People in poverty typically feel deeply ashamed at being unable to fulfil their personal aspirations or to live up to societal expectations due to their lack of resources. Such shame not only hurts, adding to the negative experience of poverty, but undermines confidence and individual agency, can lead to depression and even suicide, and may well contribute to the perpetuation of poverty. Poverty-related shame is structural. People in poverty are repeatedly exposed to shaming by the attitudes and behaviour of the people they meet, by the tenor of public debate that labels them as lazy, and through their dealings with public agencies. Public policies that stigmatise people in poverty are, because they erode individual agency, likely to be less effective than ones promoting dignity. The psycho-social dimensions of poverty, and the individual and societal implications and costs, are surprisingly similar across different global contexts despite marked differences in material well-being, varied cultural traditions and political systems. It is this similarity which provides the foundation for a global conversation about the nature of poverty and the effectiveness of public policy that has hitherto been frustrated by disagreements over whether poverty is best conceptualised in absolute or relative terms. 

Robert Walker – the Shame of Poverty

“The most important human endeavour is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.”

Albert Einstein

One of Chidi’s donors wanted photos of the girls attending the cooking club. “Make them look poor,” she said. I want people to feel generous. Chidi thought about this. She knew that her students always did their best to look smart, even though they sometimes arrived a little muddy when it rained. She thought about how she could ask them to arrive for photographs looking poor. She knew the shame their parents would feel if their daughters, who they worked so hard to raise, were in a photo looking their worst. Chidi was torn. Should she take the photos or not? The donor has given a lot of money. 

She wrote back to the donor. “I am delighted to take photos of the girls you are supporting. I would love to share all the positive impact you have had, and what they can now achieve. We want to always focus on our girls’ potential and achievements, rather than the poverty they face daily. The girls would also be happy to tell you their stories of what the project means to them”.

Chidi learnt the importance of being clear about her mission for the girls’ club and the values she and it stood for. Only by being firm in her convictions could she accomplish the mission she had set for the cooking club. Additionally, this clarity was important if the people who work with her and her beneficiaries were to share a similar sense of integrity and purpose to achieve the values she sought to promote. Through the youth club activities, its values, code of conduct and other things one does together, Chidi aims to build individuals who share those values intentionally.

Reflection Questions

  1. How do you currently ensure that the stories you share reflect your organisation’s values? Do you have any policies or protocols in place that define what those values are and how they affect the way you talk about your work, your team and the young women you work to empower?
  2. If you have doubts about sharing information about an activity or person, how do you decide whether or not to share it?
  3. Do you ask permission from girls (and their parents if they are children) and team members before taking their photographs, videos and stories and sharing them?

You might also be interested in 

Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work | King’s College London (

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