Future of Poverty

By Amit Patel.  A few days ago, I was walking by the World Bank building and saw this huge banner that read: “End Poverty”. While there is no question about the righteousness of ending poverty, I started thinking about this question: do we know “how”? The hashtag said (whatever) it takes. Yes, but what does it take to end poverty? Or is it the inevitable global future for  years to come? Today, I wanted to explore a few questions related to poverty that we all can relate to, and think about. Poverty has been recognized as a problem but has only exacerbated over time. There have been many efforts in the past to end poverty but then where did we go wrong? Is there any action that could change the direction of the world?  You may already know that the Global Poverty project at the University of California, Berkeley explores such questions. Let me briefly  introduce you to some of the key debates that Ananya Roy and her colleagues have raised.

(Image Courtsey: www.one.org)

The first question is about what you can do as an individual to change the course of poverty. As global citizens, we all are affecting each other’s lives. Our role as  global consumers plays a very important piece in the poverty puzzle. Our consumption affects people in the other parts of the world including those who are poor. The classic example cited are the consumption of iPhone and coffee, the most popular items in the US. It is important to think about the entire life cycle of a product when we consume it, argues Ananya Roy in this very educative video:

Roy’s arguments about feeling good about micro-philanthropy as a form of one more type of consumption are powerful. Consuming responsibly is a way to make the world that produces responsibly too, I think.

The second important question that Roy and her team raises pertains to the lack of pro-poor markets. The poor are exploited both as workers as well as consumers. On top of it, they are also exploited as borrowers. It is well known that the poor pay the highest price for everything. Let me take a simple example. You and I can go to Costco and buy an item in bulk at much cheaper rate with the help of capital we have got. The poor are bound to buy in smaller chunks that costs much more to them. Per Unit. This is true for everything, be it buying water or renting a room in slums. Even worse, for the poor, high price is commended for the low quality goods. A friend suggested that he paid Rs. 15000 rent for his 1000 sqft apartment which is Rs. 15 per sqft. His housemaid lived in a slum and paid Rs. 1500 for 100 sqft. Same price as him Rs. 15 per sqft. But for a much inferior quality of housing that lacks evenbasic services. Serving the poor is the most profitable industry and it is certainly not a way to end poverty. In fact, there is no incentive to make the world free of poverty. If you think about who benefits from poverty, this point will become clear. I cannot find a better way to argue this but reproduce another interesting video from Roy’s team:

I liked the way she questions the popular notions of ending poverty. Microfinance that was considered a panacea once is now a source of evil in many parts of the world including in the US. Haven’t you seen the shops that sell payday loans? I think it is time that we start questioning the very basis of our understanding of poverty and ask the fundamental questions about what creates such sharp inequalities in the first place. Cure is not enough to end poverty but we also need preventive measures.

Postscript : I loved Ananya Roy and Tara Graham’s very novel approach to teach difficult concepts. I think digital media is very powerful pedagogical tool that is not exploited enough in higher education. Those interested in learning more about this initiative at the UC Berkeley, follow this link.