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July 01, 2005 || 5:52 pm
On poverty

On poverty

Well, it's July, and I suppose it means that I should finally get on my soapbox about the G8, Live 8, etc. Yawn. In brief, I'm on the side of those who think the whole Live 8 thing and Make Poverty History is a feel-good waste of time for everyone to slap themselves on the back about. Personally I'm more worried about/interested in the climate change negotiations. (And just so you know, no-one here cares about the G8. And everyone thought that Tony Blair looked really daft when he came to Washington DC to ask Bush to join in with the whole debt deal and Bush basically told him to f*** off. 'What was he doing? Weren't y'all embarrassed? He looked like an idiot.')

I see the problems with how to 'end' poverty here daily. Political stability and maturity is key - and this takes time, not money - it cannot be hurried along. In Alabama, which has had nowhere near the extreme problems of sub-Saharan Africa, things are still not right here 40 years after the civil rights movement. How can you expect these countries that only gained independence - independence from colonisation, not just the repeal of some discrimination laws - at around the same time, to be just fine and dandy so quickly? Here we also have our corrupt local 'dictators', cliques of power and disenfranchisement, all of which drain energy from what the real purpose of the local government should be - to improve the living conditions and sustainability of these fragile communities.

We also have our aid agencies and do-gooder charity types. The group of crazy karate people who came to build a blitz-build house in a weekend here were exactly the same story as Live 8 and the gap year kids. They came, they had a great time, they built a house in two days, they were so, like, moved, man, by the poverty they saw, they had their pictures taken and felt like it was so great to be able to contribute here....and now, two months after they've left, the house still isn't finished.

Pam in the new housing office has files full of grants and is an expert at making that paperwork pay - she is a mini aid agency herself. And the dependency culture is a real problem. Because there are basically no jobs, how to get some kind of state handout is the name of the game. People pay lawyers substantial amounts of money so that they can get a disability check of $560 a month. Everyone tries to 'get a free house' out of the Rural Studio, or Habitat, or any other non-profit which they think they can play for a few bucks. It's exactly the same as trying to work the World Bank grants, or to get Oxfam to build you a well.

Now I wouldn't for a moment say that we should get rid of the safety net that these loans and organisations provide - the US has little enough of a safety net as it is and these people are living in desperate circumstances. But it's hugely depressing to see the vacuum, the lack of strategies that don't merely put band-aid on the problems here but actually try to address the root causes. We need to incentivise people to energise themselves, to create something to be proud of, to encourage more self-sufficiency, to provide money and support for small enterprise, not just for faking a disability and sitting in front of the TV because you feel there's no other option. We need major capacity building in the community, and for the community itself to take the initative, not to rely on outsiders. We need to make people recognise that they have skills, whether its the math and accounting that they learnt dealing drugs or the good soul food that they cook, or the vegetables that they grow in their garden and can for the winter.

I think it's exactly the same for Africa. We've got to get them off aid and onto their own resources, but its so much easier to give a few $bn than to start dismantling the complex web of subsidies and protectionism that means that Africa can't compete in the global economy on a level playing field (exactly the same as the reason why Alabama's agriculture can't compete with the factory farms elsewhere.) And it's so much easier to dole out aid than to do the patient, small-scale, restorative work that will allow communities to find their identity and how they can stand strong for themselves. Yes, Africans need to know that the world cares and it's great to spend your summer building wells in Mozambique. But if all we are teaching them is better begging skills, where's the sustainability in that.



It may be a waste of time, but it's probably at worst neutral. It is at least raising awareness even if not in itself useful.

Bill Gates has done a lot of amazing development work through his foundation particularly in health care.

In terms of actually tackling the problem, I think you have a very valid point in terms of tackling the socio-political problems.

Amartya Sen has written about this very insightfully (IMO). Lately, in Development as Freedom. Arguing about the interdepence of social and economic freedoms and that (I think he says) the key measures of econmoic measures are the developmental freedoms it wins.

By Blogger Ben Yeoh, at 5:07 pm  

As follow up see this from Sen's Nobel Prize autobio - http://nobelprize.org/economics/laureates/1998/sen-autobio.html

I had to observe, as a young child, some of that mindless violence. One afternoon in Dhaka, a man came through the gate screaming pitifully and bleeding profusely. The wounded person, who had been knifed on the back, was a Muslim daily labourer, called Kader Mia. He had come for some work in a neighbouring house - for a tiny reward - and had been knifed on the street by some communal thugs in our largely Hindu area. As he was being taken to the hospital by my father, he went on saying that his wife had told him not to go into a hostile area during the communal riots. But he had to go out in search of work and earning because his family had nothing to eat. The penalty of that economic unfreedom turned out to be death, which occurred later on in the hospital. The experience was devastating for me, and suddenly made me aware of the dangers of narrowly defined identities, and also of the divisiveness that can lie buried in communitarian politics. It also alerted me to the remarkable fact that economic unfreedom, in the form of extreme poverty, can make a person a helpless prey in the violation of other kinds of freedom: Kader Mia need not have come to a hostile area in search of income in those troubled times if his family could have managed without it.

By Blogger Ben Yeoh, at 5:10 pm  

Of course, I think it's great that Live 8 raises awareness etc. But what annoys me is that people think that it's good enough to buy a wristband rather than attack the root causes - whether on a political level (lobbying) or on a personal level (what you do or don't buy in a store, how you treat people that you encounter, how you consider yourself as a social being.) I do believe that if we were all more personally engaged with the way that our small decisions impact on the status quo, then we really could change things to be more sustainable in the true sense of the word.

But I also fluctuate between (again the global/local thing) wondering whether there is also some innate sustainability in what I generally perceive as short-termist 'charity' work. A matter for another post.

By Blogger HL, at 12:35 am  

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