There is no short answer. But there are answers. This article gives our best efforts at concise explanation as to ‘Why Poverty?’ So let’s begin. Another way of asking this question is: “Why is there poverty at all?” The answer to this apparently ‘simple’ question is both simple and complex – at the same time. OK, don’t get angry – there’s a good reason why. Let’s illustrate this key point by thinking about two other things you will already be familiar with: the human body and business. Curious? We will compare the causes of poverty to the ULTIMATE causes of failures in these other two comparable systems. Are you ready?
Asking ‘Why is there poverty?’ is rather like asking ‘Why do people die?’ On the one hand, there are NUMEROUS complex and potentially compound causes of any one person’s actual death. People might officially die from something as seemingly familiar as say, ‘old age’, or as exceptional as ‘ebola hemorrhagic fever’. However technically, to identify these things as the ultimate ’cause of death’ is not strictly true. Did you know that ALL people technically die of EXACTLY the same thing? It is lack of oxygen to the brain. Your body’s organs may fail for all kinds of reasons and your heart can even stop beating, but it is only when your BRAIN ‘dies’, through a lack of oxygen delivered via your blood stream, that you technically ‘die’. Does that shock you? It remains quite understandable, medically-speaking, to suggest that what CAUSES that lack of oxygen to the brain is the declared the ’cause of death’, but really that is just a route to the cause – not the ROOT cause. Do you see the point? Good. Then read on.
THEN HOW IS BUSINESS COLLAPSE LIKE POVERTY?
In the same way, ALL businesses ultimately fail for one reason: lack of cash. You can have quite dreadful businesses losing millions of dollars each year and you can call them ‘failing businesses’ if you like. But however badly they may be run, they are only FORCED to stop trading when the cash runs out. Just like oxygen running out in the human brain, in our previous example. It may surprise you to know that some businesses have still ‘failed’, even when they were profitable – ‘on paper’ at least. It is said in the business world: ‘revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, but cash is reality!‘ So, just like the root cause of all human death is a lack of oxygen to the brain, the root cause of all business ‘failure’ (rather than termination) is effectively a lack of cash flow.
One can still argue quite correctly then, that the ‘CAUSE’ of any given business failure can be any number of contributory reasons – but they all ultimately lead to the common UNDERLYING cause of a subsequent lack of cash. Business owners may choose to terminate businesses long before they actually run out of cash in practice, but a lack of cash will eventually force that termination upon them – whether they like it or not. A lack of cash removes their capacity to trade – to pay for and buy the things necessary for their continuation. Therein lies is the similarity with poverty.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO POVERTY?
Innovator Paul Polak is claimed to have brought 22 million farmers out of poverty, through his various poverty reduction initiatives. Quite an expert then. He has said that if you ask anyone facing poverty WHY they are poor, they will all tend to tell you the same thing: lack of money. Excepting more extreme scenarios, where circumstances may cut you off from the normal opportunity to purchase all that you might otherwise require (in terms of the 7 Humanitarian Basics), then you can see their point. If they had money then OBVIOUSLY they would just buy whatever they wanted and that would solve all their financial and material problems – instantly.
Tying this idea more closely to the 7 Layer Poverty Model concept, an individual with ‘enough’ money can typically overcome all Access issues regarding the 7 Humanitarian Basics, by paying to move to where those Basics can be supplied, or by paying for those Basics to be brought to them. Hence, enough money typically does overcome ALL Access problems in obtaining Humanitarian Basics of the right Attributes and for the right Availability. Also, bearing in mind that the World Bank’s own definition of poverty is to be living on under US$2 a day, then clearly giving someone receiving an income ABOVE that level, immediately lifts them out of the ‘poverty’ category – based on the World Bank’s definition, at least. So in that specific sense, there really is a SIMPLE answer to the SIMPLE question: ‘Why is there poverty?’ It’s lack of money. Happy?
BUT THAT’S TOO SIMPLE, RIGHT?
Yes – like we said, that is true in one sense – but not in all. At a deeper level, the underlying question remains WHY do they not have enough money? What personal and systemic failings along the way have LED to any individual entering and remaining in poverty? That brings us onto ideas of CONTRIBUTORY , COMPOUND and SUFFICIENT causes that lead to the ultimate root cause, which is lack of cash. If you read around some of the literature on the causes of poverty as we have, you will find many and varied opinions shared among highly intelligent and yet sometimes highly divergent experts, on what those causes are. (**For a useful summary of some leading academic opinions on the subject, you can enter ‘theories of poverty’ as your search term into Wikipedia.com).
To us, we see the relationship working rather like that system operating between a sailor and headwinds. All these supposed ’causes’ typically combine in various ways, to act like HEADWINDS, slowing down, blocking, or reversing the intended progress of a given individual OUT of poverty. Therefore, one could argue that if the individual facing poverty were a ‘better sailor’, they would be able to NAVIGATE their way out of their poverty, despite these given headwinds. From this perspective then, it is the individual’s relative lack of resourcefulness that is seen as the key contributory cause of their own poverty. In short: ‘It’s their own fault’.
Perhaps you may even believe that if YOU were in their shoes – or in this analogy, their boat – you would have figured a better way out of the poverty predicament that they find themselves in. In many cases, you may be right. Some of these poverty-inducing headwinds, however, are so severe that they would be enough to drive back just about anyone: civil war, famine, epidemics, earthquakes, tsunamis. Few would willingly take on such hostile systems of life conditions – resourceful, skilful, ‘wealthy’ or otherwise.
IS CASH ALWAYS ‘KING’, THEN?
In the 21st century and amidst reasonably well-functioning local economies and markets, having ‘cash’ is equated to having the ability to readily obtain the things you need. Historically, we are aware of alternative bartering-based economies, before cash or cash equivalents ever existed. There is nothing to stop people ‘bartering’ with what they have to engage in trade, even today. For some, that ‘trade’ may simply be the services of their own body, in the form of sexual prostitution, claimed to be ‘the oldest profession’ in the world. Perhaps more helpfully, that trade is more commonly experienced in the form of labor for hire.
Some desperately poor people have been seen to hold up signs claiming: ‘Will work for food’. So, we recognise that technically there are cash substitutes or surrogates allowed for, under the bartering and direct exchange alternative trade models. Hence, where someone claims to be poor due to a lack of money, we may interpret that more fully to mean a lack of available RESOURCES, a lack of access to other RESOURCERS, or even a lack of personal RESOURCEFULNESS, to obtain the things they need.
So then, allowing the broad understanding of a lack of cash being the ultimate root cause of all poverty, there may be a number of CONTRIBUTORY causes, which individually or collectively combine to become SUFFICIENT cause – in the case of a specific individual, at a specific time and under specific circumstances. That’s worth re-reading, as it’s a lot to take in all at once. With this understanding, the EXACT same set of contributory circumstances may not have the same consequences for all individuals. We are all free to adapt to our respective systems and circumstances differently. As ‘sailors’ negotiating the headwinds against us, we all have different skills and abilities.
To be most accurate then, we are typically better advised to be looking for CONTRIBUTORY FACTORS leading to an individual’s specific instance (or state) of poverty, rather than looking for some single, individually SUFFICIENT CAUSE. In that sense, there is no single ‘magic bullet’, because there is no single ‘magic curse’. We believe this will prove true in most – but not all poverty cases. Refugee scenarios are perhaps the most obvious and familiar example of where people, who may have previously been classed as ‘wealthy’ and resourceful, then ‘lost everything’ in being forced to become a refugee, for whatever reason (war, famine, persecution and so on). As part of this seismic shift in their systems and circumstances, they may have lost most of their former resources, some of their capacity to be, or draw on other resourcers, but hopefully not all of their former resourcefulness.
We contend that such finer distinctions are more than intellectual hair-splitting, as they help explain some apparently widely-divergent ‘expert’ opinions and statements on the subject of poverty’s “causes“. Understanding the different things people actually MEAN by ’cause’, further explains why such different SOLUTIONS are variously suggested and attempted – with varying degrees of apparent success as a result. If the root cause of one individual’s poverty is his personal alcoholism, shutting down every one the world’s tax havens will not cure his addiction. Conversely, if you managed to ‘cure’ one man’s alcoholism, all kinds of remaining poverty headwinds could still force him back to being poor one day. Agreed?
All these dimensions to the realities of various poverty states, from the macro to the micro scale, are reflected and incorporated into our integrated approach – aiding a better understanding and hence more effective overall poverty solutions.
A better understanding of this perpetual dynamic, also helps us better identify suitable responses to people articulating viewpoints, such as: “We have spent a trillion dollars on aid and the net result is we have more poverty now than ever before in history!” It is sad how many will ‘swallow’ the ignorance concealed within such statements, due to the apparent sugary logic with which they are ‘coated’. We trust that you will not now become one of them.
Consider by comparison, your OWN reaction to the similarly-structured statement: “We have spent trillions of dollars on healthcare over the years and there are more sick people on the planet now than ever before”. The fact is that POPULATION GROWTH has led to more people on the planet than ever before and there are multiple reasons why many among those people are sick. What is perhaps more relevant is the PROPORTION of sick people, rather than the total number. Even if the proportion had gone up, we would NOT conclude that healthcare and MEDICINE themselves didn’t work – but that people were not getting the proper TREATMENT they required. Does that not make more sense?
SO WHY IS THERE POVERTY STILL?
As it is with healthcare spending, so it is with poverty reduction spending. In order to better understand the problem, you need to understand the failings in the systems underneath. Our own logic would conclude the issue was more likely to be one of DISTRIBUTION of resources, not their effectiveness, once they reached the right person and were applied in the right way. The only reason this might NOT be the case with medicine, would be an example where the medicine itself had LOST its effectiveness as a treatment, as is the case with increased recent resistance of some diseases to traditional antibiotics. By comparison, we are confident that MONEY has not lost any of its historic effectiveness in overcoming the individual’s poverty – except in those rarer cases where the individual concerned abuses its use. It also remains true, that just because ‘Poverty Solution A’ is deemed effective, that does not stop ‘Poverty Solution B’ being somehow MORE effective, in some, many, or even most cases – depending on your chosen basis of comparison.
IF MONEY IS THE ANSWER, WHAT’S THE NEXT QUESTION?
The broader challenges then become how to design and implement more optimal systems and get the best VALUE for money (or other input) – ensuring that the benefits generated reach those who need them most. Part of the pursuit of ‘value for money’ drives us to look for particular efficiency in execution within any new system. In this respect, we detect a certain fear of wastefulness, or perhaps a heightened desire for effectiveness, with typical donor dollars. This level of interest and concern seems to go quite a way beyond the level of interest and scrutiny that one might typically show in the spending of one’s own income, or the spending of government taxes. We wonder how developed nation governments would fare if their own spending practices were subject to the same level of scrutiny and demands for transparency expected of organisations operating in the NGO sector. Nevertheless, transparency is an important tool in the pursuit of overall financial efficiency and hence many will argue that ‘best’ solutions are always necessarily transparent ones.
For us, understanding the 7 Layer Poverty Model and Systems Thinking can help inform and clarify otherwise divergent public debate on ‘CAUSES’ of poverty and their ‘best’ potential solutions. We must separate out, in our own thinking, the differences between ultimate root cause and contributory factors leading to a strength of system ‘headwind‘, driving motivated individuals backwards towards poverty. In this context, such things as the often-quoted illiteracy-hunger-poverty cycle can be better understood. We now understand that this cycle is made up of mutually compounding system factors, that impact both the overall strength of the headwinds AND the individual’s resourcefulness in overcoming them.
One school of thought might plausibly argue vehemently for the eradication of the system headwinds at the macro level, while another might equally point to ‘sailors’ elsewhere at the micro level, who have overcome such headwinds and hence proven that the ‘headwind’ factors cannot be THE key cause. In that limited sense, they are correct. Such headwinds are not a SUFFICIENT cause, in and of themselves. But they CAN be a significant – even dominant – contributory factor. Do you see how helpful this approach is to unpacking seemingly complex and contrary expert viewpoints?
HOW DOES THIS IMPACT THE 7 LAYER MODEL?
You may recall our own chosen definition of poverty: “the relative absence of 7 Humanitarian Basics”. It is logically caused by the individual not having the RESOURCES (typically money) to overcome that relative absence. The lack of resources may have a number of contributory factors, which have combined in that individual’s case, to overcome their available resources (eg savings)and personal resourcefulness (eg capacity to generate income). In their specific case, they remain in poverty if the combined actions of their household and local community have not functioned to intervene effectively, to help them sufficiently overcome their immediate poverty circumstances, leading to a subsequent, protracted relative lack of resources – or ‘poverty’ for short. [We apologise for having to be so precise and explicit in the above statements, but otherwise we believe a lot of those feuding experts we mentioned before, might try to pick them apart].
THE ROLE OF OTHER ‘FIXERS’ IN SOLVING POVERTY
When a person’s poverty becomes protracted, this is when we would typically look to OTHER potential social structures and stakeholders in the individual’s welfare, to intervene on behalf of the individual. We collectively refer to all these entities our ‘fixers’. All such poverty-alleviating ‘actors’ must necessarily make CHOICES regarding how best to help one specific individual or community, over any other. In making such choices, there are trade-offs and limited data to base any such decision on. Such is the life of the stakeholder with limited resources to deploy.
Understanding and explaining the simple metaphor of the sailor and headwinds within a single system, will help us avoid a temptation towards polarised debate, when identifying contributory factors in an individual’s experience of poverty – anywhere on the planet. We trust it will help encourage both better solutions and more effective resource allocation, backed by appropriate measurement, to better assess impact and returns on resource investment over time.
LACK OF RESOURCES, RESOURCERS, OR RESOURCEFULNESS?
Before we move on to consider ‘HOW’ type solutions to poverty in more detail, let’s recap and summarise our answer to the question ‘WHY Poverty?’ Recognising a given set of circumstantial ‘headwinds’ opposing the progress of the individual, the reason they get into and stay in poverty, is understood as a combination of 3 things:
- an immediate lack of resources
- an inability to call upon, or personally become an effective ‘resourcer‘ and/or
- a lack of resourcefulness to overcome those poverty headwinds.
This situation is maintained if the individual’s household and/or community interventions remain insufficient to enable the individual to overcome those headwinds – even with their support. This is when it falls to the wider band of ‘fixers‘ to variously focus their efforts to assist, should they have the resources and choose to do so.
If ANY individual lacks resources in this way, all ‘fixers’ should realise and agree that the SOLUTION to their poverty is therefore fourfold, in any combination. Considerations about which solution(s) will ultimately prove ‘best’ will follow, but first let’s agree on these 4 needs:
- They need to be given the resources to overcome their immediate poverty; and/or
- They need to be helped to become a more effective resource generator themselves, or call upon someone who already is; and/or
- They need to be equipped with the resourcefulness to overcome their immediate poverty circumstances and remaining poverty headwinds over time; and/or
- They need to be spared from some, or all of the force of the poverty headwinds that currently oppose them.
The above 4 poverty solution options are absolutely foundational. The first 3 are clearly reflected in the well-known adage: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Adapting this traditional saying a little, for broader application, we believe: Give a man resources and you equip him to overcome his poverty circumstances for a while; help a man to become a better resource-generator and teach him to become more resourceful and you better equip him to overcome his poverty ‘headwinds’ indefinitely. Create better overall long-term fishing conditions and you not only help THIS man, but potentially many others just like him.
EDUCATION – THE ACTORS’ DARLING?
This is partly why the idea of EDUCATION is so widely seen as such a long term, effective poverty reduction solution by so many, addressing the first 3 factors out of the 4. Education can give individuals qualifications, which act as a form of resource in the employment marketplace, whereby individuals can then become resource-generators through subsequent employment income. Yet education ALSO tends to equip the individual to become more resourceful in overcoming the headwinds that otherwise tend to drive them back towards poverty.
Suitable education can therefore potentially tick three out of four poverty solution option boxes in the long term. Yet it still won’t fill the hungry belly today.
WHAT EXACTLY IS RESOURCEFULNESS?
What do we mean by resourcefulness? Building on the traditional US Marines motto, we see it as having suitably-developed abilities to: imagine, analyse, prioritise, plan, co-ordinate, communicate, motivate, persevere, invent, adapt, improvise and overcome.
The US Marines condense this to a more punchy: ‘adapt, improvise and overcome’. Easier to fit onto their little uniform badges and tattoos. However, the same core principles are there. You have to use your imagination and training to adapt and revise initial plans to overcome a shifting situation.
COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE AND THE ONE-EYED MAN
‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’, as the saying goes. It implies that you don’t need that much resourcefulness to have a compelling advantage over your peers, if they are all significantly worse off than you by practical comparison. Certain assets or technology can become a substitute for individual resourcefulness. This reality can be directly translated to apply to communities where poverty is widespread.
A friend in Bangladesh told us that in certain rural communities, it was possible to have a ‘business’, by being the only person in the village with a mobile phone. It became possible to charge other local people money for using the phone, as and when they needed it, giving the owner the basis for a business. Thinking along the same lines, if you are the only person in a community with access to suitable transport, you will be able to travel to obtain supplies from more remote locations and perhaps become the only supplier of those goods in your community.
In these and similar ways, access to various kinds of capital and technology, can rapidly transform an individual with an asset advantage into a business with a competitive advantage – potentially enabling the person facing poverty to become a more effective resourcer, even if they are not naturally particularly resourceful people. However, there is NO guarantee that the individual concerned will become a good business manager overnight – or even at all. All such changes do is facilitate POTENTIAL, not guarantee ACTUAL progress.
Microfinance initiatives are GREAT for providing individuals who are otherwise excluded from the mainstream banking system, access to certain new OPPORTUNITIES – including the opportunity to buy certain business-building assets. It does not necessarily come with training, or character-changing qualities that ensure the individual will use the financial services wisely. A fool and his money are still easily parted. However, the numbers of wise users of the products will still be significantly above the levels of use witnessed when such products did not even exist for ‘the poor’. Opportunities inevitably tend to create opportunists – and not always the good kind.
TOWARDS A MORE COMPREHENSIVE MODEL
When it comes to considering HOW to solve poverty then, there is usually an implicit hidden question of ‘how best‘ to solve it. Any response must therefore first identify a hidden ‘what’, before addressing the ‘how best to’ question. That ‘what’ is ‘by what measure’? The consequence of implying ‘best’ means that not just ANY solution will do. All of a sudden, you thus have a completely different question. A lack of theoretical distinction regarding this nuance has led to further heated debate among otherwise well-meaning and well-informed experts.
The range of answers clearly CHANGES based on the nuance in the question. Hence, the quickest answer for the individual may typically be to just ‘give them money’. But is that the BEST solution? Well THAT depends on whether speed of implementation is your primary measure.
WHICH POVERTY SOLUTION IS ‘BEST’?
Answers all therefore DEPEND on what you are using as your measure of ‘BEST’. If by ‘best’ you mean ‘quickest’, then giving money may well be ‘best’, by that limited criteria. But if you mean ‘best’ by MORAL standards, you may come up with a rather different answer. If you mean best measured by most likely solution to succeed sustainably in the long term – then you are likely to come up with still another answer. Do you see how hard it becomes to identify a ‘best’ solution by ALL possible measures? This vital distinction explains a lot of past and present disagreements on the topic.
[**By way of illustration of these many and various views, we have produced a Research Paper on the Top 100 article responses on Google to the search term ‘solving global poverty’. For more information on our comprehensive Synopsis, click here
On top of the different MEASURES you are covertly, implicitly or explicitly applying, there are also the CONSTRAINTS that your solution may need to operate within. For example, are there: time, budget, policy, legal, moral, spiritual, geographical, physical, ethnic, cultural, complexity, operational, administrative, reporting, risk and other factors to bear in mind, when choosing between multiple alternatives? Usually there are – and the relationships between these multiple factors are often not simple and linear. This is why we say that the STAKEHOLDERS are typically best-placed to determine the ‘HOW’ to solve poverty in the specific case of the individual, as they will usually have the best available information about what MEASURES are being used and what CONTRAINTS any solution must operate within locally.
Whatever the specific ‘best’ solution for the individual, there may be many OTHER individuals like them, who will ALL benefit from suitable advocacy and other measures to change POLICIES at local, national and international levels (ie our solution category option #4 above). Such beneficial policy changes can help at two levels. They can REDUCE the overall levels of system headwinds faced by such individuals and potentially thereby INCREASE general access to EDUCATION (particularly to otherwise excluded, or disadvantaged groups), to facilitate increases in individual resourcefulness within the existing system.
These high level, broad sweep policy changes, usually made by politicians in the general interests of many citizens, will all help reduce poverty PRESSURES, or headwinds. Again, such policy changes face the SAME kinds of issues, regarding which policy changes are BEST and what constraints such changes have to operate within. As a guide, we suggest the use of the decision-cube, where we prioritise the important, urgent and easy policy changes to get things started, before the debates about whether the next on the list should be the more important or the more urgent priorities. Organisations can always scale up what works, AFTER they see it working.
MICRO, LOCAL AND MACRO SOLUTIONS
If you conduct a Google search on ‘solving global poverty’ and read the top 100 articles in the results (as we have done), you can identify three broad groups of solutions being proposed: ‘macro, local and micro’. We have found no better alternative, clear, integrated view of the overall challenge and solution framework, to our own. We thus recommend that ALL fixers recognise that their various ‘poverty solutions’ work at any combination of these 3 levels: macro, local and micro.
By ‘macro’, we mean high level, typically looking at regional, national or international factors. By ‘local’, we mean solutions directed at the community level down to the neighbourhood. By ‘micro’, we mean solutions typically aimed at the individuals (‘solo’) within their households, even if they may well benefit the whole household. If you keep these 3 levels of focus in mind, it will help you make better sense of the range of alternative solutions typically being advocated and endorsed elsewhere.
Examples of international macro solutions might be changing terms of trade, tariffs, subsidies, international law governing medical patents and so on. Their particular appeal is the scale of their potential ‘downstream impact’ from single policy actions and changes. National macro solutions might include legislation on religious freedoms and gender equality, national food distribution programmes and national policies on primary school education funding. Local initiatives might include such things as vaccination programmes across a city, anti-mosquito insecticide programs, electricity or sanitation facilities throughout an existing slum, or water pump construction on a village-by-village basis. Micro level actions might include such things as child or family sponsorship programmes and local farmer re-education initiatives for intensive agriculture. Some organisations may indeed engage poverty at all 3 levels, recognising that causal factors of poverty are all inter-related in our global ‘system of systems’. Others may emphasize just one.
Each of these levels of solutions has a place and a beneficial part to play, depending on how you are measuring ‘best’ in particular and ‘benefit’ in general. Advocates of primarily macro-level solutions may reasonably argue that there is little point in addressing poverty at the micro level, when ‘70% of the world’s poor are women’, for example. Those who focus on the micro level may reasonably argue that they cannot wait for there to be national or global sexual equality – they need to act to save certain desperate and starving people now. We can understand BOTH these points of view. One might be ‘best’ for SCALE, the other might be ‘best’ for SPEED and with limited resources. Before you can reasonably compare the two, you first need to be clear on what specific measure you intend to use.
One of the recurring themes in all poverty solution discussions, is available resource CONSTRAINTS. Usually, this is taken to mean some combination of money, people and time. While money is important and perhaps one of the most easily measured, it is clearly not the ONLY constraint. Other common ones are CONDITIONS, LAW and RISK. Conditions are here understood to be specific limitations placed on certain finances by the donors who gave them. Hence, budgets may be tied to trade agreements, or restricted to spending on certain activities like education, sanitation or healthcare. They may even be MORE specific than that. A person sponsoring ONE child may not be willing to sponsor another, whatever the reason.
All these factors operate to restrict the range of choices open to decision-makers. The other hidden restriction is limited INFORMATION. We do not KNOW what impacts all our actions will have and sometimes good intentions can have bad repercussions. This has been part of the appeal of Dean Karlan’s recent book, “More Than Good Intentions”. He seeks to remove some of the uncertainty around which initiatives work ‘best’, by randomized control trials, which seek to isolate the net impact of specific aid and development projects, against independent control groups.
Once we are better informed about what the most likely IMPACT of various stakeholder system INPUTS will be, then we will be better placed to make judgements on the probable ‘best’ solutions, given the chosen measure and the various constraints we may face in any poverty reduction scenario. Better information means better informed, which in turn means better-informed decisions. We recognise that better-informed still does not mean infallible. However, combined with a system of checking, learning, adapting and re-calibrating, better understanding and information means that ANY solution to poverty can IMPROVE over time. “To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often“ as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill has said. We hope to help fixers improve their effectiveness by improving their focus.
Whether macro, local or micro – we think improving solutions to global poverty constitute GOOD news worth sharing. We hope you do to.
25 THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED ABOUT SOLVING POVERTY
You have covered a lot of ground in this article, so here’s a helpful summary to remind you of what you have now learned:
- The answer to the question ‘Why is there poverty?’ is both simple and complex at the same time.
- Asking ‘Why is there poverty?’ is like asking ‘Why do people die?’ or ‘Why do businesses fail?’
- The answers to all 3 of these seemingly simple questions depends on whether you are considering the ultimate root cause, or the contributory factors which become sufficient cause, leading to that ultimate root cause.
- With a few extreme exceptions, the ultimate root cause of all poverty is therefore best understood as a lack of resources, typically in the form of cash, or cash equivalents.
- Many contributory and compound factors can lead to that poverty root cause, in the case of any individual in poverty circumstances. There is much debate between experts about what the relative significance, impact and importance of these various contributory factors are, within our current global ‘system of systems’.
- The individual facing poverty is helpfully understood using the metaphor of a sailor facing headwinds against them, as they try to navigate their way out of poverty. The individual gets into and stays in poverty, due to their inability to overcome their specific poverty headwinds with their available resources.
- Those headwinds are experienced at the macro, local and micro levels.
- In overcoming their poverty circumstances, an individual may variously rely on their own resources, their ability to be, or draw on other resourcers, or their own resourcefulness.
- The individual’s household and community might typically be expected to intervene to support the individual in their efforts to overcome a short term lack of personal resources.
- Where their own resources, combined with the support of the household and the community prove insufficient, the individual must look to other categories of ‘fixer’ to help them overcome their poverty.
- At the level of the individual, those fixers may assist directly via 4 types of resourcing activity, in any combination: providing resources; facilitating individuals becoming more self-sufficient resourcers; increasing the individual’s resourcefulness; and reducing their opposing poverty headwinds.
- The fixers may act at the macro, local and micro levels, to reduce the effects, or strengths of the poverty headwinds felt by the individual – and others in similar positions.
- Contributory factors towards individual poverty are therefore recognised as both the resources and resourcefulness of the individual and the combined effects of the poverty headwinds they personally face. They remain in poverty when the combined effects of their and all the other ‘fixers’ efforts, prove insufficient to overcome any personal failings, and/or the headwinds they face.
- Education remains a widely popular solution, as it addresses the resources of the individual (eg qualifications), their ability to be a self-sustaining resourcer (eg through employment) and their personal resourcefulness.
- Provision of assets or other technology can sometimes act as a substitute for a relative lack of resourcefulness on the part of the individual. It can give them a competitive advantage, in that such tools can multiply the impact and productivity of the individual.
- Microfinance initiatives can increase the resources of the individual, but they do not necessarily increase their resourcefulness. Giving people more resources does not necessarily make them wise in using them. Appropriate discretion in limited resource distribution is advised.
- Just because significant resources have been expended in poverty reduction and significant billions remain in poverty, does not mean that all poverty reduction efforts are therefore futile. In the same way, huge resources have been spent on healthcare and sickness remains. The issue is to get the right resources to the right people, in order to be most effective.
- The question ‘How to solve poverty’ may apply at the macro, local or micro level. It often contains an implicit question: ‘What is the best way to solve poverty?’
- Effective answers should therefore first identify 3 things: a) What level do you mean – macro, local, or micro? b) What measures and relative values are you using to compare the relative merits of any possible solutions? and c) What imiting constraints must any solution necessarily operate within?
- A common assumption about poverty reduction initiatives is that they should be efficient in their use of resources themselves, as all such activities operate under the common constraint of limited resources. Transparency remains a vital tool for helping reduce the potential for misuse of those limited resources.
- Another constraint is that decision-makers operate with limited knowledge. They cannot be certain of the impact of their various initiatives.
- Field measurement to assess overall system input impact is important to advise those making the decisions. In this respect, randomized control studies are helpful to isolate relative impacts of different poverty reduction initiatives.
- Better information means better-informed decisions, but cannot guarantee infallibility.
- Any poverty reduction initiative, at any level, can benefit by being subject to improvement, from an iterative quality review cycle. “To improve is to change”, as Winston Churchill said.
- We have proposed the 7 Layer Poverty Model and Systems Thinking as an integrated potential framework, for understanding apparently divergent expert views on the answers to two vital questions: ‘why does poverty exist’ and ‘what are the best ways to solve it’. We hope it will help build increasing consensus among those various well-intentioned experts.
We have sought to provide a detailed response to the recurring public question: ‘Why is there poverty in the world?’ We trust that you will find our integrated conceptual framework useful and perhaps help us share it with the global community, to work to improve it further over time.
We also thank you again for being…
One in a Billion!