Rethinking poverty - again!

[This is the 5th post in a series that I am writing in the run up to the Goa Thinkfest organized by Tehelka]

Before you read this, think for a moment. If I were to ask you "What do you think is poverty", what would your reply be? This is not a rhetorical question to provide an interesting start to my post. I really want you to think. This is what I think - or rather thought almost 3 years back - "Poverty is the lack of opportunity". Mahatma Gandhi, understandably, had a more profound outlook and said "Poverty is the worst form of violence".

When I first read about Poor Economics, my first reaction - and reaction would be the right word because it was not well thought out - was "Not another theoretical literature on how (amazingly) the poor go about their daily business". I have to confess I have not read the book yet but I do intend to after reading some great reviews and feedback. I guess, the scepticism was more pronounced because Abhijit and Esther are both economists. And I feel that this world suffers from over-theorizing. If you remember, some years back we made a big deal of BoP - oh, you are one those who has not heard of BoP. Bottom of the Pyramid - duh!! Even I made a big deal of it. Writing about it in blogs and throwing the word around in discussions.

But, how much of these discussions have changed the situation on the ground for the poor (remember, I am still waiting for your answer on what you think poverty is). I mean despite the existence of reams of knowledge (which I believe is more of information and less of knowledge), we would have expected the poor to have got a much better deal in our country. But sadly that is not the case. Our own Planning Commission and its beautiful conclusion of "anyone earning above Rs 32 is not poor" are proof. Not to mention that babus (many times well-meaning ones) take decisions which are nothing but modern day versions of "Let them have cake".

Having said this, I should say that the approach taken by Abhijit and Esther - conducting randomized trials - is definitely interesting. And as the Economist review notes, at the least, it makes the economists go out among the people they write about. Theirs is one talk that I am eagerly looking forward to. Here is an excerpt from their book Poor Economics
This urge to reduce the poor to a set of clichés has been with us for as long as there has been poverty: The poor appear, in social theory as much as in literature, by turns lazy or enterprising, noble or thievish, angry or passive, helpless or self-sufficient. It is no surprise that the policy stances that correspond to these views of the poor also tend to be captured in simple formulas: “Free markets for the poor,” “Make human rights substantial,” “Deal with conflict first,” “Give more money to the poorest,” “Foreign aid kills development,” and the like. These big ideas all have important elements of truth, but they rarely have much space for average poor women or men, with their hopes and doubts, limitations and aspirations, beliefs and confusion. If the poor appear at all, it is usually as the dramatis personae of some uplifting anecdote or tragic episode, to be admired or pitied, but not as a source of knowledge, not as people to be consulted about what they think or want or do.
I think they would be most well-placed to answer my question. First one being (remember!) - who is poor? Do the goals of a free economy and poverty alleviation have common ground? Are we as individuals capable of doing simple things to contribute towards poverty alleviation? Is poverty normal? And last but not the least, what do they think of a defining poverty lines based on daily earnings like "Living on a dollar a day" or "Rs 32 a day".

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