Yep, poor people have mobiles. Please give them more money.

The moment I spot the mobile phone I flash an eyebrow at our photographer. It says “Damn it, can we get that out of there? If not physically, then at least out of the shot? I totally forgot about mobile phones…”

Then I continue to forget about mobiles because #otherfishtofry and clearly Alex just thinks I’m throwing shade at him again, because when I check the photos later, there it is, in most of the pictures. The mobile. And this is a problem.

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Because here’s the thing, folks: poor people don’t have mobiles. And since we’re in West Timor to collect stories and shoot footage encouraging people to get behind projects that support ‘poor people’, the presence of this contradictory, offensive mobile phone in the pics means we’re stuffed.

Why don’t poor people have mobiles? Because they’re poor, damn it! Poor people should fulfil a range of criteria – brown skinned, humble, and definitely (tragically) without Nice Things like technology.

Most people in West Timor live on less than A$2 a day. Ruled by the Dutch until 1975 and still struggling to recover from colonialism, WT is Indonesia’s poorest province. 95% of the people are Christian. And in spite of their very significant poverty, many of them have mobiles.

Hold the outrage. This is true of people in most developing (and developed) countries. More than half of India’s sprawling population own phones – more in fact than own toilets. In the US, growing and grinding poverty is a massive problem, but people will go without food before they give up their phones.

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Okay then, goes the logic. Can’t need our help too badly.

Here’s where our understanding of poverty reveals its cracks.

It takes relatively little to own and maintain a resource like a mobile phone. Outlay the cost, pay a bill. The impact is immediate and ongoing – from relational kickbacks to information and economic benefits. In West Timor, I watched a man with virtually no sight, who works as a masseur, use his mobile to line up clients in Kupang. The mobile was voice activated – he couldn’t even see the screen. Thanks to a loan that helped build up his business, he earns around $5 a day, but he still draws his water from a well next to the house. It’s often pretty dirty, he tells us.

Education, clean water, electricity and employment – the building blocks of wealth and stability – are big issues. How much control does an individual have over these things from day to day? And even when there is some personal control, where’s the immediate gratification in saving for and using a toilet if everyone in your village has been enjoying the great outdoors since time immemorial and has never been educated about the impact of poor sanitation?

The standards we apply to people who are ‘poor’ are often much higher than the standards we apply to ourselves. Not only should people on low incomes save every penny rather than spending on anything ‘extra’ , they should also educate themselves and practise delayed gratification with discipline. (I don’t. I just ate three Easter eggs, Easter is three weeks away and there’s heart disease in the family.)

Our measure of who deserves our charity is also skyhigh, even if not always conscious. Outside my office in Sydney over the last few years, the posture of homeless people asking for donations has changed dramatically. Many are adopting a kneeling, face to the pavement position, their hands clasped around a cup. They look destitute and humbled. Something in the approach must be working.

There’s no doubt that the poorer we think people are, the better we feel about giving to them. But does this make sense?

It’s cuts me up that so many of us only give once the pictures of Africa’s starving children or the Pacific’s floating bodies are all over our television screens. It’s as though people are not really ‘poor’ or ‘desperate’ enough in this world to warrant our attention or generosity until they’re actually dead, or near enough.

And yet, if we invested just a layer above – at those who own the cheap, basic mobile phones and are ready to make their way in the world, no matter how difficult it might be – we could save hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of dollars. You’d think this early intervention and huge return on investment would make us feel great, but it’s hard to compete with the emotional impact of knowing we’ve saved a life in a crisis.  Or maybe we’re just crap at planning ahead.

In fact, one dollar invested before disaster can save fifteen after tragedy strikes. That’s because it’s far cheaper to help protect people from the crushing poverty that makes them vulnerable to disaster, war and disease than it is to help them recover afterwards. Proper investment in the lives of people throughout the Horn of Africa a few years ago could probably have prevented what’s now being described as the greatest food threat since 1945.

But no. Some idiot probably took photos of them carrying mobile phones.

In West Timor, 35,000 families have already been assisted through small loans, education grants and community gardens provided by the guys we work with (TLM Foundation, check them out) to build lives for themselves that are meaningful and dignified. Don’t get me wrong. By anyone’s standards, they’re still poor. But investing in these communities is about looking ahead and creating a whole society more likely to resist disease, conflict, radicalisation and the impact of changing climate, including devastation from natural disaster. And they’re doing it for themselves, rather than being rescued later.  That’s an impressive return by anyone’s standards, don’t you think?

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Give money in a crisis, by all means. But don’t wait til then. Dig a bit deeper and give all year round, to projects that prevent the crisis in the first place. I reckon we can afford it.  And don’t be put off by mobile phones.

They’re a good sign.

Image:  Alex Baker MarketLane Media *not idiot.

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