Poverty - How do we understand it

Sometimes the freedom to do anything is the greater binder of all. Such is predicament I face now when I can write just about anything even remotely connected with a given topic. So here I set out to write about Poverty. I myself am wondering what shape this discussion will take place.

The subject for this year's edition of Blog Action Day is P O V E R T Y. So many times we have heard poverty as a word and poverty alleviation/eradication as an aim that these are almost taken for granted as a perennial activity. At the outset, let us admit it, a blog is more a potent medium for collaboration, information sharing and gathering support and ideas as compared to than a force that will bring about change at the grassroots level.

Some of us will have to go to these “poor places” and smell the coffee (or glue!). Unless we realize what is it to be poor we cannot even start thinking about what exactly is bad about being poor. This superficial approach may also result in some well-intentioned among us coming out with ideas on the lines of the “Let them eat cake” advice for the poor peasants of France.

Before we go further into this discussion, I would like the reader to just take a 20 second break and think of what he thinks poverty really is.
What is the first visual that comes to your mind when given the word poverty? Do you think of slums and the small dingy homes on both sides of the byline? Do you think of poor kids removing the day’s pickings from their noses? Do you think of a raging drunkard full of expletives? Does your mind go BLANK? Anyone with decent writing skills and even a decent experience of the world will be able to take this harangue on and on – to no avail. Poverty means different things to different people – irrespective of which side of the “poverty line” you may be on. Having said that, would it be wrong to expect that if you are reading this you are most probably on the safer side of the poverty line?
I am assuming you have completed the 2o second exercise on poverty mentioned a few lines before. If you have not, I would recommend you do that. Make it 60 seconds if you see a lot of things coming to your mind or even if nothing is coming.
Okay, now what does poverty mean to me. Poverty to me implies “lack of opportunity”. Just yesterday I started reading Will Durant’s A Story of Philosophy. In the starting pages he talks about two schools of thought and illustrates them through difference in Rousseau and Nietzsche’s perception of nature and equality of man. Rousseau says “By nature all men are equal, becoming unequal by class-made institutions. That law is the invention of the strong to chain and rule the weak”. Nietzsche, on the other hand opines, “By nature all men are unequal, that morality is an invention of the weak to limit and deter the strong”.
I mention this here because there is a section of people which believes that poverty is not at all our problem. It is their problem and let them handle it. After all they have landed themselves in this situation– either by their own doing or by birth. My point is, yes, they have landed themselves in this situation and yes it is their responsibility to redeem themselves. My question is “Are they being given the rightful opportunities to redeem themselves?” Will we be comfortable with the hoi polloi “fighting” for their opportunities on the streets? My case therefore is, people being born poor, is not the problem. A rich man can lead himself to poverty. But do we have the means in place for the poor with the talent, the will and the wherewithal to cross the poverty line?
Now, coming to relative perceptions of poverty. Poverty is not absolute – governments’ definition of the poverty line, though not useless, is useful from a macro-economic and statistical point of view. A unemployed boy roaming the streets of a slum is poorer than a boy working at a tea-shop who in turn is poorer than the boy going to a government school with no labs who in turn is poorer than you or me who are poorer than a subset of you and me who go to schools with organic food and horse riding. Point being, eradicating poverty is not an atomic task in itself. There are layers that have to be dealt in their own way.
Poverty is one of the prime links in the vicious chain of societal problems – others being population explosion, hygiene and sanitation, employment, environment, crime. Breaking this chain requires that we develop a reasonable understanding of the chain. The monster of poverty cannot be dealt-with in isolation.
I attended the induction program for Teach India initiative yesterday. Mujib Khan, of Bhoomi, said something simple but which hit the point. He said on your first visit to the slum you will only see the dirt and grime and will most probably be more focused on taking care of yourselves rather than focusing on the surroundings and its details. Subsequently, you will start observing “life” in a slum. Do the kids go to the school, is the school capable of teaching kids, what is the main source of income for people there, what is the main source of entertainment, what is the law and order situation, what is the spread of various income groups and many such questions. Therefore, to understand poverty we really need to see it at close quarters. A lower middle class government employee who cannot afford to send this deserving daughter to medical school is also suffering from poverty. We really need to understand that poverty is not just limited to “lack of food”. It is the “lack of opportunity”.
What can be done and what is happening for poverty eradication at individual, organizational and governmental levels? I am sure I cannot make an exhaustive list but I will try to write on the general trends.
1. Whenever an individual is able to spare time from this daily rigmarole, he is able to think about things around him and spare a thought for them. Many parts of the world today are enjoying the “best of times” and individuals here are able to spare time, money and effort to think about those who are still facing the “worst of times”. I see such an interest on the rise in my country, India where the buoyant economy has allowed many youngsters to think about the not so fortunate.

2. Corporate organizations are realizing the fact that people who are not rich are still people – they are, therefore, targeting those at the Bottom of Pyramid (BoP, yawn!). Companies like ITC are realizing that helping the not so fortunate need not necessarily be a part of their CSR efforts but can actually be a vaiable business model.

3. People/individuals are also realizing that helping the disadvantaged is not a loss making proposition, by default. Today there we have a huge interest generated in social entrepreneurship and a lot of companies being founded on this principle. E.g. Green Mango working out of Hyderabad (http://greenmango.co.in)

4. Governments are talking about eradicating poverty (as ever). Some proactive ones have actually gone to the extent of working towards it. The Andhra Pradesh state government has particularly done some great work. It is currently a microfinance hotspot in India.

5. The Right to Information Act of the Indian Government is allowing people to question the governmental organizations on many fronts.

6. Penetration of Information Technology and Communications in hitherto unexplored geographical territories is enabling people to make use of information to their benefit. E.g. Access to latest crop prices and weather forecast for farmers.


  1. The trend of youngsters giving back is amazing. many people are quick to call them selfish but even though they do have access to more materials things than ever before, they do also donate to those with less.

    Through our GiveIndia payroll giving program, more than 25,000 employees of leading companies donate a sum of their choice from their salary every month. these contributions exceed Rs50 lac per month.

    So while we have a long way to go, we are on the right path.

  2. ..in addition to that idea that problem poverty has to be solved by charity is slowly giving way to the idea including them in business (opportunity). Sustainability is a problem, but wasn't the first versions of Windows XP full of problems too? :)

    Another problem in eradicating povery is mindset, not of the richer but of the poor. The mindset that when the rich come to the poor, it is not to help but the extract whatever little they have. So, to a certain unknown extent, poverty feeds on itself

    Loooong post, but kept me reading till the end.. good one.

  3. Calling youngsters selfish would not be correct - yes, confused may be. The way I see it, it is very difficult for ordinary people (where ordinary is not a derogatory term) to rise above their current problems and think about the society at large - and I do not single out youngsters. When they are relatively at ease in life, they start thinking about the larger issues. More than a criticism it was a critique.

    As regards the mindset towards the poor, again I feel that unless on is really free or really well to do - and I talk not just of individual but of institutions and governments too - he or she puts his needs first. It is not a sweeping generalization but it is largely the case.

    That is why I feel it is very important to inculcate values like compassion and respect at a young age. At the same time, one should be independent enough to be able to use his discretion to set priorities when it comes to issues.

  4. everytime i read any such article anywhere, in which we are made to think - I just think " what are we doing with our lives ? "

    and What can be done ?

    The answer is not easy but this posts has some clues....

  5. True, many times many of us want to do "something". But for that "something" to happen one needs to understand the issues properly and to realize that the issues differ with geography, culture and even time of the year.

    This prerequisite for understanding the issues of poverty sometimes deters well meaning individuals who are then branded as selfish or dilly-dallying.