Architects Of Our Own Despair: Thoughts On Poverty

Brenda Wambui
27 May ,2014

“Once poverty is gone, we’ll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations. They’ll wonder why poverty continued so long in human society – how a few people could live in luxury while billions dwelt in misery, deprivation and despair.”

Mohammed Yunus

It is easy to think of poverty as a thing that once solved, will lead to unending human prosperity. We just need to find its source and cut it off. Only that poverty has several causes, and once you begin to think about it, it begins to seem like a hydra: when you cut off one head (i.e. when you solve one cause), two more grow in its place. It is exceptionally complicated.

Since money has become the key measure for human well-being, and a human being’s wealth and subsequent value is measured by how much money s/he has, one is considered to be in a state of absolute poverty if s/he lives below $1.25 a day. Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. A person living on this amount of money is unable to access the aforementioned goods and services, and his/her human dignity is undermined.

Poverty is also measured relatively, and this is where studies on income inequality come in. This way of looking at poverty applies social context. The Gini Coefficient measures inequality among values within a frequency distribution, in this case, inequality of income. A Gini coefficient of zero represents income equality, while one of 100% represents a situation where one person has all the income. As at 2005, the World Bank put Kenya’s Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers at 47.7%, while the CIA put it at 42.5% in 2008. For comparison, the global Gini coefficient lies between 61% – 68%. The world’s income Gini coefficient has increased from 43% in 1820 to 68% in 2005. There is no doubt that relative poverty is on the rise. It has been made worse in most countries by both the economic crisis of 2008, and climate change.

There are several theories that attempt to explain poverty. The two major schools of thought are cultural theories and structural theories. Cultural theories blame poverty on the traits of the poor. These theories assert that it is the behavioural patterns and attitudes of the poor which prevent them from being socially mobile. On the other hand, structural theories blame poverty on the conditions in which the poor live: poor education, poor health, poor housing, unemployment, underemployment among others. The distinctive traits of the poor at the heart of cultural theorists’ explanations as to why people are poor are, to structural theorists, reactions or adaptations to the structural conditions the poor live under.

Poverty is more than just an income deficit. Because of this income deficit, poor people are unable to make choices or take advantage of opportunities that would enable them to live long lives with a high standard of living, human dignity and respect from others. Poor people do not live how they do because they want to – it is because of the lack of opportunities to improve their lives. This is why I strongly disagree with cultural theories of poverty, and lean towards structural theories of poverty.

Oscar Lewis, a cultural theorist, coined the term “culture of poverty” in his 1961 book The Children of Sanchez. Lewis based his thesis on his ethnographic studies of small Mexican communities, and his studies uncovered about 50 attributes shared within these communities, for example:

  • A community with little social organization beyond the extended family
  • Mother-centred family organization
  • General feelings of helplessness, fatalism, dependency, and inferiority
  • A strong present-time orientation, including a desire for excitement
  • An early initiation into sex
  • An emphasis on masculinity
  • Frequent violence
  • Middle-class aspirations and values which are not translated into behaviour

Lewis extrapolated his findings and suggested that there was a universal “culture of poverty”. Over 50 years later, many poor communities across the world share these traits. However, to blame their poverty on these traits, as opposed to looking at them as an adaptive technique is fallacious. Certain societal conditions are necessary for the poverty cycle’s continuous perpetration according to Lewis:

  • A profit-based cash economy
  • High under and unemployment for unskilled labour
  • Low wages
  • Little social organization among the poor
  • A bilateral kinship system
  • A value system stressing the individual accumulation of wealth.

This is the portrait of many capitalist societies, and one would even argue that capitalism is the reason why we are poor, but history suggests otherwise. Back when feudalism was the order of the day, the average person was wretchedly poor.

“Capitalism did not create poverty—it inherited it.”

Ayn Rand

So, if capitalism as a system inherited poverty, and we are more prosperous than generations that came before us, what does this mean for us? What can we do on a global scale? Should we wait for things to evolve at their own pace until we have a better system than capitalism, or should we focus on tweaking capitalism until it works?

I believe we should tweak capitalism until it works. Yes, capitalism has brought mankind great prosperity, but its current method of distributing wealth does not work, and this can be seen in the rising Gini coefficient. Our current system allows a small minority to control capital – land, factories, machinery – which are used to produce wealth, encouraging the accumulation of wealth and income by the elite and leaving a relatively small portion of the total of income and wealth to be divided among the rest of the population. With a majority of the people competing over this remainder, it follows that many people are going to be poor. It is inevitable.

In the search for profit, capitalism as it exists now places a high value on competition and efficiency. This motivates companies and their managers to control costs by keeping wages as low as possible (by replacing people with machines or replacing full-time workers with part-time workers). This is rational. It is also rational to shut down entire industries and invest money in other businesses/industries that offer higher rates of return. However, what does this do to society?

It follows, therefore, that we have to do something about the system’s current state, and how it interacts with the people who live under it. To try to change one without changing the other, as has been done by aid programs and governance programs, is futile (their failure rates stand as proof). Wealth tax has been suggested as a means of redistributing income. There would also have to be a few socially geared regulations for companies that prevent them from being able to cause mass unemployment/underemployment because of profits. It may be argued that this goes against the spirit of free markets, but I feel that it would assuage the current situation. For more on inequality, this book by Thomas Piketty makes for excellent reading.

How about solutions that are specific to the Africas? Where can we start the fight against poverty? I believe we should start with food security.

Food insecurity/hunger and poverty in most African countries go hand in hand. Is it possible for all Kenyans to have enough food to eat, despite climate change, growing population and food dependence, inadequate investments in the agricultural sector, food wastage and land misuse? Hunger in many African countries is not because of the absence of food, rather, it is because of lack of income. This is seen in the number of famines we experience. Even worse is the rate of nourishment, or lack thereof. According to the World Bank, as at 2007, 50% of Africans were malnourished and 25% were direly so.

Many of these are urban families, slum dwellers, peasant farmers and casual labourers. Many rural peasant farmers have land, but not large enough or good enough to subsist on without buying from other sources. Climate change has also led to people running short of food during certain seasons, especially the planting season. During these seasons, food reserves are low, while labour requirements are high. As a result, the likelihood of illness increases, partly due to the oncoming rains.

This could be solved by having food reserves and adequate food storage infrastructure. We would need to cut our food loss and wastage. According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), about 95% of the food loss and waste in the Africas happens during the early stages of food production and supply due to financial, managerial and technical shortcomings in harvesting, storage and cooling techniques in difficult climatic conditions; infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems. Food preservation and processing also needs to become more of a priority. Once we are able to feed our people, we will also be able to ensure they are healthier.

Government failure, which can be argued as the reason why most Sub Saharan African countries have large numbers of poor people, would also need to be solved. People are poor because their governments and capital markets fail them. The youth are unable to get funds to finance their education, the education system is broken in the first place and cannot accommodate enough of them, private healthcare is too expensive and public healthcare does not work, and the poor cannot afford their basic needs because they lack the economies of scale to afford them – as the anecdote goes, being poor is expensive. These things also make it very easy for countries to be in a state of perpetual armed conflict.

One way to overcome government failure is to reach the poor and empower them with information and cause debate, since many of these structural failings that create and perpetuate poverty are in the interests of the rich and (politically) powerful. This is why the West threatening African governments over reform has yet to work. When the poor are aware of the implications of the laws and regulations political leaders make, as well as the importance of voting on principle, perhaps we can begin to see real change. Well informed citizens will also not be easily pulled into armed conflicts, another menace that constantly plagues African countries.

This is not easy, since most poor people work extremely long hours and may have little energy to spare to participate in civic discussions, but it can be done. They also need to be aware of the various ways they can hold public officials accountable, since lack of accountability is one of the biggest enablers of corruption and government failure. Perhaps then, we can begin to see a reduction in mass poverty, and a real increase in the average man’s income and standard of living.

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