What is Poverty?

Wikipedia's simple description is: "Poverty is the shortage of common things such as food, clothing, shelter and safe drinking water, all of which determine our quality of life."

Anyone who has seen the hit film "
Slumdog Millionaire" or the less known Zulu language film "Yesterday" have seen poverty on the screen.

In my travels I have seen it first hand. People with
leprosy begging on the streets in India, terribly sick people destitute walking aimlessly in Ghana. Even a homeless man who wanders my neighborhood in Washington DC. My own most vivid experience was in VietNam. I was traveling with a colleague whose family had been denounced and humiliated during the "Cultural Revolution" in China. This young man watched his parents -- both teachers -- marched through the streets while people threw awful things at them, and called them awful taunts. Yet when we both saw the look of despair on a child's face -- she could not have been more than 4 or 5 -- pulling an old woman along on a rug (most likely, her grandmother), well Carl was moved to tears.

I still tear myself up for not stopping and emptying my pockets to give them whatever I had.

Poverty may affect individuals or groups, and is not confined to the developing nations. Poverty in developed countries is manifest in a set of social problems including homelessness and the persistence of "ghetto" housing clusters in urban areas, such as the picture at the top of this section.

I don't really want to show more pictures here, the little boy above is enough of a reminder and let him represent all those who live in poverty. If you need to see more, maybe so you know how your life compares, have a look at these
photographs produced by Corbis photographers. The site is that of the Borgen project, a young man -- Clint Borgen -- trying to make a difference. He states it quite simply. The cost to end World Hunger (only a part of poverty), is $30b annually.

Poverty used to be described by the World Bank as those people who live on less than $1 per day. Recently, that number was revised to $2.50 per day.

The Food and Agruculture Organization
Every continent and every country has some poverty. It would be gratuitous to say that the need is greatest in Africa and South Asia. Poverty exists world wide. In some places, it is nurtured as a political weapon e.g. Darfur, and in others, it is simply ignored.

I already mentioned the World Bank, where -- when you enter their main building -- there is a sign that says: "We Dream of a World without Poverty". The World Bank along with the
Food and Agriculture Organization (a UN agency) along with UNICEF and bilateral aid agencies* have been collaborating on working to eliminate poverty. In fact, there is no shortage of people wanting to help, and no great shortage of funds. To be sure, there have been success stories. Micro-Finance seems to do some good in some situations, for example.

The obvious questions though, are these: there has been and still is, a lot of money being spent by public and private organizations to eradicate poverty, and this spending has been on-going since the late 1960s.

So , why do we still have poverty? In fact, why is it worse than ever?

In my opinion, today, there are two inter-connected answers: Racial or Tribal Politics, and
Corruption. In the not too distant future, we will probably see a third answer: lack of water.


Please note that there is a Wikipedia article that disputes my assertion that poverty is getting worse. I am not a statistician. I just know what I have seen in Washington DC, Rio de Janeiro, New Delhi, Hanoi and other places in the world.

Ever since lands were divided into "nations" and "states", there have been tribal wars. Dominant tribes have often tried to subdue lesser tribes. Ever since we have been making development loans and credits, a significant amount of funds have been diverted to the enrichment of dom nant families. These are tough words, but this is true. Where development funds do not go to the intended targets, those people lose access to food, water and shelter. When funds are diverted, the countries are left with significant debt, and nothing to show for it. Even worse, the corrupt officials do not care.

In some cases, like Darfur and recently, Ethiopia, famine is used by rulers to control the populace so they can hold onto power, even to the point of that terrible euphemism, "Ethnic Cleansing" -- another word for Holocaust.

Perhaps the main success of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), has been to place poverty on the world stage, as before they came along, we were racist too, and we did not care. Now, in large part to anger at the IFI results and the amount of debt burdens held by many countries, there has sprung up new businesses called Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), who focus on specific elements of poverty.

There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of Poverty. Unless the world leaders and the people of the world decide that this is not a global civilization that we want, and take action, this cycle will continue. Ideally, the UN agencies should be able to remove despotic rulers from power, and manage to install some appropriate form of governance in these countries so that poverty can be alleviated, and funds used appropriately.

But that means wars, and the resulting quagmires.

As I have written in the section on Climate, we face an approaching disaster as the glaciers recede and drinking water becomes even more scarce for an increasing population. If we cannot provide a solution to this, we will have a poverty catastrophe on top of the existing problems.

One thought to leave you with on this sad note. You who read this have been born into your bodies and your lives. You are lucky. There is an oft-quoted saying: "There, but for the grace of God, go I". What if you had been born into a body living in one of these troubled lands? What if you suddenly found yourself cut off from water, food and shelter? What would you want the world to do? And, what would you be prepared to do for yourself and your family if the world did not respond?

* A bilateral aid agency is one where a donor government has a special department that deals directly with a specific country. For example, in the US, there is
USAID, and in Australia, there is AUSAID. The European Union also have an Aid Unit. These agencies often make development assistance based on their own foreign policy objectives, such as an agreement to build a military base in exchange for foreign capital, or agreements to fund a country (typically the ruling families), in order to keep the poor from emigrating in whatever means possible to the donor country.


Here is something small. There is a class of computer program called robots. Little programs that perform repetitive functions -- Like look through the internet for new sites. (I will discuss this more in the computing and internet sections.)

One such site that produces a robot is called
FREERICE. Here is the Wiki article on how this works. Using this program, every correct answer and 10 grains of rice are donated. It wont solve the problem, but every bit helps. Maybe what's more important is that, if you have young children, this is both a learning tool and a helping tool.

Maybe you and your families and friends can find your own ways to "make a difference" -- but at the very least -- count your own blessings (I'm telling myself this today as I have a flu/cold/self pity thing going).