Poverty – The Gordian knot

School children at a local school in Shashego, SNNPR.

In the former days, there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food and environment of the chief and those of his labours.What were once considered luxuries have now become necessities of daily life.The world must either go forward or fall behind, to stand still is impossible.But a by-product of these years of progress is inequality in the economy.And that brings us to the age old topic of “Poverty”.

With the economy hitting many barriers in the past year, about 75 million people were driven below poverty line in India.India is a playground for those who wish to investigate  the case of poverty and inequality, considering the fact that we have not made much progress in this area.

And among many available definitions for poverty, the one that I personally resonated with was quoted by Amartya Sen- “Poverty is not just a lack of money, it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being.”He goes on to say that drawing a line and numerically measuring a complex issue such as poverty is insignificant. Sen refers to a phenomenon of “social shame ” where their social acceptance and ability to develop is much limited by their economic conditions.Hence it’s important to look at poverty as more than just an income related global issue, and zoom in to see how it affects individuals and their lifestyle.

Even though we repeatedly encounter this global issue, many of us feel discouraged when facing such large scale problems.This inertia usually stems from the thought of how your small contribution as an individual would solve an issue with such great magnitude.To ease this thought, I’d like to bring up an analogy/experiment by Peter Singer- The drowning child.

Imagine you’re walking across a park.You know the pond is quite shallow and when you look closer, you find that a small child has fallen into it and is flailing around because it’s too deep for him stand.There seems to be only you and the child and no one else around.Your next thought is, I better run down to the pond and grab the child. Not hard to do. No risk to me because the pond is shallow.

But then it does occur to you that [saving the child] is going to ruin your most expensive shoes. You’ll be up for some hundreds of dollars to replace them and other clothes you might ruin. 

So, you think, why shouldn’t I just walk away and not have to go to the expense of replacing my shoes? 

Now the question for everybody is: If somebody did that, would you think that was really the wrong thing to do? Would you think that you had done something seriously wrong in leaving the child very probably to drown?

 Most of the people who I ask this of say that would be an awful thing to do — it would be terrible to allow a child to drown because you didn’t want to go to the expense of buying new shoes, even if they were expensive ones.

The point of this thought experiment is to then switch to the situation to reality. We live in an affluent society where we often have considerably more than we need to meet all our basic needs, enjoy life, and make reasonable provision for the future. 

We also are living in a world in which there are millions of children who die each year from preventable cause due to their poverty conditions. So, if you’re not helping to save some of these children, then are you really all that different from the person who walks past the child in the pond?

However while aid seems as the most obvious solution, it is not deemed to be entirely perfect.Some other economists such as William Easterly argue that such foreign aid stop people from searching for their own solutions, making them habitual to expecting help, while also undermining local institutions.Such experts suggest that reforming the policies and functioning of financial institutions will naturally cure the aliment of poverty in different regions.

7 billion people have 7 billion agendas, and thinking about the big picture is rarely a luxury.We all keenly sit and watch the Finance Minister read out the financial budget every year, but little are we curious to know its impacts at the end of the year or if whether the resources were used as it was promised.This inertia among common people is much used to the advantage of the bureaucrats who own little/no accountability for their actions.

We cannot have everything in life because none of us have infinite bank accounts or infinite time, so there’s always a trade-off.But we always have some control on how we spend our resources and time. Even if we don’t engage in global issues such as poverty etc. , understanding them will surely refine our thoughts and actions.

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