Poverty is not just the absence of money
As the developed world buckles under the weight of its own debt, the debate on poverty is gradually shifting to centre stage. In the past, any discussion of poverty followed a fairly predictable narrative. Needless to say, the history of the past half century has shown all these notions to be false or based on a such a narrow compartmentalised view, that they are only partly true.
Poverty is arguably the most complicated social and economic dynamic of our time. It is rather useless to say that at one stage, all people were poor except for those very few individuals benefitted by a feudal system. It makes far more sense to approach poverty as a manifestation of the difference between communities that have advanced on the development trajectory, as opposed to communities that have either just started that process, or that have been left behind while their peers grow in prosperity. And since there is a spectrum of living standards from the very rich to the very poor, any meaningful talk about poverty must consider what the community wants for itself from an existential point of view.
We are all familiar with the plethora of studies finding relationships between poverty and crime, poverty and war, poverty and gender violence, poverty and substance abuse, poverty and education, poverty and health, and poverty and population growth. It is this factor that I believe requires more investigation, as it constitutes the first cycle in the self-perpetuating spiral of poverty.
Talking about poverty and population growth is a mine field. A rhetorical but not irrelevant question that is often asked focuses on the fact that poor populations grow much faster than prosperous ones. Are communities poor because they proliferate so fast or do they proliferate because they are poor? In other words, is it our propensity to breed that robs us of prosperity or is it a lack of control over resources that makes us breed so fast. This is not an easy question and I doubt that the truth is as simple as picking the answer that fits the interests one is trying to promote or protect.
Fact is, population growth in poor communities is much higher than in wealthy ones. If there is any doubt over the veracity of this observation, just drive through the streets of any informal settlement. The residents are most often destitutely poor, but there is no lack of children. They run around, unattended, literally in their thousands. And they are of all ages and sizes, of both genders.
This often makes me ask the question what do all these children eat for supper? Does it mean that their parents are not as poor as we are made to believe? Is it a case of neglect reflecting our lack of responsibility to take care of our offspring? Is it the consequence of religious intolerance when churches prohibit the use of contraceptives? Do the parents not realise that children born into poverty are more likely to remain poor? And have the parents so little regard for life, that they produce children without any regard for their upbringing, education and general development? Or perhaps, is it a cultural thing that sees many children as a blessing, just as one would view many cattle as a sign of prosperity, in other words, reducing the children’s humanity to that of a basic commodity? – nice to have but expendable as such.
Sometimes, just thinking critically about this complex dynamic makes me despair. Where shall we find the resources to feed and to educate all these children? But then I realise the mistake of viewing the communities in isolation as if their condition does not affect everything and everybody else around them. In my mind the problem of poverty must be tackled in a concerted, orchestrated and synchronised way, as a group effort to slowly take entire communities to the next level. Working out the detail of this endeavour is bound to be difficult. So often the development process is mired in clichés that serve no purpose. For instance, it is a waste of time to talk about upliftment when the community members themselves see no reason for it. Another mistake we make is to view those that manage to rise above their poor backgrounds, either through industry, profession or crime, as minor heroes. A few rich individuals do not solve the problems of an otherwise poor country.
I think, in the end there is no attainable solution, or at least, the solution lies in the process of development and progress, and not in the results. When we set targets for poverty alleviation, these must only be stepping stones in the never-ending development curve.
The trick is to make sure that the majority does not get left behind. And we should remain aware of the basic premise that development is a democratic process – to each his own.