issue 310 March 1999
What exactly is poverty?
Mari Marcel Thekaekara travels from south India to
Glasgow to Germany in pursuit of an answer.
Are you rich or poor? my 11-year-old daughter Tahira was asked by her British cousin Leila. Were not exactly poor, Tahira replied hesitantly. But were not rich either.
Thats silly, Leila persisted, you must be one or the other.
Compared to the adivasi (tribal) kids at home were rich, Tahira explained, but compared to our cousins in America were poor.
The conversation that followed was even more intriguing.
Do you have a car?
No. But we can use the project jeep if we need it.
Do you have TV?
No. But my Gran does. We watch hers.
Do you have Calvin Klein jeans?
Tahira didnt know much about jeans then. But she had fairly smart hand-me-downs from her American cousins.
To little Leila, the entire thing was bizarre. In her mind, the divide between rich and poor was absolutely clear. There was no middle path.
Throughout our visit to Britain, our concepts of wealth and poverty continued to be challenged, juxtaposed as the trip was with our experiences of ten years of working with adivasis in the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu.
Years ago I heard a Frenchman say Id rather be poor in India. And I thought: What utter crap. How typical. Romanticizing India, poverty and all.
Then, in 1994, as part of a North-South exchange, my husband Stan and I came to Britain, to visit housing estates in inner-city England and Scotland. The idea was to bring over ideas about social change in India and also to reverse the usual stereotypical image of a Northern aid worker coming to help the Third World.
We were told that Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow is considered Europes worst slum. We thought this was ludicrous. These people had assured housing, electri-city, hot and cold water, refrigerators, gas or electric cooking ranges. By Indian standards this was middle-class luxury. At the back of my mind, I could see anaemic, emaciated adivasi women carrying water in pots from half-a-kilometre away. Huts without electricity. Women searching for firewood every day, thankful if they had a kilo of rice to feed their families every evening. But then, suddenly, it hit us. Most of the men in Easterhouse hadnt had a job in 20 years. They were dispirited, depressed, often alcoholic. Their self-esteem had gone. Emotionally and mentally they were far worse off than the poor where we lived, even though the physical trappings of poverty were less stark.
Wed fallen into the trap of looking at poverty only from the point of view of material benefits. The Easterhouse people looked better off than the Asian poor. In reality they suffered as much social deprivation. The Easterhouse men whod been jobless for 20 years felt far more hopeless than people in India who scrabbled in garbage heaps to sell scrap metal, paper and rags to feed their kids, though both groups were at the bottom of society. This was considered an absolutely outrageous suggestion by critics of our report.
We met young people who struggled to get a job knowing their addresses and accents were not exactly an asset. Women who couldnt fill in forms and were ashamed of the fact. In Dudley, social worker Viv Taylor helped a youngster get a decent jacket, the only really suitable outfit he possessed, to go off for an interview. Hed been ashamed to tell her this so his mother had secretly called Viv for help. It was heart-warming to hear about his jubilation when he actually got the job and set off for work. But the story reminded us of our teachers finding clothes for adivasi kids who had nothing to wear and so couldnt go to school.
We didnt encounter hostility or racism from the poor of Easterhouse or Dudley. Nor in Matson in Gloucester where Stan later spent a month as part of an Oxfam programme. But we did run into massive criticism, both hostile and racist, from the local press. Can Oxfam spot the difference? ran one press clipping showing a skeletal, starving African child juxtaposed with a bunch of healthy British kids. Bob Holman, writer, social worker and our host in Easterhouse, had shown us underdeveloped Scottish children. A whole generation were growing up a head shorter, smaller than their parents and grandparents. But malnutrition in Britain! Even we were amazed. Lack of protein was a Third World problem, surely. Yet the examples were there. And to change these perceptions in people who were determined not to see them was incredibly difficult.
Interestingly, poor people themselves often spot the similarities immediately. They see beyond the physical differences and empathize with each other. Which brings them closer to each other than to the rich of their respective countries who at best can only sympathize with them.
It occurred to us then that even people working in development talked about wealth and poverty using a very narrow definition. We use cash as the sole measure. Ive often read articles implying someone was destitute because they earned only a dollar a day. In India (and in other parts of the world, I imagine) a dollar a day would be a decent wage for a poor person. Whereas a North American or European would consider it shockingly little.
Most of us fall into the trap of working towards alleviating physical poverty thinking this is the solution to all ills. Economic prosperity, wealth, better incomes are put forward as ideals to aspire to. Yet paradoxically, at a totally different level, we attack the wave of consumerism which seems to engulf everyone, rich and poor.
In 1995, the adivasis took the challenge further. At a meeting to look critically at the last ten years, the adivasis were clear about their own notions of wealth: Our community, our children, our unity, our culture, the forest. Money was not mentioned at all. We, the non-adivasis in the team, were stunned.
As we discussed concepts of poverty further, we realized that the adivasis didnt see themselves as poor. They saw themselves as people without money. It took a little bit of concentrated thinking for me to absorb that this was not necessarily the same thing.
Some other things happened to turn our stereotypical concepts on their heads. Community Aid Abroad approached us to invite a group of Aboriginal Australians to visit. Our people were shocked beyond words by the Australian stories, of children wrenched from their families, of the treatment meted out to them. Some of the visitors had personal experiences to recount. They themselves had been torn from their parents as kids and sent to white peoples homes or institutions. For months afterwards, the adivasis talked about the visitors. Poor people, how theyve suffered, they said. Our problems are nothing compared to what theyve been through.
A poverty-stricken Indian saying poor thing to an Australian might strike an outsider as slightly ironic, but the experience was even more surreal when we visited Germany. There had been a six-year ongoing link between a group of German students and our project. So in 1997, when six adivasis were invited to Germany, the visit generated excitement along with a great deal of trepidation. For the adivasis, this was a very big first. A pretty big plunge from their forest, mountain, village world into super-developed Germany. We wondered how theyd cope with the sudden exposure to great material wealth straight after stark poverty.
Their reactions amazed me. I realized later that what made their observations different was the fact that they did not look at the West as a kind of Mecca where you would find everything material you seek. This is in complete contrast to most other visitors who go there either as immigrants or tourists but always with shopping lists. The adivasis didnt hanker after German goodies. Its very nice to be here, Chathi, one of the six, told me. But I couldnt live here. Its not my place. A man needs his family, his community, his own people around him. Just money cant give you a life. Youd shrivel up and die.
They were speechless when they saw an old peoples home. The concept was totally alien to them. How can children send their old parents to live alone? they eventually asked in wonder. And later, in a meeting, Radhakrishnan, another of the six, solemnly resolved: We must ensure that such things never happen in our society, no matter how much we progress.
Like Stan and me in Easterhouse, the adivasis were shocked at the spectre of unemployment which haunted some of our young German friends. They were particularly upset when Karl, whose commune home they lived in, came back stressed by the news that he might soon become redundant. Bomman worried all night about his friend. In the morning he announced: I have an idea. I can make bamboo flutes in Gudalur and Karl can sell them here till he finds a job.
He did too. And though Karl did not lose his job after all, Bommans concern was profoundly moving to everyone who saw it. That Bomman didnt feel at all poverty-stricken was evident to all of us, though by the standards of Karls family, he definitely was.
German friends gave the group warm clothes and gifts for their families. They were happy to bring back presents for their children. But paradoxically, (because of our concern about the possible effect of a consumerist onslaught) the gift that Bomman and the adivasis valued most from Germany was that everyone treated them with respect and dignity. As equals. It was a terrible indictment of Indian society. And I was filled with shame at the realization that theyd experienced more respect and egalitarianism in a month in Germany than in their whole lives in India.
For us the whole visit was an exercise in humility which made us stop and think. It struck me forcibly that the only way to change stereotypes is to come face to face with people. In London, friends said Easterhouse! God, youve been going places! Wouldnt like my car to break down there.
The Easterhouse people were lovely. We really enjoyed meeting them. This is not an attempt to romanticize the problem, but merely to state that stereotypes are equally ridiculous. Im aware that meeting a neo-Nazi or a Chicago gangster on a dark, lonely night could have the effect of liberating you from all your earthly problems altogether; more instantaneously than youd care to go.
The different visits also had unexpected spin-offs. Gudalur, in the Nilgiri mountains of south India, is tea country. In Gloucester, people drink tons of tea, paying three times the necessary price. The Gudalur adivasis produce tons of tea getting a third of the consumer price. Why not send our tea directly to Matson? And to friends in Germany and other parts of India...
In addition, the adivasis visit to Germany gave them new confidence when it came to challenging the transnational companies who had evicted them from land they had owned for generations. Bomman, fresh from his overseas visit, stood in the village square and delivered an impassioned speech.
This is a company controlling thousands of hectares. Yet they are not ashamed to evict poor adivasis who have under a quarter of a hectare of tea. Unilever is very powerful. But the days when adivasis were totally powerless are over. We now have friends in Germany and UK. Weve met people working for Fair Trade. If we tell them what Unilever is doing here they will start a campaign to inform all the people of Europe to stop buying Unilever tea. They will fight on our side. We are no longer alone.
Unilever backed off. The global links between people usually considered poor and therefore powerless had made a difference. To use Stans favourite slogan, If there has to be globalization, lets create a world of our own choosing!
Mari Marcel Thekaekara co-edited this issue and works with adivasis in Gudalur, India.
Weasel words: a dictionary
The English words poor and poverty are treacherous and deceptive, writes Jeremy Seabrook. Covering a multitude of conditions, the words create a seamless continuity between natural poverty and human-made poverty, an artificial link which the language seeks to pass off as though it were a natural phenomenon.
Distressed/adjective/ suggests a loss of former ease; gentlefolk used to become distressed when they lost their fortune through ill-advised investments or through periods of high inflation. Now archaic.
Immiseration/noun/ suggests a more rapid descent into poverty: a word associated with Marx, it is redolent of sudden changes in circumstances brought about by industrial depression, cuts in wages, the laying-off of workers.
Impoverishment/noun/ implies taking away the necessities of life from people. The impoverished are those from whom basic needs have been withheld. It is inflicted by one group of human beings upon another, and is therefore avoidable and remediable.
Insufficiency/noun/ also implies a level of living below subsistence. It does not have industrial overtones, but evokes peasants labouring in hostile conditions or on difficult or marginal lands.
Lack of means/noun/ indicates a monetary absence, not a dearth of resources: a brimming market may exist side-by-side with the lack of the wherewithal to purchase.
Needy, necessitous/adj/ suggest imperilled subsistence; often used of the (deserving) poor, of those who labour but fail to earn enough to keep body and soul together, or who fall upon misfortune, such as sickness or disability.
A pauper/noun/ is a poor person; but this ancient Latin word acquired a special meaning with the end of feudalism. With industrialization and urbanization it came to mean a class of persons dependent on public relief.
Penury and destitution/nouns/ also carry suggestions of want and absolute want respectively. Destitution implies being bereft of resources, indicating human agency.
Social exclusion/noun/ This is a neologism, subtly designed to suggest that the poor in the advanced market economies do not really suffer from a lack of money and that their plight can be cured without spending money. Straitened circumstances implies a reduction in a customary standard of living.
Subsistence/noun/ implies the maintenance of enough food for humans or provender for animals to maintain life and health. It is similar to sustenance the means of sustaining life and sufficiency, an adequate provision for bodily comfort. Indeed, these words are pivotal, for they mark the point at which industrialism leads the ancient human aspiration of relief from poverty to desert its roots and embrace a need for growth and perpetual increase. Human need gives way to economic necessity and the age-old dream of secure survival gives way to the pathology of more.
Want/noun/ implies a lack of the necessities of life, an absence of what is needed to survive in a reasonable state of comfort.
The words for rich are far less ambiguous, possibly because it is usually the possessing classes who have to define poverty, since they are expected to do something about it; whereas everybody knows what wealth is, and the refinements of definition demanded by poverty are not required.
Moneyed/adj/ means having a large disposable income.
Of independent means/adjectival phrase/ suggesting one who has sources of money into the origin of which none should pry too deeply.
Opulence/noun/ suggests a flaunting of good fortune, conspicuous consumption; hints at a disregard for the susceptibilities of the poor, and a defiance of the convention that the rich of today should always be declaring how poor they are.
Solvency/noun/ implies a state in which money is readily available.
Wealth, wealthy/noun/adj/ are faintly euphemistic words. They blunt the edge of the more defiant words rich and riches. Wealth has in recent years taken on more mystical overtones, as in the creation of wealth, which is supposed to be the most exalted activity that contemporary humanity can hope to engage in.
Jeremy Seabrook/name/ has written extensively on poverty and resistance in the North and the South.
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