By and large we humans are a compliant and gullible lot. We’re socialised into how and what we should think and do by our teachers, politicians and the media. We’re persuaded on the merits or otherwise of matters that should concern us by masters of spin whose craft hinges solely on the manipulation of meaning.
We do as we are told, usually without question and even when common sense urges caution, by obeying rulings made by others in circumstances very different from our own. We’re directed to pay attention to dubious imperatives, and to pay no attention whatsoever to others, by people we don’t know personally and with whom we wouldn’t empathise if we did. We’re told where to look for evidence in support of truths that can’t be confirmed and are then guided in how to use that information.
Yet because of such conformity we’re hardly ever prepared to challenge the integrity of those who instruct us, query the legitimacy of the information they serve up, or inquire more deeply in order to perceive the underlying motives of our story-tellers and their more familiar narratives.
As a consequence it’s hardly surprising that we fall for stories that are repeated often enough, in tones shrill enough to drown out all other possibilities; are supported by what passes as rigorously researched data usually accompanied by emotively convincing images; are communicated by those we’re told we can trust; and that make sense to us by appearing to equate with the truth as we assume it must be.
One of these narratives, which is pivotal to the perceived success or failure of the civilisational world-system, is that of poverty and how it’s being successfully eradicated. Indeed we’re advised by everyone from the World Bank’s Development Research Group to aid agencies like Oxfam, for example, that poverty is in rapid retreat wherever we look. If this is true it’s a big win for the civilisational worldview. It validates government social programs. And it provides indisputable evidence that charity and aid are effective tools for fighting inequality.
But what if this recurring story is misleading? What if it’s just plain wrong? What if the accounts we read are not just too optimistic but actually distort the truth? What would you think if the overarching narrative was fabricated on three lies: (i) the fallacy of success based upon spurious data sets; (ii) the survivalist ethos of the modern aid and development industry; and (iii) fortuitous outcomes from policies that only relate indirectly to the alleviation of poverty? Let’s put all three of those under the microscope.
The Fallacy of Success
The UN acknowledges that more than 1.4 billion people are destitute. In other words, they live in poverty so extreme they can barely survive. This calculation is based on the World Bank’s average poverty baseline of $1.25 per day.
Now I’m not a statistician but the fallacy of success to which I refer is one I would have thought anyone with one iota of common sense could see through. It is this commonly-held notion that $1.25 is the most suitable baseline upon which to make policy decisions.
Set by the World Bank in 2010 – prior to that the figure was $1.00 – this is supposedly the average line of the poorest 15 countries. Yet, inexplicably, this excludes India, whose own poverty baseline is still $1.00 a day and China which, in the early 1980s, had the highest incidence of poverty in the world, with 77 per cent of the population living on $1.25 or less a day, but has since dropped to under 14 per cent – an extraordinary shift. Thus, not only is the figure of $1.25 a distortion of the truth, it no longer mirrors reality. Poverty depends as much on local conditions as on context.
In fact, the idea of any median being pertinent in the context of contemporary poverty is a convenient nonsense. There are far too many factors in play to use such a totally obsolete measure. But it’s also a dangerous nonsense because it leads to the illusion of success – through claims that we are eradicating poverty.
This twaddle is exemplified by changing the baseline from $1.25 a day to a more realistic $1.50 a day. If we apply this new measure to Asia where, according to the World Bank there are currently 473 million people living below the poverty line, the numbers suddenly explode to 1.5 billion! Naturally this would also alter Asia’s poverty rate from 12.7 per cent to a staggering 41.2 per cent.
Unfortunately, this kind of deception is not an isolated case. A recent analysis by the Asian Development Bank explicitly identified the use of such specious data as proof of a very disturbing trend. Instead of poverty decreasing, figures recorded by many national governments and international aid organisations show that the numbers of those affected by poverty are actually on the rise.
Thus, the official orthodoxy that poverty is decreasing is a total and deliberate fabrication. It allows the World Bank to claim a rapid decline in poverty along with rising prosperity – claims that not only defy logic but bring into question the legitimacy of current global governance policies.
If we must use measures to determine the level of poverty in the world then let us at least use ones that are relevant, accurate, and don’t portray a distorted picture of the truth. Poverty differs from one country to the next, as well as between urban and rural environments in the same region. Increasing numbers of citizens in the developed world are also living in relative poverty. Even in the US, the world’s richest country, more than 38 million people currently live in poverty, and each year around 1.5 million children experience homelessness. It’s surely vital that we face up to these unpalatable facts instead of trying to hide behind gold-plated statistics and pretending that everything is ok.
The Survivalist Ethos
The aid industry is highly competitive. It is not surprising therefore that many aid agencies are driven by the instinct to survive. Typically they attract funds by persuading us that their campaigns and outreach activities are working in order that we keep donating to their cause.
But to stand by their often extravagant claims while remaining viable they have sometimes been forced into finding ways of persisting with less effort – focusing especially on trendy fashions like capacity building or conflict resolution. Many agencies are withdrawing from emergency work, especially in dangerous conflict zones, as a consequence. The UN, meanwhile, has conflicts of interest caused by its multiple roles as donor, coordinator and implementer of programs.
Of course it is also true that the situations these organisations face are daunting. The number of global refugees has now exceeded 50 million for the first time since the Second World War. From Afghanistan to Ukraine and from Syria to Somalia, conflict and civil war are crippling countries and devastating lives. In a country like South Sudan, for example, the poverty is unimaginable. Facing violence and extreme famine, more than a million people have abandoned their villages since fighting erupted at the end of 2014. Yet faced with this potential catastrophe many aid groups are crying poor.
I challenge, however, whether resourcing is the main issue. I have several friends who are employed by some of the most reputable charitable and aid agencies in a sector that, though competitive, is flush with funds. I have listened to their many frustrations and complaints as they are instructed to shift consideration away from critical work in the field to fulfilling donor demands and keeping the bureaucracy in business.
As they see it the problem is not a lack of money but a lack of radical leadership. Politicians, senior bureaucrats, and charity chiefs, especially those hailing from the old empires of the West, want easy wins with the least amount of effort. I’m afraid they are also under the illusion that using development funds will hasten democracy – in spite of overwhelming evidence to suggest that the torrents of foreign cash so readily available from eager governments in the West nurture repressive regimes, fuel corruption, and foster further conflict.
Ultimately many agencies seem to have forgotten their core mission. Instead they have become self-serving corporations dressed in the clothing of compassion, who believe their own story. They spend big on logistics, conferences, and the media, targeting victims who are easy to reach with the least expensive activities, such as radio campaigns or doling out drugs, yet still portraying emergency and relief work as their primary focus.
The best example of a “fortuitous” policy outcome in the context of poverty is the deliberate creation of a middle class in China by the People’s Party in the era of former Chairman Deng Xiaoping. This effort, in tandem with the opening up of China to market economics, has taken 660 million people out of poverty since 1981, when the poverty rate in China stood at 77 per cent.
The side effect of alleviating poverty in this country has been remarkable and welcome. But the intent of this bottom-up policy was aimed at creating a larger domestic market for Chinese goods – not to alleviate hardship. This was most fortutious – but a planned outcome only in hindsight.
This is a pedantic point but critical nonetheless as it informs other important issues to which we must turn our attention.
In their excellent article Three Ways Humans Create Poverty, Jason Hickle, Joe Brewer and Martin Kirk make the valid point that poverty is not a fact of nature, nor is it a default state arising from the lack of organised activity. Au contraire dear reader, poverty was manufactured by humans – consciously designed into the way we wanted our economic systems to function.
There is an upside however. For if we created the problem in the first place there is every reason to believe we can change it – particularly if we can comprehend how it arose in the first place and then redesign the system constraints to create different, more desirable, outcomes.
Hickle, Brewer & Kirk nail the problems we need to address. They note that an initial privatisation of the commons led to an unparalleled humanitarian crisis. For the first time peasant farmers were unable to grow their own food or to enjoy the basic rights of habitation. The word poverty came into common usage as millions of commoners were forcibly displaced by aristocrats and wealthy merchants.
This inhumane policy gathered even more impetus once an unanticipated yet “fortuitous” benefit became evident. Since they had little choice but to accept the slave-like conditions and rock-bottom wages of factory work, impoverished migrants from rural areas supplied the cheap labour necessary to sustain the Industrial Revolution. Even children were put to work by families desperate to survive. And as more peasants were displaced from the land, and the cities began to swell with their numbers, so factory wages plummeted even lower. The first phase of capitalism had been born. But the story had only just began.
Although this early form of capitalism imperceptibly improved the quality of life for many citizens living in England and across Europe the original humanitarian crisis was not allowed to fade and disappear. As poverty worsened, those who had been dispossessed and factory workers began to rise up against the affluent establishment.
By the end of the 19th century England was on the brink of an out-and-out class war. But the solution from the new industrialists was ingenious. Instead of sacrificing their new-found power the crisis caused by poverty was now out-sourced to those in far off lands through a process of colonisation – stealing land and resources across America, Africa and India and funneling the wealth back to Europe where it was used to build schools and hospitals, and to provide services aimed at improving the lives of the “lower” classes.
But it did not end there. During the 1960s and 1970s, after a brief lull when poor countries started to use tariffs and subsidies to grow stronger and incomes grew quite quickly, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund used their “free market” dogma to impose structural adjustment programs on developing countries as a basic condition for receiving financial assistance. Worse still, they were then required to sell off most of their public services and assets to foreign companies.
Once more a way was invented whereby poorer nations were forced to abandon the very means they were using to eradicate poverty and become independent. Once more numbers of people living in absolute poverty escalated – this time in countries like Mexico. And once more millions of farmers were forced to leave their land and seek employment in the new sweatshops that sprang up to feed the rabid materialism of wealthier nations.
You might think we had learned our lesson. But no. A whole new round of trade agreements are being put in place that will probably have identical results. Bills like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will extend the model of contemporary serfdom across the globe, just as the enclosure movement, colonisation, and the concept of the free market did before them.
Reflecting on the broad sweep of history and examining the patterns of poverty creation we have deliberately designed into our system of globalised commerce, over a timeframe of several hundred years, it becomes obvious why the official “trickle-down” economic narrative, still told by most rich governments as well as many charitable enterprises in order to justify their actions, is so incredibly naïve and inadequate. Indeed by concentrating our efforts to end poverty on charity and foreign aid we are either revealing our ignorance of the issue and its complexity, or we are acknowledging our enthusiasm for perpetuating a world-system and conditions where the population is divided into a wealthy elite and an underclass of serfs.
If we are to have any hope of solving the problem of extreme poverty, we must first reconceptualise and redesign the structures and systems that are at its root cause: namely the energetic extraction of commonly managed assets to service financial elites. The urgent need for renewal has at long last been recognised by ordinary citizens – exemplified by the various social uprisings around the world as well as the anti-austerity stance of new political parties in countries like Spain and Greece, for example – who are waking up to the injustice of their plight. This comes on the back of a growing appreciation that the only way 99 per cent of the world’s wealth can be owned by just 1 per cent of its citizens, is for the majority of the human family to be kept chronically poor.
The only way we can overcome flaws and errors is by acknowledging them as such and then cooperating to engineer them differently. The manner in which we address endemic poverty is not a trivial matter. It is a measure of how civilised and mature as a species we really are. The fact there are at least 1.4 billion of our fellows living in extreme poverty should be reason enough for reinventing the way we deal with this problem. So what can be done?
Ultimately the major constraint underlying pervasive poverty is one that resists being transformed by foreign aid or charity: an economic system that trashes the prosperity we should all share, while utilising tools such as compounded debt to extract wealth from a majority who are obliged to produce it and funnelling it to a minority who are in a position to spend it.
Before we extract more aggregate wealth we must change this single factor. It is not a complicated matter. Simply by reversing economic flows to direct capital from the rich to the poor we will create a more equitable society. Just imagine an inclusive and participatory system of shared well-being where poverty has been consigned to history. This is not ideology – it is the pure logic of systemic design where the all-encompassing intent is greater equity and comfort for each and every member of the human family.
It simply requires those who can muster commitment, who can provide inspiration, and who have the capability, to come together to devise an alternative paradigm to that which allows poverty to take root and proliferate. This would be a paradigm in which ecority and equality were embedded. A paradigm driven by abundance and empathy rather than scarcity and fear. A paradigm that offers itself as an alternative aesthetic through which to view global socio-economic imperatives.
But there’s the rub! Ingrained resistance to paradigmatic change seems to be hard-wired. Why, many of our leaders argue, should we change something that is working so well?
Normally this would be a fair question. But until we admit the truth about the causes of poverty and become discomforted by that, until we use measures that are fair, that make sense, and do not try to disguise or gloss over the facts, until we see the potential to transcend the current system without the need to blame others for its outputs, until we can clearly comprehend the benefits of renewal, it is likely we will remain mired in situations that purport to be improvements but that, in reality, are merely covering up the facts.