It’s rare when talk on transnational planning does not involve or raise the issue of poverty. Come to think of it, within a country or local planning department too, income brackets are significant. Planning rhetoric on gentrification is but one example. But I’m talking about the word as it relates to international development/planning. This week, arguments on different tangents with respect to “poverty” were aired in class.
Oh, the Ignominy of Poverty
It seems to me that people just cannot stop talking about “poverty”! And I don’t know what’s more infuriating: the lack of understanding of the complexities of the issue or the classification of poverty itself as a single issue. Truth is, poverty is about equity, human rights, gender, participation, entrepreneurship, incrementalism, empathy, charity, growth, education, nutrition, hygiene, environment, trade, debt, migration, polarization, and so very much MORE! The only difference is the economic bracket under which all these issues become visible altogether, and glaringly at that.
So, first things first:
Do NOT say “quest to end poverty”.
Do NOT say “end poverty now”.
Really, don’t make such overarching statements.
These statements over-simplify what is involved in getting the “bottom billion” access to everyday necessities. These statements over-ride the choices of these “bottom billion”. These statements veil the complexity of their lives under terminology like “bottom billion”.
The Oversimplification of “Poverty”
Humans categorize for the sake of clarity. Heck, I even do so consciously. But I know when I am classifying, and my reading into the talk on poverty in laymen circles (and sometimes expert circles) is that people keep it simplified even after they’ve categorized and wrapped their head around it.
The reason why I say this emphatically is that when people talk about this entire socioeconomic bracket their solutions are one-stop shops. And for the two reasons I mentioned above, you cannot do that sort of oversimplification. All due respect to Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly who have this shining history of well-rounded arguments on supporting and rejecting (respectively) the concept of using aid for poverty eradication. But they have had a lifetime of experience on ground (and up in the air), so perhaps they can afford to take a one-sided position. And even so, I don’t think “ending poverty” is a matter of air or no aid, globalization or no globalization, economic growth or no economic growth-type debates.
A complex issue is a complex issue is a complex issue is a complex issue. You can’t simply say that a one-pronged or five- or twelve-pronged approach is necessary to “eradicate poverty”. Frankly, if you look at the issues that become glaringly obvious in the bracket of poor people- equity, human rights, gender, participation, entrepreneurship, incrementalism, empathy, charity, growth, education, nutrition, hygiene, environment, trade, debt, migration, polarization- you realize that (1) these problems are not restricted to that socioeconomic bracket, (2) they are interconnected in different ways depending on which community you are referring to. Therefore, my opinion is that you tinker on the ground level with individual projects to get the ball rolling in one, two, five, twenty, hundred communities. Macro-scale talk on such a convoluted issue is bound to stay unresolved. Consider that people are still talking about the “trickle down” of economic growth from the rich to the poor, decades since doubts were raised on the idea which came into being around the 1970s. Macro-scale analyses and debates are for those who wish to establish intellectual prowess, and I for one enjoy macroeconomics. If you wish to physically “end poverty” however, let’s get your feet back to the ground.
Poverty Pornography due to a lack of understanding and knowledge?
Our class discussion on the various motivations (both well-intentioned and well-choreographed) of using graphic imagery to elicit funds from regular Joes and Janes left me in wont for an overhaul in the entire slew of rhetoric on poverty. I think people fail to grasp the scale and complexity of poverty, and that poverty pornography stems from a lack of both understanding and knowledge of these realities.
Since curated TED talks are like a masterclass in a subject, this weekend I did mine on poverty and decided to share that here: http://www.ted.com/themes/rethinking_poverty.html. The talks are pretty helpful in raising different points. But before going to those, I’d like to draw attention to a different end of the poverty pornography debate, This TED talk by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown starts with images that we would categorize as poverty pornography, but his view on it is one of using imagery to develop a shared global ethic. I do think poverty pornography is a legitimate concern, not only because there is the risk of greedy organizations profiting from these global transactions, but also because perhaps the only achievement it will have will be the raising of issues and not eliciting any tangible action.
And it is perhaps with that cautionary mindset that I write the next piece on what is imperative to understand if you foray into physically alleviating poverty.