Why does the poverty creation story matter?

Credit: Polyp

How is poverty created? The way a person answers that question informs the solutions they offer for ending poverty. A new campaign wants people to think more carefully about the question and how our answers may be wrong. It comes less than two weeks before world leaders gather at the United Nations to finalize the new set of global poverty reduction goals – the Sustainable Development Goals.

To the campaign group The Rules, it is an issue of power.

“It’s hardly a strange idea that those with the money make the rules, and this is a truth that is so obvious in the global economy today, and has been for practically all of the last 400 years,” says the campaign website.

According to the campaign, the imbalance of power in the world creates the current levels of inequality and poverty. It also allows the powerful to put forward the idea that the end of poverty – and global prosperity – occurs through global economic growth. People will no longer be poor if they have more money, goes the basic argument.

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But some do not buy the a-rising-tide-lifts-all-ships argument, including The Rules. A video for the campaign raises some questions and challenges some of solutions to ending poverty, including the Sustainable Development Goals.

While not stated in the video, The Rules wants people to see that poverty is not natural. It is a disaster created by people. It is a point made recently by Rules members in response to Bill and Melinda Gates’s annual letter. Martin Kirk, Joe Brewer and Jason Hickel wrote in Fast Company:

Poverty doesn’t just exist; it is created. So when the Gates treat it like a naturally occurring problem—by leaving out any mention of what’s causing the problems in the first place and instead focusing exclusively on new technical interventions and big bets for the future—they’re telling a story without any of the main characters present It would be like a football coach saying that understanding what helped the team win or lose last week, or the ongoing fitness of the players doesn’t matter; we just need better technology and a bigger crowd of supporters this week. In other words, it helps makes small technical interventions sound adequate when they are not.

The three argue that small fixes and tweaks are not going to end poverty when the system that creates the problem in the first place remains. So far, The Rules campaigners are doing more to knock down well-held ideas and raise questions about certain assumptions about poverty. They join the small group of people who say that the world may not be getting better. And go a step further arguing that the current path to ending poverty is unsustainable nor effective.

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As we saw recently, data on global poverty can be used to tell many different stories. The Rules uses $5/day as its line while Max Roser used $1.25/day. Those decisions lead to two very different graphs and conclusions. How to look at the information available determines the solutions meant to end poverty.

So, how is poverty created?

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.