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Karl Osner {*}

Meeting the Poor

What Exposure-Programs can bring


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2007, P. 317-322
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the last two decades exposure programs have become a firm part of development policy. They make it possible that people from the west can directly meet the poor of the Third World and for some days share their life. This results in a new approach to the problems of poverty and underdevelopment.


The direct meeting with the poor in the exposure programs has not only changed me and my view at the world of the poor. The programs were also a help for me to understand solidarity in a new way: Solidarity in this context I understand in the sense of von Nell-Breuning's "sharply polished" concept - as "being connected to each other come what may". This report is founded on experiences. They are to help us to find an answer to the following questions: Are exposure programs, as they in different forms and meanwhile for many years have existed, really models of solidarity?

Does the direct meeting and the dialogue with the poor on the spot open new ways to practical solidarity with the poor? Can we by the exposure-method achieve structural effects in the fight against poverty? Can eventually the direct meeting with the poor become an impulse for the spiritual growth of the individual participant in an exposure program?


Living with the Poor

Exposure means meeting, meeting from person to person. In an exposure people from developed countries accompany for some days other people - people who live in poverty and struggle to the best of their ability for a life worthy of a human being. It is a meeting on the spot, for a short time, in the reality of poverty and exclusion.

Exposure marks for the participants the beginning or deepening of a personal way. It leads, as far as it is successful, in steps to personal answers to several questions, like: Have I imagined poverty in this way? What does connect me with the person who I meet in exposure? Is it more than compassion? Has my will for practical solidarity with the poor grown? Have I extended my competence - of whatever kind - for effective solutions in the fight against poverty? And also: Into which inner commitment do I quite personally enter towards the person whose guest I am and who took me into her house? Do I at all want to go that far?

Three phases determine the organizational structure of a stay on the spot that usually lasts five to eight days. In the first phase of the meeting the participants stay in small groups for two to three days with their host family: they take part in everyday life, in the work in the household and in the field. They live, eat and sleep - when ever possible - with their host family.
In a second phase the participants reflect for one to two days on their experience in exposure, in individual and common reflection. In this phase it is about the significance of the experiences and about deepening. What is not only accidental or unique but exemplary or typical? How is the micro level connected with basic conditions and the macro level?
In a third, also one to two days final phase - the dialogue - all participant, the host families, especially the host woman, the external participants (the "facilitators" - that is expert mediators for communication) and the hosting organisation meet. Now it is about the result and about consequences for one's own work.

So the process goes in three phases. It gets its very own profile if the individual exposure program is in accordance with the following principles:
The families visited are chosen by the partner organisation and have agreed to this visit. They are people, mostly women, who - in one way or another (for instance with the help of small loans) - have managed to overcome poverty - with different success.



That is, the participants not only get to know poverty but also strategies to overcome it. They see with their own eyes how attempts to fight poverty work.

Reflection and dialogue are based on the experiences of the participants. They talk and reflect on their meetings with the hosts. It is a strictly inductive process. The meeting with a person in its familiar and social environment includes the chance to understand poverty and development in a holistic way. The deliberate concentration of the meeting on a single person and its surroundings, for the sake of which - to bring it to the point -, a participant travels to the Philippines, has here its cause. In the centre of the exposure program stands the person.

Well, the three phases - exposure, reflection and dialogue - take place one after the other. Nevertheless they are also constantly practised in each component of the program: the participants are always in dialogue, with their host, with the exposure partner; always something is happening that invites to reflection. SEWA, an Indian union of women, calls this intensive process of interweaving 'Tana Vana'.


Come into being in the Church of Asia

The participants determine the process. They behave according to the motto: "This is a book to which everyone adds him/herself". Christa Wolf formulated it for a book with life stories of women in the former GDR. What is added by a participant is left to him or her. It can be the written down life story of the host. Others used their experience in their work and took stock of the host's household. A lady geographer made a geographical chart about the grown elbowroom of her host. Others keep the meeting simply in their hearts.

Exposure programs came into being in the middle of the seventies in Asia. We took over this method in Germany - adapted to the local conditions - from the middle of the eighties in the Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development (BMZ) and in Justitia et Pax.

The exposure programs of the church in Asia are organized by the office for human development (OHD) of the federation of the Asian Bishops' Conferences (FBAC). From the middle of the seventies up to the end of last year in a rhythm of each time about ten years seven at a time, that is altogether twenty one programs were offered: Asia-wide to make the bishops sensitive for questions of poverty and for the church's option for the poor under the name BISA (Bishops Institute for Social Action); on national level in several countries of Asia for the inner-church establishment of the exposure method into the pastoral practice and for the theological reflection under the name AISA (Asian Institute for Social Action); and likewise seven exposure programs that dealt with burning social questions like migration under the programmatic name "Faith Encounter in Social Action (FEISA). At the end of 2006 a fourth cycle began on questions of justice and reconciliation under the name BICA (Bishops Institute for Christian Advocacy). In Germany exposure programs for the first time were used when the national development co-operation was more strongly orientated towards the fight against poverty by equal partners. From the middle of the eighties the BMZ as well as Justitia et Pax for that purpose realized exposure- and dialogue programs. In the years between 1983 and 1995 a series of exposure programs were organized by BMZ and other national organizations. The most important case of application within the process lasting for more than ten years was the financial self-help, that is micro-financing. Together with micro-banks from the south seven exposure- and dialogue programs were realized. A third of the people directly involved in the reorientation process of BMZ, in all about five hundred experts and participants from north and south, took part.

The following three example, which partly use the contributions of participants in the exposure programs, prove that these programs had structural effects: The embodiment of micro-financing into the conception of BMZ's sector "financial development" in 1995; two public hearings of the committee for economic co-operation and development (AWZ) and three plenary resolutions of the German Bundestag on the fight against poverty from 1990, 1993 and 1998; a share in the yearly means for projects of the direct fight against poverty above all in the sector micro-financing - for instance the Grameen-Bank - of after all 15 per cent of the national development help at the end of the process in 1995.

As far as the church in Germany is concerned, the German commission Justitia et Pax - today the registered society Exposure- and Dialogue Programs - has been offering exposure since 1985. There are yearly about three exposure and dialogue programs, predominantly for key persons from politics, economy, church and society. Since 1985 more than sixty exposure programs of different kind and length with about 900 participants have been organized. The structurally relevant effect of those programs results from the co-operation with the German Bundestag



and the increasing participation of Members of Parliament in programs, and by their embodiment in the sector World Church of the German Bishops' Conference as well as by the co-operation with the Central Committee of the German Catholics.

Beside the Asian Church, the BMZ and Justitia and Pax there is a fourth institution that uses the method of exposure and dialogue: the Grameen-Bank itself. The co-operation of the Grameen-Bank in the process of reorientation of the national development co-operation (EZ - see above) in the Federal Republic in 1987 led to an exposure program in the Black Forest. From it originated a dialogue program of its own of the Grameen-Bank. Its aim is the world-wide spreading of the Grameen-Bank approach. Meanwhile there are more than fifty international dialogue programs. The structural importance of the dialogue programs of the Grameen-Bank lies in the world-wide spread of micro banks.

Like the Grameen Bank SEWA, a great union for women in India with more than 700.000 members, developed in consequence of the co-operation with BMZ and later also with Justitia et Pax since 1991 an exposure program of its own. It has a considerable structural effect. It serves to secure the original mission of SEWA as an organization of very poor women, the education of new generations of leaders out of their own ranks and the spreading of the organization in India. Besides it cooperates in the effort to orientate the national political general conditions - for instance for the insurance business - towards the needs of the poor and poorest in the informal economy.

A sixth institution is FIDES (Finances pour le Dévelopment Economique et Social), a French special organization for micro financing. FIDES uses the exposure method for various aims: for instance for establishing micro banks, and in research projects for the development of innovative financial products. The structural effects become above all apparent in the creation of effective small loan banks also for absolutely poor groups of customers and in the integration of elements of exposure and dialogue into other methods.


Examples for Practical Solidarity

The seventh application eventually is the dialogue about questions of job market policy between the 'mainstream' economists of the Cornell University / USA and scientists of the international network WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment - Globalizing and Organizing), the so-called basic researchers. Aim of the dialogue - for instance on the role of unions - is a better understanding of the respective other positions. After two exposure programs with SEWA and two following seminaries in the USA the dialogue begins to become steady. In March 2007 a further program in South-Africa took place with the University of Durban. A structural moment is given with the wide spread of the dialogue approach and the results in the scientific world.

Core of all exposure programs is the direct meeting from person to person on the spot in the reality of poverty. All programs have in common the search for concrete, practicable experiences and approaches that can be carried on - how poverty can be overcome lastingly. The key criteria for it are: motivation for the fight against poverty and greater competence in organizing.

The participants are key figures, persons who have influence on the arrangement of structures and general conditions. Structural effects are the decisive factor for the authentication of exposure programs.

Taken for themselves alone, exposure programs - above all with a single program - can never show structural effects: Structural changes are of a complex nature and for their realization lasting efforts and many participants are needed. But the program can inspire or even open the reflection about the status quo and the change. It can form components of necessary changes and point out ways.

Nevertheless several questions remain: What actually is the specific contribution of exposure programs? What are the practical consequences, for instance with regard to the institutional integration of the programs?

For it the church social teaching gives a good starting point in the instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on Christian freedom (1986): Structures can create injustice. But they depend, so the instruction, on the responsibility of man, who can change them. The instruction understands under structures the whole of institutions and practices (No. 74). And practices depend to a considerable part on the persons running the institutions, on their competence as well as on their convictions.

The importance of an institutional use of the exposure programs is obvious: It brings up the operational interest of the responsible institution, which is orientated towards practicable results, and also makes the financing of the programs easier. There is a large degree of consent that micro financing is the most successful single instrument among the strategies in the fight against poverty. The granting of the Peace Nobel Award to the Grameen Bank and to Professor Muhammad Yunus makes this instrument a carrier of hope in the fight against poverty for many people. But let us remain realistic: For many households the situation is precarious. They are vulnerable and can as a result of illness, tumults and natural disasters of all kinds fall back into poverty.

Add to this that according to most recent investigations numerous micro banks are not yet durable. Besides it is vehemently controversial whether durable micro banks can be established also for absolutely poor households. With them the about one billion of the poorest of the poor are meant, who must make a bare living with less than one US-Dollar per day. Often there is the opinion that absolutely poor people are generally unable to become bank customers but need social transfers, i.e. subventions.

But there are increasingly examples that lasting micro banks can be established also for absolutely poor groups of customers. That is here for exposure programs in several respects a wide field of action for practical solidarity opens.


A way leading from outside to inside

The spirituality of the exposure program could be expressed by the motto of a recently held symposium of the Catholic Academy Schwerte on the encyclical Deus caritas est: "Love moves".

By exposure the participants venture on a way that over meeting and dialogue can lead to an effective solidarity in the fight for human living conditions for all. It is a quite personal way. And it is a constructive, moving thought.

The encyclical offers for the reflection on spirituality an inspiring reference context. Some important points: "Anyone who needs my help is my neighbour", so the encyclical formulates the "universalized" concept and addressee of charity (No. 15). In solidarity with the smallest of our brothers we meet Christ, and in Christ we meet God, the text explains further. As consequence and addressed to the helper, hence to us too: We are to do what is possible for us, and the right thing in the right way (No. 31), that is "with competence", Cardinal Karl Lehmann comments this passage. Eventually the decisive, quite topical: "When we look from Christ's perspective we can give to the others more than the outwardly necessary things - the view of love that s/he needs" (No 18).

In the first ten years, until about 1986, the exposure programs had above all the aim to communicate to the bishops in Asia, who often originate from middle and upper classes, the concrete experience of poverty and so to understand the church's option for the poor.

As result of a comprehensive evaluation of the first seven exposure programs a new conception was developed in a two-year process of reflection and dialogue in the middle/end of the eighties: It is called now exposure immersion. This conception, that is in force up to this day, has a new quality. It completes the individual program by a lasting process of spiritual growth of the participants in the practical solidarity with the poor.

Exposure - to expose oneself to poverty - is only the starting-point of a personally understood way. It is, so was formulated to give the gist of it, - in the analogous sense of the



Latin ‚ex-ponere' about giving up any kind of usual security and protection, about uprising and motion, about a way that begins outside.

In the complementing immersion the way leads on - inward. For it the Latin stem of immersion stands, that is 'mergere', immerse in the sense of wholly and deeper and deeper immerse, and making oneself one with the poor. The protagonists of this conception call the approach "Dialogue of Life".

According to that exposure-immersion is not a short visit, but it is to become for the individual participant the starting-point of a lasting process of awareness and internalization. "It is proper for a Christian", BISA VII, "to see the poor neighbour consciously as constant point of reference". "Today Christ's face becomes apparent in the life of the suffering and struggling poor."

In the practical consequence BISA VII stresses the great importance of reflection and the necessity of a continuous process of contemplation. The spiritual and contemplative dimension should be understood as a resource. What could our own way look like? How could meeting and dialogue inherent in this program be better used as chance for spiritual growth in the solidarity with the poor?

"God means well with me". So Fatima Begum, a poor woman from Bangladesh, summarized her difficult life and struggle to overcome poverty. Petra Pinzler gave this heading to an article about the exposure program in the magazine "Zeit".

Fatima is Muslima, no Christian. But does she not by her powerful conclusion give testimony of the formula of Christian existence as it is formulated by the motto of "Deus caritas est" s: "We have recognized the love which God has to us and we have believed in it." Would not events of this kind be an occasion for the spiritual reflection in exposure?

The encyclical stresses the spiritual importance of solidarity with the least of our brothers. Do not exposure programs offer just this: the spiritual experience of poverty and solidarity; and can they not just therefore help in the fight against the absolute poverty?

After all it is about the "view of love", with which we according to the encyclical are to connect our solidarity with the poor. For me, by the way, this is the central thought of the encyclical. It illustrates at the same time why I think that the exposure programs are such an important instrument to carry its central message - "Love moves" - into the world.

We know from experience that because of the language and cultural impediments in exposure a meeting from person to person is possible only with the help of "facilitators" and of various forms of non-verbal communication. From experience we also know that the most important form is the eye contact between guest and host. Successful meeting means: The host understands that the guest has come because of her. The guest understands that s/he has been taken in and is at home with her. These are the most difficult and at the same time the most moving moments in an exposure. Can the view of this inner understanding not also carry the view of love?


    {*} Karl Osner (has been ministry official) was assistant secretary in the Federal Ministry for economical co-operation and development (BMZ), and in the eighties and ninetieth responsible for the initiative of BMZ for the orientation of the national German development co-operation (EZ) towards the participative fight against poverty. In 1992 he initiated the creation of a body of its own for exposure and dialogue programs as instruments of church development work. His contribution is based on a lecture in the Catholic Academy Schwerte on the occasion of the first anniversary of the publication of the encyclical "Deus caritas est". (By request a detailed record of the literature used can be made available. Inquiries under the e-mail-address


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'