Pondering Poverty

When we were in Tanzania visiting Marissa's sister, Sami, and I stumbled across a very interesting discussion of poverty in a copy of the magazine NewAfrican January 2006 no. 447 in the article “Is Poverty African?” pg. 14:

In the article, Dr. Vandan Shiva says, “Poverty is a final state, not an initial state in the economic paradigm which destroys ecological and social systems for maintaining life, health, and sustenance of the planet and people.”

This may sound straightforward to some, but poverty is a word that I find most people use too carelessly. There are many who talk about it and even fight against it, but very few, I find, who can define it. It seems to me that dealing with social problems is just like dealing with anything else. You cannot fight against something effectively until you have defined it fully in your mind. Know your opponent.

After years of studying and discussing poverty, I am just now beginning to believe that I know how to identify and attack it.

Shiva says in the article, people are seen as poor “if they eat millet as opposed to commercially processed junk food. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from environmentally adopted materials such as bamboo instead of concrete. They are seen as poor if they wear handmade garments of natural fiber as opposed to synthetics.” If, as Shiva suggests, poverty is better defined as a lacking of sustainability, then I too am guilty of this. Too often I call things I see poverty when really they are just not very western, not very material, or not very industrialized.

Couldn't the USA be considered impoverished because its economy is completely dependent upon oil? At best, global oil reserves are predicted to last only until 2050 (2035 if your pessimistic). It seems to me that, yes, America's social, economic, and ecological structure could be considered impoverished because, at the moment, its ability to maintain life, health, and sustenance of its population can only be foreseeably envisioned to last 2050.

As Marissa pointed out in her blog entry, thinking of poverty strictly in material terms, is unproductive. There are those like Amartya Sen who give us a broader framework for understanding poverty in terms of freedom. Then there is me in Malawi, struggling to coherently define poverty in terms of how far an individual or community realizstically sustain their lives, opportunities, and aspirations into the future.

Academic discussions of poverty usually divide the world into two categories: the “developed world” and the “developing world” or the “first” and “third” world. In Argentina, I came to believe that these classifications give us the wrong impression - that there are no development works (sustainability improvements) that need to be done in “developed” countries.

Lets start by using terms “industrialized” (ie: USA) and “industrializing” (ie: Malawi) instead. The populations of both nations clearly are experiencing types of poverty (lacking of realistic long-term sustainability). There is work to be done in both nations to provide more sustainable lifestyles to their populations. Clearly There is “development” work to be done everywhere, both in “industrializing” and “industrialized” countries.