30 Nov

To be seen is the greatest manifestation of love: On Poverty and how to #SeePeople

A few thoughts on seeing the invisible people.

The city is defined by the visibility of human life; the ways we advance our longing for and belonging within geographical space. But what happens when you become invisible to human life?

Around 5pm on July 7th, I sat outside a café in Shoreditch. For the first time, in a long time, I felt lonely. It was a day filled with multiple frustrations and I had not made the time to process these frustrations. I had also not spoken to anyone that day aside from strangers and this further compounded my emotion. So, I sat down outside a café in Shoreditch, to write and sit with this loneliness.

Soon after, a lady named Samantha approached me. She was homeless and asked me for spare change to pay for a hostel room. As I handed her a ten pound note, our eyes locked for the first time and the feeling of loneliness disappeared. I cannot remember much of July 7th but I can say, with certainty, that on that day I was seen. Someone saw me. When I handed the note to her, she burst into tears. Samantha explained that she had been begging for the whole day and I was the first person to look at her.

Our encounter reminded me of an artist whose work I curated for an exhibition on migration and belonging. The artist’s work was a series of photographs of her reflection in puddles of rain across London. She had taken these photographs when she was homeless and used them as a reminder that she was visible.

Since meeting Samantha, I have been reflecting on the logic of poverty alleviation and the way we see people living in poverty.

As I was writing this essay, I struggled between using the term ‘poor people’ or ‘people living in poverty’ because they articulate different aspects of the issue.

When we use the term ‘poor person’ we reduce the identity of that person to their socio-economic status. On the other hand, poverty is a pervasive condition because it greatly affects your autonomy and the way society determines your dignity.  Human dignity, at least in the UK, is centred on how much one is worth to the economy. Therefore, an absence of material wealth significantly affects social perception of one’s worthiness.

The term ‘poor person’ also connotes permanency. We know that an extended period of living in poverty can affect subsequent generations in a variety of ways ranging from their socio-economic outcomes to reduced cognitive development. In this way, poverty can have long-term effects.

When we use the term ‘people living in poverty’, we reframe poverty as a condition, implying that there are other facets to the people besides their socio-economic status. On the other hand, it also implies that the people have chosen to live in poverty which is not entirely true. People who experience long-term poverty do not give up hopes of leaving poverty but rather learn to live within the conditions of their socio-economic status. It also reflects the difficulty of overcoming the systemic structures which cause poverty. Linda Tirado’s personal account of poverty explores this in excruciating detail.

The question of definition points to a bigger question about the role of agency in poverty.

In development, one way we see people living in poverty is as agents of change. From this perspective, we assume that the agent lacks a certain set of skills, rights or resources which has led to their condition. The solution is to equip them with what they lack, which subsequently changes their circumstances.

Acumen’s latest campaign, #SeePeople, argues for a change in our perceptions of people living in poverty. The campaign argues that acknowledging the agency and capability of people living in poverty is an important element of poverty eradication.

The process of change here can take two routes:

  • Poverty caused by lack of access to X > Agent of change acquires access to X > Access changes external environment > Exit from poverty.
  • Poverty caused by lack of access to X > Agent of change acquires access to X > Access changes internal behaviour of agent> Exit from poverty.


Another view is that if people living in poverty can change their circumstances, they are responsible for ending up there in the first place.  An example of this argument is this interview (below) by former Republican Representative, Jason Chaffetz. In the interview, Chaffetz implies that people from low-income households in America would be able to afford healthcare if they chose to invest in their healthcare instead of buying iPhones.

Chaffetz’s argument perpetuates the fallacy that human beings are entirely rational creatures who sit down to make rational choices with certainty of the intended outcome. Plus, buying an iPhone is not the same as paying for health insurance.

I recall an incident, while studying at Oxford, where I was approached by a woman who wanted me to buy food for her family of five. Faced between the choice of paying her rent or her food, the woman chose the former and had to beg or visit food banks to get food for her family. I tried to persuade her to choose a bag of rice and beans instead of the three frozen pizzas she wanted, which, according to her, would make her family ‘fuller’.

At the time, I thought my cost-benefit analysis seemed efficient, dare I say, even better than her option. What my ‘well thought-out’ analysis failed to include were:

  • the costs of additional ingredients to make the rice and beans
  • the energy costs required to cook the food
  • knowledge on how to cook rice and beans
  • the psychological and physical labour required to cook when your time is spent trying to secure basic needs for your immediate future
  • the assumption that she would still have access to her home in the period it took for a family of five to eat a 1kg bag of rice and beans
  • her personal preference for pizza over rice and beans.


My ‘analysis’ was based on the assumption that long-term planning was the best approach to inform this decision. However, surviving in the short-term was her priority, thinking how best to maximise her options, until her meeting with her Social Worker in 72 hours when she would find out whether she could receive welfare support.

Both Acumen and Chaffetz recognise the agency of people living in poverty albeit for different reasons. So, my question to you is, how do you see people who are living in poverty? How has this affected your work in social change?

Post a reflection below or tweet me your reflections @Marion_AO.

With gratitude,



7 comment on “To be seen is the greatest manifestation of love: On Poverty and how to #SeePeople

  • Thank you for this multi-faceted description around poverty. Maybe meeting poverty is also meeting diversity, albeit in a very narrow sense. If we can’t “meet”, understand poverty, have the courage to look and hear people living in poverty, the same way in which we avoid cultural differences, religious differences, any other type of differences, then we can not be a contributor to any truly sustainable improvements. For this to be possible for all we got to develop the abilities to “meet”, to think global without feeling threatened 🙂 Thanks.

    • Hello Dr. Jacques,

      I’m so thankful for your reflection! I do agree with you, meeting diversity is key to meeting poverty. There is a growing conversation on this, what can we do to learn how to meet diversity in constructive and progressive way?

      Looking forward to engaging with you more.


  • rsece.org is active in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) the first two is Poverty and Hunger relief. I see a spiritual mandate for us in the Holy Bible where Jesus the Messiah (Isa al Masih) spoke in Matthew 25:31-46 things about uplifting the poor. Donations can help, but you can give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach a man how to fish and he can eat everyday and feed his family. Investment with a return on investment (ROI)in a Public Private Partnership can prime the pump and then with proper management exist and expand if the profit is applied. Profit is income after cost and tax is covered. Populations are expanding that is an issue. Improvement to small farmers
    ability to grow more for higher yields will help. We are working on the Enhanced Extension Agent program in Nigeria for the Sub Sahara Africa. We will be helping God willing (Inshallah).

  • To see and to be seen are so essential to humaness as you have beautifully narrated. That’s the first thing needed to bestow dignity– an essential condition which is never thought important. Poverty alleviation ha been boiled down to materialistic deficits. When it comes to funders and grant makers, in the so-called projects there is no time given to establish a connect with the communities you wish to work. Have we ever thought of !spending time with the poor communities before it is decided that they need XYZ? No, never. Tell a funder you want a quarter of any year just to know about the communities, they will be averse to the idea. How does one education and sensitize the governments and donors?

    • Hello Rajeswari,

      Thanks so much for your reflection. Your frustration is shared by many people, and there is a growing conversation within philanthropy to change these power relations. I think what is even more progressive is allowing ‘poor’ communities to define and lead their efforts but this is another conversation altogether!

      Thank you,


  • Your oint on variations in our rationality in decision making is well taken. Even a cursory glance at the outputs of many a democratic election should be enough to convince even a congenitally credible person of our lack of individual or collective rationality. Dealing with this problem drives us onto the dangerous waters of having to choose between education in its classical sense and big brotherish behaviour control. On the other hand, if we should ignore the problem, there is the very real danger of growing public irrationality, particularly catalysed by advertisements embodying the latest mind-management methods of which even Dr. Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Rechsminister für Propaganda)would have been proud. They are very ably supported by what is humourously called ‘media’ both in print and screen, not to forget what is often offered as entertainment. One might honestly claim that ‘freedom of expression’ has wittingly allowed the powerful to keep the plebian in their places and letting them sink more and more by providing them with ‘circus’ without bread. A considerable achievement over those Romans whose decline and fall was inevitable. ‘Good reasons of force give place to better, but when old Julius said it, he had his hand on the hilt of his sword. Could there be some moral in it?


    Lal M.

  • The irony of comrade Jason Chaffetz

    I am certain the capitalist comrade Jason would vehemently object to being called a tovarich. But he has no reason to be so, for marxists of every ilk used exactly the same untenable reductive rhetoric to justify their ideology. Some choice examples come from that terrible tome, ‘Das Kapital’ itself. Somewhere in its murky depths, it says that colonialism in Batavia i.e., the area around the modern Indonesian capital under Dutch rule, is beneficial to the proletariat, i.e., the European one!

    Ualinov (he called himself lenin) had nothing against the collectivisation of the small holdings in the Ukraine even though it led to mass starvation and millions of deaths, because achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat was more important than such trivial things as getting enough food. And comrade Jason reverses the priorities, i.e., food before the cell phone, but he would not fail to champion every US citizen achieving technical superiority over those in other nations. So, it is easy to see how those comrades under their hides pick on some reductive ad hoc solution just as the old Romans did en route to their decline and fall.


    Lal M.

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