Defining Needs I: Defining Poverty

So the first definition that needs to be dealt with (and the one that started me on this trail) is "poverty" (which I'm taking to be the noun form of the adjective "poor", without significantly changing the meaning). So it's not entirely easy to explain my thought process as I fell asleep last night, but it started at this post over at Alanna Shaikh's Blood and Milk blog, specifically the last comment (as of this writing) about the "conundrum"--giving Knicks jerseys to kids at refugee camps can be exploitative and degrading, but so can telling "poverty tourists" (which, already, I'd put right up there with the Smithsonian's placement of an exhibit on "African culture" in the natural history museum) not to share food or even eat in front of residents during their tours. So, basically, distributing excess can be/is problematic as can be/is not distributing it (even though you're trying to avoid the first problem--and round and round we go).

Stepping back, you can see this is all based on a certain definition of poverty as a lack of resources (whoah that was a jump, but stay with me here). We (you know the "we", us rich, usually white, often male people who are almost invariably healthy citizens of countries in the global north) shy away from both of these issues because it makes us uncomfortable (or, maybe not uncomfortable enough) that we're forced to dehumanize other humans in order to address their needs (as we perceive them) for more resources--they lack things, we should therefore give them things, but that causes problems, and therefore we feel bad either way. Still with me?

So yeah, I think the "poverty is a lack of resources" or even "poverty is a lack of access to resources" definition is somewhat problematic. I generally prefer a definition (that I by the way did not come up with, but cannot for the life of me remember who did, so I can't be a good person and correctly cite this) that states "poverty is a lack of freedom". "Freedom?!" you say, "But, doesn't that mean youre some sort of crazy Bush-y neo-imperialist neo-con?!" My response there would have to be a polite "No, and I'm not even a libertarian".

So what's up with that? Basically, poverty often (always is such an ugly word) stems from a lack of freedoms--freedom to live somewhere in peace, and freedom to move in search of greener pastures; freedom to eat a healthy diet, or access basic (or even not-so-basic) medical care; freedom to send your kids to school, and to work in a dignified and economically-rewarding way; generally the freedom to live or die where, when and under those conditions as you see fit. Lack of freedom is both a symptom and a cause of what we call poverty, or I think it can be stated that lack of freedom begets more lack of freedom, in a self-perpetuating cycle, and in many ways can be seen to be synonymous with poverty. Handily, lack of resources is one (but certainly not the only) cause of poverty, which means yes, at least not all is lost with a lot of current development-think. However, other possible causes of poverty (via lack of freedom) are (in NO PARTICULAR ORDER):
  • Being a woman
  • Being not-white
  • Being born on the wrong side of an imaginary line
  • Speaking the wrong language
  • Believing the wrong creation myth
  • Juxtaposing your sexuality, external genitalia, manner of dress and/or manner of expression in a way that other find unappealing
  • Otherwise being defined as "not normal"
  • Et cetera, et cetera, et depressing cetera...
The best thing this definition gives us (again, us rich/white/healthy/male/northern folks) is that we now have a way of addressing poverty without eternally fretting over whether to give or not to give. Of course you assist financially where that's one of the limiting reagents in producing more freedom, but there are other things that need to be addressed as well, some individually, some locally, some nationally, and some globally. Of course, did you ever think this was going to be easy?


Related Posts:

Burn it to the Ground; or, Defining Needs: The Miniseries

Burn it to the Ground; or, Defining Needs: the miniseries

So I need to write a series of posts about my own process (which I'm trying to go through again, right now) of defining the place of an international NGO in a poor community without defining said community as needy or said NGO as some god-like expert figure. Obviously, that process starts with a definition of the terms I just used ("community", "poor", "expert", "needs" and "place" are gonna be key words here, since I'm pretty OK with the standard definitions of international and NGO, or at least, OK enough that it's not going to come into play here).

The partial disclaimer to this is that I'm working with a start-up NGO that's based in the US and India (unfortunately, I'll bet you can already guess the dynamic there), and specifically thinking about one community in one slum in one city, and I've not decided yet whether I can name any or all of them--at the very least, please assume there's a lot more concrete thinking going on behind the scenes than you're going to see here. So, yeah, quick update about what's going on, and now it's time to actually think.