Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is it a blessing to be poor?

In the Beatitudes, Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those who who are poor (Mt. 5:3; Lk. 6:20). What he meant is that those who realize their need for God will be blessed. But poverty is not necessarily a blessing, as many of the world's population realize only too well.

Tevye, in "Fiddle on the Roof," uses Jewish humor to express his attitude to poverty: "There's no shame in being poor...but it's no great honor, either." But an old Cockney lament fails to see any humor at all in poverty: "It's the same the whole world over, It's the poor what gets the blame, It's the RICH what gets the pleasures, Ain't it all a bleedin' SHAME?!"

I am leaving the Gambia after four months of teaching, but I hope to be able to return soon. During these months I have had an opportunity to seen the cruel face of poverty here many times. That face has become even more apparent in the last few weeks as the tourist season has ended. Recently, I have seen the staff of restaurants and bars beg for money. Many have been laid off, and now there is no other work available. To compound the problem, crops have been very poor for several years. Thus many Gambians do not have enough to eat. Yet their problems pale in comparison with that of people in neighboring countries like Mali. I have already written earlier about the worst drought in decades in the Sahel.and the resultant malnutrition.

The poor suffer in other ways as well. When it comes to economic recession, volatile food and fuel prices, and  global warming, the poor are impacted much more than the rich. This is apparent all over the globe, even in relatively wealthy countries. Poverty also contributes to warfare; today wars are fought mostly in the poorest countries, as the following chart illustrates.

This is not the first time that I witnessed a lot of poverty. In the ten years that I worked in the Philippines I was confronted with it on a daily basis. I also saw it even in Russia, where I taught for seven year, and saw it again at a much close range in Nigeria, where I worked for many years as well. And I have seen it too in other countries that I have visited in Africa and Latin America. Poverty is ugly. It is cruel. It is demeaning. There does not seem to be any blessing attached to it.

Unfortunately, there are many people who take the comment of Jesus that we will always have the poor among us (Mt. 26:11), to rationalize the disparity between the rich and the poor and to justify their wealth. They do this by ripping this comment out of its context, which is the anointing of Jesus by a woman. Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly proclaim God's concern for the poor and needy. Poverty will probably never be eradicated entirely, but it can and must be alleviated.

Even though poverty is declining in some countries, such as China, it is still increasing in others, such as India, for example. There is too much poverty around yet to permit the world to become complacent about the problem. Thankfully, there are many organizations today that are committed to dealing with poverty on both a local and a global scale.

What is poverty? Poverty has been defined as the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money. Absolute poverty, or destitution, refers to the one who lacks basic human needs, which commonly includes clean and fresh water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter. Although these needs are called "rights" according to international law, a sizable segment of the world's population are deprived of these basic human rights.

Depending on who is doing the counting, it is estimated that some 2.5 billion human beings live in severe poverty. One third of all human deaths are from poverty-related causes: 18 million annually, including over 10 million children under five.

While huge in human terms, the world poverty problem is tiny economically. Just 1 percent of the national incomes of the high-income countries would suffice to end severe poverty worldwide. Yet these countries are unwilling to bear this cost; they continue to impose an unjust global institutional order that perpetuates the catastrophe. Sadly, most citizens of affluent countries believe that we are doing nothing wrong.

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than US$1.25 per person per day, and moderate poverty as less than $2 per day. This is determined not by the exchange rate of a particular currency with the US dollar, but by purchasing power parity (PPP), which is how much that currency is able to buy locally.

Relative poverty refers to lacking a usual or socially acceptable level of resources or income as compared with others within a society or country. Relative poverty, of course, is much more extensive than absolute poverty. In many societies around the world, many more people too do not enjoy many human basic rights.

My own definition is much simpler: poverty is the absence of choice. If people are unable to make certain basic choices on a daily basis, one is poor. For example, poor people must either work or die. To the extent that people have more and more choices available, they can be called richer than before. This definition does not hinge on material things. It is not a precise definition, but it has served my purpose for many decades in numerous countries.

How serious is the problem of poverty? There are many ways to describe the problem. One way is to measure it by using statistics, such as the chart below. See also the video produced by the World Bank: Statistics can effectively illustrate the extent of the problem today.

Another way, however, is to show pictures and videos of poor people all over the world. That helps to give the problem a human face, which is very effective if one want to encourage people to give money for relief work. Development agencies sometimes use this device for enlisting financial aid for their projects. People tend to give more for relief, which is short-term, than for long-term development.

But a human face also carries with it the danger of donor fatigue. After a while, people no longer want to see another impoverished African child. They cannot handle it any more. When one is confronted with poverty on a daily basis, as I have for many years, one can also find it difficult to know what to do -- there is simply too much poverty -- and as a result little is done to help those who are the poorest.

The next step is even harder to fund: justice. If relief means giving a person a fish to eat, and development is teaching a person how to fish, then justice asks questions, such as: why there are no more fish? or who stole the fish? These are potentially embarrassing questions for those who want to retain the status quo. Therefore justice issues are often dangerous to raise. Yet they must be raised eventually, if poverty is to be reduced in every part of the world.

Not all the measures to alleviate poverty involve justice. Some may involve only basic health concerns, such as providing deworming medication. But others, such as corruption, are more difficult to deal with, since they demand that justice actually be done and not merely seem to be done. Therein lies the rub. Many counties where corruption is rampant have enough laws; the problem is these laws are not properly enforced. Thus those who are rich and influential pocket the resources of the state, leaving little for the masses, and driving them even further into destitution.

Many other measures have been proposed. Education is crucial for the alleviation of poverty, especially the education of women. Universal public education was supposed to achieve this, but most African countries, for example, who implemented this decades ago, did not provide the necessary resources and tools. Even today many elementary schools still do not have enough classrooms, teachers, books, and other equipment.

The principle was good, but not enough money was provided. As a result, as I can testify personally, many students are ill-equipped to enter university. Yet if they are admitted, they possess a sense of entitlement; they feel they have arrived and thus do not have to work very much in order to earn a degree.

Some developing countries, such as Nigeria, are rich in resources but are unable, because of corruption, to share the proceeds of these resources equitably. Thus education has also been short-changed there. But other countries are not blessed resources, yet they too must try to come up with the necessary funds. Many poor people live in very poor countries. Where can these countries find the money for education and other basic needs to enable their people climb out of poverty.

Developmental aid provided by rich countries often comes with strings attached and too much money is siphoned off by bureaucrats and others, with the result that very little reaches the intended recipients: the poor. NGOs can help to make the distribution more equitable, but they are limited in what they can do.

One proposal that may prove helpful has been made by the philosopher Thomas Pogge: a global resources dividend (GRD). Under his scheme nations would pay a dividend or tax on any resources that they use or sell: a sort of tax on consumption." Pogge's scheme is motivated by the positive duty to alleviate poverty; it is also an attempt to nullify the use by the rich of institutions that perpetuate economic inequality. He estimates that a dividend of just 1% could raise $300 billion each year; this would amount to $250 for each individual in the poorest 20% of the world's population.

Pogge's main justification is that, even if the idea of GRD would be refined over time, and would be difficult to implement, it is nevertheless the right of those who are the worst off. The 1% dividend tax is not seen as a donation, but a responsibility. He sees the idea off the GRD as a natural extension of John Rawls' theory of justice, although Rawls might not agree.

According to Pogge, the world order currently violates the first principle of justice, that of equal opportunity, as well as the second principle, that of equal access. It also violates the idea that inequalities should favor the poorest individuals.

Under this scheme, states do not have full property rights in the resources within their sovereign territory. Although the GRD allows states to use resources as they see fit, the scheme implies that the global poor have an 'inalienable stake in all scarce resources.' 

Pogge argues that national borders are not only morally arbitrary in the first place, since they are born from a history of coercion and violence, but under any conception of global justice, even if existing national borders are accepted as they are, there must be an acknowledgement of  international inequalities. It becomes very difficult, he thinks, to justify why a person born to rich parents in Canada should be entitled to so much more than one who is born to poor family in Sierra Leone. It is equally difficult to justify the assumption that every person has a right to an absolute control over the resources that happen to lie within their country's borders.
While the GRD would be difficult to implement, as Pogge recognizes, the idea has merit, if only because of its recognition that national resources do not belong solely to that country, but must be shared with those countries that are not similarly blessed. That is simply a matter of justice.

Now is not the time to debate the problems of implementation. But I do want to suggest that the GRD is an idea that deserves closer scrutiny if the world is truly serious about alleviating poverty. It should be added to the arsenal of measures that are needed to deal with the problem of global poverty. A multi-focused attack will be necessary if poverty is to be reduced even further. Poverty is being diminished, but much more needs to be done. About a quarter of the world's population is still living in absolute poverty.

According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it would only take US$30 billion a year to launch the necessary agricultural programs to completely solve global food insecurity. Severe hunger afflicts 862 million people each year; only $30 billion could save them. Although that sounds like a lot of money, in 2008 the US bailed out Wall Street for more than 23 times that amount!

This is just one way to illustrate the cost of eliminating poverty. I could provide many more examples of how much it might cost to eliminate every form of poverty, but this will suffice. The cost is enormous, but the cost of not doing anything is even greater in terms of human misery and suffering.

For more on poverty, see my earlier post:

It is not necessarily a blessing to be poor, as the world's poor will be the first to acknowledge. But they do recognize their need for help from others, and ultimately from God. Because of that recognition, they may be much closer to the kingdom of God than those who live self-satisfied lives, enjoying luxuries that much of the world's population can only dream of. Perhaps poverty will never be eliminated entirely, but it can and must be reduced. Then the whole world will be blessed, especially those who are now suffering the most from its effects. God will bless the poor. He will also bless you for your concern for them.

What path will you take? Will you chose wealth, and leave everyone else in poverty? Or will you do what you can to reduce poverty both in the city and country where you live and in the whole world?

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