August 2007

The Root Causes of Poverty


In the 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” a community of Kalahari bushmen is thrown off-balance when a Coke bottle, tossed out of a small plane, lands in their village. If you haven’t seen the film, you might think I’m the one who’s crazy — or at least wonder what this has to do with this column — so I’ll explain what happened and consider some lessons to gain from it.
This community was doing well before that moment. Everyone had everything they needed; they knew how to live in their own environment and with each other. But suddenly there was a Coke bottle, something they had never seen before and frankly didn’t know what to do with.

Thinking it a gift from the Gods, they experimented and eventually found that it could be quite handy. It changed from novelty to toy to tool and even to a weapon. And, since there was only one Coke bottle, for the first time they experienced lack, unfairness, deprivation. They soon became a community with “haves” and “have-nots.”

I remembered this film recently while I was helping to create a new course at the University called “Making Poverty History.” During the development of this course I thought a lot about the causes of poverty. The problem is that we now have a world in which only relatively few people have Coke bottles — as I continue to use that metaphor.

There are enough Coke bottles in the world; there are just too many in some places and not enough in others. I am not suggesting sameness, as I recognize that there should be distinctions reflecting individual circumstances, choice and talents. What I am talking about are extremes, which are examples of injustice. A world with homelessness and hunger, with wars started over a patch of land or a trickle of water – these are symptoms of extreme imbalance, immoderation and injustice.

I’ve also been learning about how much of the world’s poverty is within our so-called developed world. From homelessness in Guelph to unemployed suburbanites, really no place in the world is exempt.

And why are the world’s Coke bottles not fairly distributed? Perhaps because of the absence of world-wide agreement, unity of vision and cooperation — instead there are prejudices, intolerance and greed. All of this prevents people from helping themselves, from helping neighbors and from helping nameless strangers.

People are resourceful, and given enough time and cooperation they can solve their problems. However, rapid environmental changes sadly typical of recent years seem to inhibit people’s abilities to adapt on their own. So this is just one more reason why we need to get involved with each other — to solve these problems.

Most approaches to solving poverty emphasize factors such as geography, politics, distribution logistics and economics. I agree that on a practical level these challenges much be solved, but they don’t get to the source of the extremes of poverty and wealth.

I read recently about a straw-like device that allows individuals to filter their own drinking water for a year — at a cost of $3 per year. I was stunned to think that the cost of coffee and a muffin here could buy someone elsewhere a life-saving drinking straw. I have seen pictures of bed-sized mosquito netting to reduce exposure to Malaria (which threatens more lives than HIV-aids in many places) for $10. There are many more possible examples of how far our money can go elsewhere.

While I think it’s up to everyone to decide their standard of living within their own financial means, this is a huge reminder to think and think again. Do I need that coffee and muffin? Do I need this or that item or could I give more generously to charity? How do I buy someone a drinking straw or a mosquito net? How do I choose among the many worthy causes?

Or on a larger scale, in addressing the root causes, how do I help create a world with increased unity of vision, where justice and fairness - rather than cold economics, short-term solutions and/or materialistic self-interest — are the bases for policy?

In reflecting on these and related questions, I am again reminded of something I read back in the 70s. "The best way to help the poor is to not be one of them." I feel fortunate to have enough income to have choices, and everything around me reminds me to share.


© Jaellayna Palmer 2007