Four things to think about when you think about poverty

Across the Mekong River
At first sight, this could seem an image of poverty, but if we were able to zoom in and look closely, we would find so much diversity, knowledge and nuance. “Across the Mekong River”, Feb. 2016.

What images come to mind when you think about poverty? Those images carry some reality, but they are also charged with political discourse, academic knowledge, misconceptions and judgement. More importantly, they have been painted with the brush of context, or in other words, your experiences. What I would like to do here is to add more “paint” to the pictures; give you a few other brushes that may help you to bring poverty from Pollock’s abstraction to the rich and dynamic compositions of Van Gogh. For those with experience in international development, the following points remain to be basic premises/debates within our field.


1. People living in poverty are, first of all, people
This is the first thing to remember when you think about poverty. Those TV commercials where a kid from Africa is starving and surrounded by flies, or an indigenous woman is begging, can fool us into assuming that we “see” and understand poverty. After all, we experience discomfort, compassion and sometimes we may even donate money to the advertised causes. However, seeing the deprivation may make the obvious invisible: people with less resources still have real lives. They have common and unusual interests. They feel ashamed, offended, disappointed, proud and, yes, happy.

Sometimes they live close to you (not necessarily in a third world country or another town). In Latin America, for instance, they may just be across those walls that separate the rich from the poor neighbourhoods. Also, people with scarce resources are knowledgeable. After all, education is not only experienced in school and not all who are poor are left without the opportunity of acquiring a formal education. What I am saying is that there are not “poor people”, rather there are individuals that experience poverty.


2. Everyone deserves the opportunity to better themselves
The previous statement has a second and important implication: lives have worth. This premise is a moral compass for development practitioners, although a contentious issue for those who see life as having intrinsic value (worth on its own) or instrumental value (leads to something else). Terrorists, can be argued, share an instrumental view on life since the violence they perpetuate against others has ‘political or social objectives’ (Butler 2002, p. 3). Pro-life defenders may identify themselves as those on the “intrinsic life worth” spectrum. I do not mean to focus or support any of these arguments, I merely suggest that poverty is not an intrinsic human condition, and everyone deserves the opportunity to better themselves and pursue happiness.

Ruthless business practices illustrate just one way in which human lives become a secondary matter and where opportunities for the most vulnerable are barely existent, or even considered. In India, for example, the change from organic to high-yield cotton seed production has been heavily promoted by Monsanto (multinational corporation), and supported by the government. This has lead to mounting debt as farmers are forced to buy Montsanto’s seeds in order to sell their crop. Eventually, overwhelmed by the debt and dishonored, they take their own lives (thousands have). Cultural expectations weigh on the farmer’s’ decision, but even if the suicides stopped, families would remain hungry and fearful for their livelihoods since few alternatives remain. One such alternative is to migrate to cities and sell their land at a loss. Furthermore, the new seeds do not necessarily increase cotton production in the region and the land is becoming infertile (for more see the documentary work of filmmakers Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl). The transformation of the agricultural industry seems to obviate that lives are at stake.

3. Poverty is created, and is a wealth issue
Poverty has always been present to some degree, but throughout history men have designed the conditions for wealth exacerbation and extreme deprivation. An article by Co-exist (Fast Company) provides a deeper explanation of these issues, but what should be highlighted is that colonisation was the first international process from which richer nations were able to extract wealth from poorer countries to alleviate their own lack of resources and grow economically. The ways in which wealth is unfairly distributed today are more complex.

Although debate exists around this topic, it cannot be denied that how we create and manage wealth impacts and defines poverty. This is why eradicating it by 2030, the first objective of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, is an effort that has to come from and be directed at a grassroot, governmental and international level. Hopes remain though, because if we can create the conditions for poverty, we can also design a world without it.


4. Poverty reduction is a shared responsibility
International development practitioners usually become researchers or field practitioners attempting to understand how the most vulnerable can be empowered through diverse approaches and become agents of social change within their contexts. Yet, professionals across all areas have to consider their role in this fight against poverty. How are we in our own areas worsening or improving the lives of our communities, or conditions in our environment? From protecting and ensuring the rights of new employees as the CEO of a startup enterprise; to lending your accounting skills to a selected charity, or advocating for refugee issues awareness, all are valid strategies and ways in which we can contribute to reduce/eradicate poverty.

So I leave you with these final questions which I hope will add some more colour to your paint:
Do you think all human beings deserve to experience a basic level of comfort for the mere fact of being human? What do you think this would entail? Please leave a comment to share your answer or any thoughts in relation to this article.

Butler P, 2002, ‘ Foreword: Terrorism and Utilitarianism: Lessons from, and for, Criminal Law’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 93, no. 1, DOI: 0091-4169/02/9301 -0001

6 Replies to “Four things to think about when you think about poverty”

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  3. Very nice, reflections on the nature of poverty and our shared responsibilities in addressing it.

    Keep up the good work

  4. I like it is an easy way to understand the root causes of poverty as well as the reflection that everyone can act in its own circle of influence to change the structures that endure poverty in this world.

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