

Picture by Beckey Welford, cutesy of Oasis (
Picture by Beckey Welford, courtesy of Oasis (

I started off being slightly amused when, during an exercise conducted at the 2014 CSI Conference, Tracey Chambers, Co-Founder of The Clothing bank, displayed a picture of a woman with no teeth and asked the audience “why doesn’t she have teeth?”  The typical responses were: “she didn’t brush her teeth”; “she didn’t have a toothbrush”; “there were no dental services in her area”; “most people in her community don’t have teeth”; or finally, “teeth aren’t valued by her community”.  Few participants replied with “She doesn’t want teeth”. This is a statement none of the audience members could make because it is so subjective and personal. Similarly with poverty.  There are various life quality indicators used to label people “poor” or “wealthy”, where poor can be seen as lacking quality and wealthy can be seen as high quality living.  This scale proves problematic to individuals who choose their way of life because of internal, personal drivers rather than external, collective definitions. In these cases we would classify them as poor, but according to their personal definitions, they might not agree. This points to the fact that this ‘labelling’ exercise is first and foremost a personal one- an issue of identity.  Thus, although at a population scale, understanding the life quality and relative wealth or poverty of the population is important, at an individual level, how can anyone but the person that identifies with being poor (and whatever that means to them), diagnose that in themselves?

Really grabbing my attention now, Tracey explained that in programme design we often overlook or consider the internal desire or motivation of a participant as secondary. Programmes are generally built to provide toothbrushes, dental services without understanding the complex nature of the problem.  However, the internal drivers are often why the problem persists and usually the reason someone that have participated in an entrepreneurship programme, for example, is successful after an intervention period or not. When we ask young people “why aren’t you working?” we accept it when they say “there are no jobs”.  But, do we understand the underlying personal dynamics that impacts their efforts to pursue opportunity and to make a success of it when they find it?  If we don’t understand these issues, and therefore don’t address them in our programmes, no matter how many jobs we offer them, chances are that we will be disappointed with the outcomes that we achieve.

The Clothing Bank has been using a handy tool, developed by social entrepreneur Martin Burt for Fundación Paraguay, to identify underlying personalised definitions related to poverty. With 50 picture-based indicators and a trained facilitator, women participating in The Clothing Bank’s entrepreneurial programme are identifying key areas where ‘poverty’ exists in their lives.  Insights from The Clothing Bank’s experience in piloting this monitoring and self-assessment tool, has been critical in shifting our mindsets on how we diagnose poverty in individuals.  By honestly looking at the dimensions and  indicators of the Poverty Spotlight Tool, families can actively make shifts in areas they are most motivated about.  The Clothing Bank report that as the women systematically work on moving their issues of poverty from red to green, cultural assumptions are being challenged and historical wounds of being classed as socially inferior are being healed.

The tool helps bring these, sometimes difficult issues, into the person’s awareness for them to address and can also be used for improved service provision and policy change for community development.



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