issue 232 - June 1992
The discovery of poverty
How 'the poor' were invented by the West... How the development idea was rescued
from its first crisis... The vital difference between frugality and destitution.
I could have kicked myself afterwards. Yet my remark had seemed the most natural thing on earth at the time. It was six months after Mexico City's catastrophic earthquake in 1985 and I had spent the whole day walking around Tepito, a dilapidated quarter inhabited by ordinary people but threatened by land speculators. I had expected ruins and resignation, decay and squalor, but the visit had made me think again: there was a proud neighbourly spirit, vigorous building activity and a flourishing shadow economy.
But at the end of the day the remark slipped out: 'It's all very well but, when it comes down to it, these people are still terribly poor.' Promptly, one of my companions stiffened: 'No somos pobres, somos Tepitanos!' (We are not poor people, we are Tepitans). What a reprimand! Why had I made such an offensive remark? I had to admit to myself in embarrassment that, quite involuntarily, the clichés of development philosophy had triggered my reaction.
Inventing the low-income bracket
'Poverty' on a global scale was discovered after the Second World War; before 1940 it was not an issue. In one of the first World Bank reports, dating from 1948-9, the 'nature of the problem' is outlined: 'Both the need and potential for development are plainly revealed by a single set of statistics. According to the UN Bureau of Statistics, average income per head in the United States in 1947 was over $1400, and in another 14 countries ranged between $400 and $900. For more than half of the world's population, however, the average income was less - and sometimes much less - than $100 per person. The magnitude of this discrepancy demonstrates not only the urgent need to raise living standards in the underdeveloped countries, but also the enormous possibilities to do just this...'
Whenever 'poverty' was mentioned at all in the documents of the 1940s and 1950s, it took the form of a statistical measurement of per-capita income whose significance rested on the fact that it lay ridiculously far below the US standard.
ANS WESTRA / CAMERA PRESS
When size of income is thought to indicate social perfection, as it does in the economic model of society, one is inclined to interpret any other society which does not follow that model as 'low-income'. This way, the perception of poverty on a global scale was nothing more than the result of a comparative statistical operation, the first of which was carried out only in 1940 by the economist Cohn, Clark. As soon as the scale of incomes had been established, order reigned on a confused globe: horizontally, such different worlds as those of the Zapotec people of Mexico, the Tuareg of North Africa and the Rajasthani of India could be classed together, whilst a vertical comparison to the 'rich' nations demanded relegating them to a position of almost immeasurable inferiority.
In this way 'poverty' was used to define whole peoples, not according to what they are and want to be, but according to what they lack and are expected to become. Economic disdain had thus taken the place of colonial contempt.
Moreover, this conceptual operation provided a justification for intervention: wherever low income is the problem, the only answer can be 'economic development'. There was no mention of the idea that poverty might also result from oppression and thus demand liberation. Or that a culture of sufficiency might be essential for long-term survival. Or even less that a culture might direct its energies towards spheres other than the economic.
No, as it was in the industrial nations so it was to be in all the others: poverty was diagnosed as a lack of spending power crying to be banished through economic growth. Under the banner of poverty' the enforced reorganization of many societies into money economies was subsequently conducted like a moral crusade. Who could be against it?
Descent to the biological minimum
Towards the end of the 1960s, when it was no longer possible to close one's eyes to the fact that 'economic development' was patently failing to help most people achieve a higher standard of living, a new conception of 'poverty' was required. 'We should strive,' McNamara of the World Bank stated in 1973, 'to eradicate absolute poverty by the end of the century. That means in practice the elimination of malnutrition and illiteracy, the reduction of infant mortality and the raising of life-expectancy standards to those of the developed nations.'
Whoever lived below an externally defined minimum standard was declared 'absolutely poor'; the yardstick of per-capita income was thrown onto the trash heap of development concepts. Two shifts in the focus of the international discussion of poverty were responsible for this. On the one hand, attention switched to yawning social gulfs within societies, which had been completely blurred by national averages. On the other, income revealed itself to be a rather blunt indicator of the actual living conditions of those not fully integrated into a money economy.
These new efforts to understand poverty in terms of quality of life emerged out of disappointment at the results of the stimulation of growth, but they brought their own form of reductionism. Since the first attempts in England at the turn of the century, the calculation of an absolute poverty line has been based on nutrition: the absolute poor are those whose intake of foods does not exceed a certain minimum of calories.
CHRIS STEELE-PERKINS / CAMERA PRESS
The trouble with such definitions is that they reduce the living reality of hundreds of millions of people to an animalistic description. In an attempt to find an objective and meaningful criterion, the ground was cleared for a conception of reality which reduces the rich variety of what people might hope and struggle for to one bare piece of data about survival. Can a lower common denominator be imagined?
No wonder the measures taken in response - ranging from deliveries of grain to people who eat rice to literacy campaigns in regions where the written word is altogether uncommon - have all too often been insensitive and shown no regard for people's self-esteem.
Reducing lifeworlds to calorie levels, to be sure, makes the international administration of development aid a lot easier. It allows a neat classification of the clientèle (without which worldwide strategies would be pointless) and it serves as permanent proof of a state of global emergency (without which doubt might be cast on the legitimacy of some development agencies). This readjusted idea of poverty enabled the development paradigm to be rescued at the beginning of the 1970s. In its official version, the fulfilment of basic needs strictly called for economic growth, or at least growth 'with redistribution'. The link to the previous decade's dogma of growth was thus established.
Poor is not necessarily poor
Binary divisions, such as healthy/ill, normal/abnormal or, more pertinently, rich/poor, are like steamrollers of the mind; they level a multiform world, completely flattening anything which does not fit. The stereotyped talk of 'poverty' has disfigured the different, indeed contrasting, forms of poverty beyond recognition. It fails to distinguish, for example, between frugality, destitution, and scarcity.
Frugality is a mark of cultures free from the frenzy of accumulation. In these, the necessities of everyday life are mostly won from subsistence production with only the smaller part being purchased on the market. To our eyes, people have rather meagre possessions; maybe the hut and some pots and the Sunday costume, with money playing only a marginal role. Instead, everyone usually has access to fields, rivers and woods, while kinship and community duties guarantee services which elsewhere must be paid for in hard cash. Despite being in the 'low-income bracket', nobody goes hungry. What is more, large surpluses are often spent on jewellery, celebrations or grandiose buildings. In a traditional Mexican village, for example, the private accumulation of wealth results in social ostracism - prestige is gained precisely by spending even small profits on good deeds for the community. Here is a way of life maintained by a culture which recognizes and cultivates a state of sufficiency; it only turns into demeaning 'poverty' when pressurized by an accumulating society.
Destitution, on the other hand, becomes rampant as soon as frugality is deprived of its foundation. Along with community ties, land, forest and water are the most important prerequisites for subsistence without money. As soon as they are taken away or destroyed, destitution lurks. Again and again, peasants, nomads and tribals have fallen into misery after being driven from their land, savannahs and forests. Indeed the first state policies on poverty, in sixteenth-century Europe, were a response to the sudden appearance of vagabonds and mendicancy provoked by enclosures of the land - it had traditionally been the task of communities to provide for widows and orphans, the classical cases of unmaintained poor people.
Scarcity derives from modernized poverty. It affects mostly urban groups caught up in the money economy as workers and consumers whose spending power is so low that they fall by the wayside. Not only does their predicament make them vulnerable to the whims of the market, but they also live in a situation where money assumes an ever-increasing importance. Their capacity to achieve through their own efforts gradually fades, while at the same time their desires, fuelled by glimpses of high society, spiral towards infinity; this scissor-like effect of want is what characterizes modern poverty. Commodity-based poverty, still described as 'the social question' in the nineteenth century, led to the welfare state and its income and employment policy after the world economic crisis of 1929. Precisely this view of poverty, influenced by Keynes and the New Deal, shaped the development ideas of the post-war era.
More frugality, less destitution
Up until the present day, development politicians have viewed 'poverty' as the problem and 'growth' as the solution. They have not yet admitted that they have been largely working with a concept of poverty fashioned by the experience of commodity-based need in the Northern hemisphere. With the less well-off homo oeconomicus in mind, they have encouraged growth - and often produced destitution by bringing multifarious cultures of frugality to ruin. For the culture of growth can only be erected on the ruins of frugality; and so destitution and dependence on commodities are its price.
Is it not time after 40 years to draw a conclusion? Whoever wishes to banish poverty must build on efficiency; a cautious handling of growth is the most important way of fighting poverty.
It seems my friend from Tepito knew of this when he refused to be labelled 'poor'. His honour was at stake, his pride too; he clung to his Tepito form of sufficiency, perhaps sensing that without it there loomed only destitution or never-ending scarcity of money.
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