Perry Maddox is Restless Development’s COO and is joining the rest of the staff in the London office in the Live Below The Line challenge this week. On day four, he reflects on how play has eased his pain and how it is too easy to forget, when we’re bombarded with negative images, that people in poverty have lives and agency too.

I had three cups of tea – before 9:30 AM – to no effect.

I’ve not been as hungry today, perhaps this is my stomach adjusting. Still foggy, my predominant sensation today is exhaustion. I am just dog tired. Each day this week of living below the poverty line has felt like three, and looking back my last meal above the line on Sunday (taco salad composed of leftover Mexican I’d cooked with every vegetable I could find in the house…) feels closer to a month away than a week. But we’re making good progress – Team Nepal is on the verge of £3000 raised for our work at Restless Development – and the sun is indeed shining in London.

Part of the reason I’m so tired is that I decided to join my softball team for a pre-season friendly match last night. I went back and forth on it – would it be a good idea to play or should I just collapse on the couch as I have most nights this week – and decided to see how the fresh air and a bit of movement would treat me. I won’t claim to have hustled whatsoever on the field, and apart from me committing a pair of horrendous fielding errors, the game went well. Moreso, it was great to spend a few hours without food or austerity on the mind, which got me thinking today.

From a caloric point of view, playing probably wasn’t the best idea, but from a holistic view, it might have been just what the doctor ordered. A bit of fun admist the challenge. Too often when we think about those living in poverty, we think only about the challenges, the pain, the suffering and the sadness involved. That’s only natural, but it’s worth remembering that these people too have fun and joy in their lives more times than not.

Look no further than the roots of the best music in the world – from Blues of the deep south to the Folk music of most any part of the world to the Sambas and Salsa – far more of these sounds are born in poverty than in privilege. I could poorly attempt to explore the psychology or anthropology of why that may be the case, but the simple reality is that we don’t do those living in poverty any favours when we think of them as one-dimensional victims.

And this is something of which, sadly, many in our very field of International Development exacerbate. Think of the deliberate poverty porn than many charities peddle to elicit donations, and have a look in the media or the Tube next time and tell me how many positive images you see when it comes to International Development or aid. Or just listen to the technical language of the field describing people as “marginalised”, “vulnerable”, “dis-empowered”, or my most hated acronym “MARPS” (most at risk persons). The bottom line is that when we describe people with such images or in such terms we are not only victimising them, we are worsening the very conditions that we must work to alleviate.

That’s why you won’t see any of those photos on the Restless Development website, even when we’re talking about issues as dire as Ebola. We believe in the agency of all people – a concept pioneered by Amartya Sen, linked to the notion that development is freedom.

Our work at Restless Development – and indeed why we call ourselves an agency not a charity or NGO or non-profit – is rooted in the belief that all people have agency; agency to define what success means to them and to lead change. That may sound obvious, but its beautifully radical at its heart.

It doesn’t mean externally imposed goals or agenda from donors or government, it doesn’t mean send aid to ‘those people who need it’… it calls us to a higher function. To empower young people to seize the agency they have within themselves (after all, they are only ‘disempowered’ when we call them that or when they believe it) and to lead change. With that in mind, I want to share a few examples of what this agency looks like in action.

​​At this very moment, we are waiting to watch Merybell Reynoso, an amazing and passionate youth advocate from the Dominican Republic, speak in the UN during intergovernmental negotiations on Post-2015. Without going into too much depth, these are highly technical policy negotiations across the governments of the world on how the post-2015 agenda will guide global development for the next 15 years.

For those of you who know us well, you might wonder if we have a programme in the Dominican Republic. We don’t, but we work with thousands of young people like Merybell and youth organisations globally to build a stronger youth sector that can bring its views to bear (on behalf of the 50% of the world under 28) in the most important global conversations. Merybell has been with us as part of the Restless Development youth delegation at the GPEDC high-level meeting on development effectiveness last year in Mexico, and today she’ll be reading the statement of the UN Major Group of Children and Youth (that we chair), the network representing the youth constituency at the UN.

This speech is just the tip of the iceberg of how we’ve led the charge to get young people’s voices heard in the vital discussions. From our radical Big Idea that sees us equipiing young people with data to hold their governments to account for development and delivery of strong policies to facilitating a youth meeting with the High Level Panel leading the 2015 process – the first major step in getting youth into the 2015 discourse – we are helping young people to realise their agency in action in the most important fora in the world.

But it’s not just on global platforms that young people’s agency is on show. In Tanzania, we launched a programme called “Mabinti Tushike Hatamu!” meaning “Girls, Let’s be Leaders”. A global award winning -programme, the Mabinti programme epitomises the very best of Restless Development, placing young girls at the forefront of change by enabling them to lead the change they want to see in their lives.

The ultimate agency for us is the one on which we were founded and will always be based – young people leading change at the heart of poverty. This year over 3000 young people will lead our programmes as dedicated, long term volunteers in rural communities across Africa and Asia. Reaching 500,000 with programmes regularly rated A+ and A++ by partners such as the UK Department for International Development for our impact, the courage and dedication of young people to lead chance is what we’re all about.
I hope if nothing more at the end of this blog you’ll look at the word “agency” differently the next time you see it. We must never forget the very real challenges that people living below the line every day face, but we must remember and support in a way that respects and draws upon their agency. That’s the only way we’ll ever see the change we want to in the world.

What do you think?

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