A Disconnect: What If Everything We Know About Fixing Global Poverty is Wrong?

By Glen Martin

There’s no getting around the veracity of Matthew 26:11. “…For ye have the poor always with you,” as the King James Version has it. But as long as there has been poverty, there have also been decent souls trying to eliminate it.

So how are they doing?  Not very well. According to the World Food Programme, 805 million people don’t have enough to eat. World Bank figures confirm that more than 3 billion people—or somewhat less than half the total planetary population–eke by on less than $2.50 a day, while almost 1.5 billion subsist on less than $1.25 a day. Fully 80 percent of the planet’s people get by on less than $10 a day. In other words, it’s not so much a case of the poor always being with us. Considered from a global perspective, the poor are us. Most human beings live in poverty, and for many the situation is utterly desperate.

So why haven’t First World do-gooders made more of a dent? Billions of dollars are expended each year on alleviating poverty, environmental degradation and general social injustice. Vast resources, from food to high technology, are thrown at the problem, and nothing seems to stick.

It may well be that our error is in the fundamental way we perceive the poverty challenge. At least that’s the case being advanced by some specialists at UC Berkeley who are calling for a reset in our approaches to global poverty. We tend to think of fixes in terms of technology and money, says Khalid Kadir, a UC Berkeley lecturer in the International and Area Studies Teaching Program and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. But more often than not, the bottleneck in getting aid to people who need it isn’t due to a paucity of food or funding. It’s about cultural, social and political constraints.

“You can’t address poverty without first addressing local political structures,” says Kadir, who is also an associate of the university’s Blum Center for Developing Economies. “To a very large degree, that determines who gets what, regardless of the amount of money provided by either governments or NGOs.”

In the most egregious of cases, the problem consists of simple corruption. Resources provided in good faith for the starving are diverted to the warehouses, and ultimately, the bank accounts of those in power. This dynamic has broad and long-term resonance, affecting more than the people who are directly deprived of food.

“It establishes a structure that makes legitimate economic progress for the individual impossible,” says Kadir. “In a society where corruption is sanctioned, people feel their only hope for a decent life is to steal. They understand it’s not right, they despise the system that forces them to do it, but they’re locked in. They have to participate to survive.”

Then there is the issue of the “poverty industry,” as Kadir terms it. Those who have  traveled the rural environs of the developing world may have noticed a certain phenomenon: well-fed, well-paid social welfare advocates driving around in spanking new Land Rovers. This often does not sit well with the supposed beneficiaries of NGO largesse. During a meeting held under some sparse thorn trees in Namibia, I once observed deep rancor directed against government and non-governmental organization staffers who were trying to “help” a pastoral community deal with leopard and cheetah predation. The villagers were thin and wore patched, even ragged clothes. The staffers were amply fleshed, dressed in crisp uniforms or stylish bush wear, and arrived to the meeting in late model SUVs. Ostensibly, the staffers were there to reimburse the villagers for goats killed by the predators, but they mainly discoursed on the long bureaucratic process required before payment could be disbursed. The pastoralists were deeply exasperated by the red tape, and openly resentful of the staffers’ relative prosperity.

“Representatives of the United Nations Development Program are particularly notorious for rolling up in new cars,” observes Kadir.  “You have to consider the perception and impacts of paying people high wages to solve poverty in the developing world.” In other words, he continues, the message that comes through isn’t so much ‘We’re here to help.’ Rather, it’s ‘If you want to have plenty to eat, get paid lavishly and drive a new car, get hired by an NGO trying to solve poverty.’

Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, a Global Poverty and Practice Postdoctoral Fellow at the Blum Center, agrees that politics can undermine poverty reduction programs even when plenty of money and “experts” are available.

“Problems arise when political structures don’t hold people in government accountable,” he says. “If a politician is aware that his actions are monitored, that he is going to face consequences for them, then you can see some fairly good outcomes.” Conversely, political systems that encourage patronage and self-aggrandizement send a different message: If a political culture encourages stealing, politicians inevitably steal.

“Generally speaking, political systems that are more democratic are considered better at implementing effective (anti-poverty) programs,” says Opoku-Agyemang. “But this isn’t always the case. For an example, all we have to do is look at China. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in recent decades, and their political system is hardly democratic. So it’s difficult to apply a uniform standard that works in all situations.”

Sometimes the problem isn’t corruption. Sometimes everyone is trying to do the right thing, but outcomes remain unsuccessful. In such cases, the sticking points still are apt to be more political and social than technical. As an example, Kadir cites the spectacular failure of effective wastewater treatment and drinking water supply programs across the developing world. Contaminated water is a global problem that greatly exacerbates poverty. Free-flowing raw sewage and a lack of clean drinking water translate directly to virulent diseases that kill millions outright and sap the vitality of survivors, reducing household incomes.

One of Kadir’s métiers is the design of passive pond-and-marsh systems to purify wastewater. Such schemes are low-tech, harnessing naturally-occurring microbes to purify wastewater. As such, they are ideally suited for developing countries. Or are they?

“They are extremely effective, but you often face major hurdles when you try to build them,” says Kadir. “First, they are not compact. You need quite a bit of land for the ponds and wetlands, and land tenure in the developing world is often a very complicated issue, typically involving local power brokers who may have differing agendas. Second, they’re not sexy. They’re not the kind of thing local politicians can trumpet. They want their names on big, shiny high-tech water treatment plants. The problem, of course, is that these kinds of facilities are difficult to maintain. That’s why you have derelict water-treatment plants all across Latin America.”

Kadir observes that a widely-used method for purifying drinking water in the developing world also is problematic. Small individual or household purifying units are cheap and effective when used properly—but the problem is that not everyone uses them properly. And water-borne diseases can be propagated throughout an entire village if a single household doesn’t fastidiously follow correct procedures. So while “appropriate” (i.e., small scale) technology is indeed appropriate for many situations in the developing world, it is by no means appropriate for all. Where water purification is concerned, you want rigorously-controlled, centralized systems.

“What it really gets down to is you can’t take a cookie cutter approach to social justice issues, including poverty,” says Kadir.  “One size doesn’t fit all. In fact, one size may only fit a single situation. Poverty is complex, and the solutions are not simple. You have to evaluate each situation, and be willing and able to tailor individual programs that take local conditions—including social and political—into account.”

Opoku-Agyemang agrees that technology “is often limited by the people who use it,” and that hampers efforts to reduce poverty. But he observes that some technologies can trump existing power structures, enforcing the accountability so often lacking in political systems.

“Specifically, I’m thinking of mobile phone technology,” he says. “Mobile phones have disseminated rapidly in the developing world, and they are a powerful tool. They make it much easier to galvanize and mobilize people—they can actually force politicians to take responsibility for their actions.”

Finally, it may help to adjust expectations to the implacable reality limned in Matthew 26:11. That can be tough if you’re young, smart, highly idealistic, and dedicated to ending poverty—an accurate description of many of the students who take Kadir’s classes. 

“Admittedly, I came to Berkeley with a desire to save the world,” observes Alex Berryhill, a Cal senior, research assistant at the university’s Center on the Politics of Development, and a communications team assistant at #GlobalPOV (a Blum Center multi-media project that explores various poverty-related issues.)

“I still support anyone who holds that ambition,” she says. “But I’ve become aware of the complexities involved with poverty, of how political and social organizations work—and how there can be a real disconnect between academic theory and what happens on the ground. I’ve come to realize that we need to be humble, to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers.”

Berryhill blogged about her evolving perspective in the Fair Observer, a newsletter concerned with social equity. She cited Kadir’s work, and succinctly encapsulated her sense of the limitations of hyper-ambitious programs that put too much emphasis on lavish funding, sophisticated technology and blanket strategies, and not enough on local conditions and needs.

“What is the consequence of treating poverty as a technical rather than political issue?” Berryhill asked. “We end up simply moving problems from one location to another, failing to solve much.”

Kadir applauds such a gimlet-eyed perspective.

“There’s nothing wrong with idealism,” says Kadir, “but it’s probably better to learn about the limitations the world imposes when you’re young than when you’re in your sixties. That doesn’t mean you should give up. Instead, you should double down. Then you use what you learn to move forward, to do some good. You won’t find things easy, but easy jobs never result in meaningful change.”

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The far greater question is Why Has UC Failed To Meet The Challenges Of Change For Far Too Long? After 40 years of historical research and documentation, one of Will and Ariel Durant’s most important conclusions was: “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.” Current events are proving that we are making the same mistake again.
Glen, we must all be wrong because we can’t even fix poverty in America and we are destroying the future for our kids more every day because we have no intellectuals and politicians who care enough to protect future quality of life, or we would be doing somethings about it right now. Prof. Gopnik proves my point in her response to the 2013 EDGE Question - What Should We Be Worried About?: “This leads me to the stuff that we don’t worry about enough. While upper middle-class parents are worrying about whether to put their children in forward or backward facing strollers, more than 1 in 5 children in the United States are growing up below the poverty line, and nearly half the children in America grow up in low-income households. Children, and especially young children, are more likely to live in poverty than any other age group. This number has actually increased substantially during the past decade. More significantly, these children not only face poverty but a more crippling isolation and instability. It’s not just that many children grow up without fathers, they grow up without grandparents or alloparents either, and with parents who are forced to spend long hours at unreliable jobs that don’t pay enough in the first place. Institutions haven’t stepped in to fill the gap—we still provide almost no public support for childcare, we pay parents nothing, and child-care workers next to nothing.” The totally indisputable truth is that many of us write, talk and lecture about it, but no one is able to do anything about it in our greedy, corrupt, self destructive society.
Also ask and wonder why most people are poor? because they having kids that you cannot feed because you don’t have a job. Most poor people in the Philippines had 10 to 12 kids and counting. That’s one of the many reason why they are also poor. Parents doesn’t have a decent job because they most of then married early about 16 above and since 85% are all catholic they don’t want to practice non natural birth control or family planning. Every county has rich and poor. It’s just not mostly published. Most of the young people to doesn’t want to go to school there are public university in the philippines.
Good observation. Bottom line is leadership. ” Everything rise and fall on leadership” John Maxwell. The kind of leaders that works and manage over the tasks involved determines greatly the outcome. Good leaders successful programs. Bad leaders corrupts the whole program to enrich themselves. its willful and deliberate. Leaders with good intentions to help will make sure that help is given and make sure who is given deserved it, and make sure recipients receives all that is intended for them. Government officials choose whose to get appointed to run foreign aid programs. NGO’s choose who gets in charge to run the foreign aid program. Just a suggestion. Try the option to localize the giving of help of foreign aid. zone it according to district or even community. That way on a small scale operation all is aware who to contact to. Use community intelligence to identify whose in the community has the heart to serve the people. Not see the Mayor and ask whose he or she would recommend. In our country here in the Philippines corruption is not only accepted but admired. Horrible.
Outstanding analysis based on very uncomfortable truths about how rich bureaucracies (GOs and NGOs) connive with poor bureaucracies in draining the rich of their money without offering the poor anything in return and keeping the profit. I only disagree with one previous commentator in that the main problem is leadership: good leaders with non the right attitude grow naturally out of societies which are not necessarily educated or well off materially, but those who have strong values and ethics, and most of all the ones where their members care about the wellbeing of their fellow citizens.
Well said Peter, the saddest reality today is that none of our worldwide institutions (social, political, economic, academic, religious, intellectual, etc.) have any outstanding leaders that practice and inspire the rest of us to at least live by the Golden Rule. I do have high hopes for the new Pope because he appears to be an entirely new culture that might be able to lead us in a better direction, and the fact that there are over a thousand competing Christian denominations means we desperately need someone who can join all of the denominations together to at least practice the what Jesus preached in his Sermon on the Mount for openers.
If you are going to build an argument, please put facts, not just your preconceived wrong ideas and stereotypes. The fertility rate of the Philippines is 3.08 not 10-12 kids per women.
Actually, there is ‘getting round’ Matthew 26:11. “…For ye have the poor always with you”. The full verse is “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Later in Matthew Jesus says “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”. Considering here Jesus says he is always with you, it is likely when his statement in 26.11 is not meant to be an all time proclamation. Potentially a more specific statement to Judas. Deuteronomy chapter 15 may also provide some context.
I will be glad if such an important research is widely circulated and given emphasis here in Kenya, where few civil societies take advantage of the poor through donor funds.
It’s sad to see these pictures of so much toxins entering their bodies. They are so deprived under the greed of the “system” that they can’t even detox or don’t know how to. For rest of the fortunate people in the world, here’s a note on detox water: www.DetoxWaterInfo.com

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