New Internationalist

Bingo Babble

Issue 383

Jeremy Seabrook translates the exotic language of poverty spoken in a country rarely visited by its subjects.


As global inequality grows, so does official tenderness for the unequal. Every international agency is concerned with the disadvantaged, the left-behind, the sad laggards of globalism. A formidable jargon has been generated. Billions of dollars have been made available not to redistribute to the poor but to show them pathways to self-improvement.

The highly specialized language of NGOs – a mixture of 1960s psychobabble and contemporary corporate accounting idiom – exists in a parallel world to the experience of everyday impoverishment. It is only spoken in places where the poor rarely venture, in conference centres, five-star hotels and conclaves of philanthropy – the country of the well-meaning affluent.

Here the concern is to reduce poverty without endangering wealth. They are busy setting up frameworks to identify stakeholders to participate in their own uplift. The powerless are empowered. Targets are set for the numbers to be raised out of misery; indicators to demonstrate that performance and delivery have been up to scratch. Goals and objectives aim at capacity-building that will contribute to the recovery of costs. Transparency and decentralization will devolve responsibility on to local instruments of governance. Co-ordinating mechanisms recruit civil society into the miraculous project that will ensure poverty ceases to deprive.

The think-tanks of busy academic departments have created monitoring and evaluation systems for new initiatives, multi-sectoral partnerships and other radical departures in the management of poverty reduction. Gender components have been included in all packages, while sustainability hovers serenely over all disbursements for global inclusiveness. The consequences of this manic busyness are duly recorded in reports, dossiers, files and submissions which are eaten by ants in the chaotic archives of caring organizations.

In the presence of so much urgent activity, the wonder is that poverty has survived at all. When the commissions, conferences, colloquies, seminars and workshops have done their work, why is it that the flow of dispossessed humanity continues to make its melancholy way to city slums all over the world?

Whoever asked the inhabitants of the beaux quartiers to form themselves into communities to build their own sewers?

In places where dengue and malaria breed; where death is the midwife for thousands of women; where work consumes bodies like a disease; where education means the hard lessons of survival on unforgiving streets, and healthcare is a trade-off between nourishment and patented antibiotics – in all these places the poor are increasingly required to ‘participate’.

‘Participation’ now suggests that poor people themselves must provide amenities neglected by the State and priced out of their reach by the market. They must pay for the right to remain in the settlements to which they have been banished. They are invited to supply their sweat, savings and scanty resources to pay for infrastructure which the better-off take for granted. Whoever asked the inhabitants of the beaux quartiers to form themselves into communities to build their own sewers?

A sentimental and heroic vision of ‘the poor’ animates many who seek to help them – the after-image, perhaps, of a fallen Marxist proletariat. But their efforts have done little to reverse impoverishment and inequality. The opacity of the language of inclusion tends to make the poor accept responsibility for their own poverty. No longer collective agents of their own emancipation, this task has been taken out of their skinny hands and passed over to institutions which serve privilege.

Where people organize to protest, challenge and resist, their demands are sometimes apparently met, but are more often muted by the infinite absorptive capacity of a disingenuous language of tools, strategies and programmes. This ensures that, like some vast heritage monument, the poor are going to be preserved.

Is it because the demands of poor people are so modest and could be so easily met – out of a world annual income of more than $45 trillion – that complex mechanisms for the perpetuation of poverty have been packaged in a slippery rhetoric of humanitarian improvement?

However benign the intentions of NGOs, they have been caught up in the compulsions of globalism. The poor run only the remotest risk of becoming an endangered species.

Jeremy Seabrook is a frequent contributor to the NI. His most recent books include Consuming Cultures – Globalization and Local Lives, published by the NI and available online in the UK from: UK Shop or in Australia from: Australian Shop

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