A succinct explanation of the causes and continuation of poverty.
In a world where poverty is measured in terms of material wealth, I have found myself asking myself this question again and again in recent years.
I think of the man living alone, in England, in a one bedroom flat with no more than a table, chair, bed and a few kitchen utensils to his name, yet with regular social gatherings with friends he can rely on he describes himself as completely content and wanting for nothing.
I think of the Andean mountain village community in Ecuador who struggle to raise the $2 per child charged by the school to provide their children with a bag of sweets and biscuits on the last day of term before Christmas, the only Christmas present those children will receive. The children make no complaint, they are no different from their peers. They live a life of daily adventure, exploring their environment, taking risks European parents would quail at, getting all the attention they need and want from their parents and extended families, with no shortage of food or clothing. Just no Christmas presents. To all intents and purposes theirs is a life of poverty, and even though they know they don’t have money to spare they only recognise themselves as poor when someone draws it to their attention.
I think too of the Mongolian nomadic people who could lose their whole livelihood when a harsh winter follows a dry summer, a combination that can kill off all their livestock. A harsh life that can be seen in their eyes, in a climate where the relatively rich (in livestock) can be brought into utter deprivation due to the circumstances of their climate. For this reason many have moved into the capital city where there is only a little evidence of wealth in a country that is innately poor.
And then I see the home of a quartz miner in the mountainous deserts of Namibia: an old North American pick-up dragged high into the mountains, its wheels long gone, the interior seating beyond sagging; a mattress laid out in the flat bed of the rear of the truck, tent canvas spread out to cover the mattress and an area beyond that servers as a kitchen and eating area. A home has been constructed here. Inside it is clean and tidy. Nearby is a pit toilet, dug into the ground with three walls and a door for privacy, but no roof – a roof is hardly needed in a country where there is no rain. A huge water cistern stands on a trailer nearby. There is so much apparent hardship in this life, living conditions that some have described as appalling. The ground is barren, no food will grow here. When they have enough quartz to trade the miners drive into the nearby town, like the pioneers and gold diggers of the American West, their route worn as tracks through the rocky landscape, where they trade gemstones for money, food and water. How much choice do they have about their lifestyle? To me it seems hard and lonely – the miners are all men and most if not all seem to live alone in this barren land. It’s not a lifestyle I would choose but what would they say if we were able to ask them about living in poverty? Would they consider their lifestyles as deplorable as we might in the West? They work hard and their basic needs for food and shelter are met.
As one of the last remaining traditional African tribes, the bare-breasted Himba women who live in the wilderness areas of Namibia’s Kaokoland trade posting for photos in exchange for basic foodstuffs such as sugar, salt and rice. Or at least those who live near the more well-used roads do. Those who live deeper into the wilderness know more the suffering of hunger, when the rivers rise and close the roads during the wet season, preventing the tourists, the people who pay for their photos with packets of food, from driving the flooded roads. The land is all but barren, crops are scarce. Some of the Himba have chosen to abandon their traditional lifestyle, moving instead into towns and villages, often selling the jewellery and crafts for which their people are known. Such transitioning is hard but that is no doubt better than experiencing the pain that can be seen in the eyes of the women when they look at their flaccid breasts that are not making enough milk to feed their babies as they beg you to take their photo so you will give them food.
How poor is poverty? I make my own judgements on these situations, based on my own experience of living in a relatively wealthy country, although I am by no means relatively wealthy within that country. What I see is that poverty and wealth come in many guises but, materially speaking, sometimes even the relatively poor can seem relatively rich, while sometimes the relatively rich are also insanely rich, in a world where material wealth often doesn’t bring emotional happiness or spiritual contentment but where severe poverty destroys lives and human potential.
Some years ago I worked in a social work team where one of the social workers came from Glasgow. Now this team was in southern England, nearly as far from Scotland as you could get. When a newly qualified social worker joined us who also happened to be from Glasgow it was assumed that these two would have a natural understanding, and were put together for supervision purposes. After all they were both from the same country and a long way from home, and the older more experienced social worker would surely be the ideal one to support the new worker?
What, in our southern ignorance, we did not realise was that they came from opposite sides of Glasgow. Opposite cultures within the same city. Opposing football teams to support. Natural enemies even.
Fortunately their professionalism enabled them to overcome the differences in their cultures, and no doubt shake their heads at the southerners’ ignorance.
It’s easy to make assumptions like that.
Even in the setting up of asylum teams in the 1990’s we made the same mistakes. There was somehow an assumption that because asylum seekers were in the same situation, escaping war torn countries, it was sometimes overlooked that they had escaped from opposing countries in the same war! With hindsight it was obvious, but what foolish mistakes were made at the time.
While I was travelling in Siberian Russia for a while I happened to stay for a week in a town where I was the first European they had seen in living memory. The evening before I was leaving a young English backpacker arrived in a bar on the other side of town. Immediately telephone calls were made and mechanisms put in place to put us in touch with each other. Let’s call him Jay. It was naturally assumed, that being from the same country, we would want to meet up and talk.
Actually it was good to meet Jay, less because we were both English than because we were both travellers and could compare travel notes. Having the same first language was merely an advantage.
The impression was given that if two Russians found themselves alone in a foreign country they would want to meet. But I wonder if that is true?
Jay and I were several years apart in age, he was a recent graduate taking a gap year while I had studied in later life, he came from a relatively privileged background while I definitely originated from “working class” stock. I was travelling by car, he was backpacking. Back in England it was unlikely we would have naturally met up and socialised.
Staying in an Andean village, well stuck actually due to a breakdown, the villagers would come rushing over saying “amigo, amigo?” every time another European passed through. The same assumptions were being made.
On another occasion I met two young English girls in a backpackers’ hostel in Costa Rica. Well, I say ‘met’, but that is probably too strong a word for it. We happened to be staying in the same dorm room in the same hostel. They were clearly completely confounded to find someone old enough to be their mother, maybe even their grandmother, staying in such a hostel and never managed to look me in the eye such was their complete inability to know how to handle such a situation.
Age, class (yes it still exists), wealth, education, employment, sociability, family, sexual orientation, geographical location, politics, religion, hobbies and interests. These and more are all potential divisive factors even in our home countries. Sure, they can all be overcome, but how many times have I seen police and ‘front line’ social and health workers gravitate to share socialising because their jobs bring them into natural contact and there is a sense of safety in that familiarity? And why is it unusual to see CEOs down the pub with the postman or plumber?
I’m not suggesting its right or wrong, it just is. The lovely people in that small Siberian town might be surprised at how different the lives are of people from Moscow, and that maybe the mere sharing of the same language is not a foundation for anything more than a brief passing friendship, just as was my contact with Jay.
Scottish, English, African, Latin American, indigenous; wealthy and poor; young and old; educated or not (which has nothing to do with intelligence); capitalist, environmentalist, socialist; and more. We are all a mixture of different ingredients, unique in our own way. As we practice that difference in our own lives, let us also remember the differences in those we work with, both as colleagues and clients.