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9 minute read
3 Ways Humans Create Poverty
Poverty isn't just a fact of nature. We made it happen, and we can
[Top photo: Trevor Kittelty via Shutterstock
Jason Hickel, Joe Brewer, and Martin Kirk
03.12.15 8:31 AM
This is a big year for anyone interested in, or caught in the teeth of,
poverty and extreme inequity. It’s the year of the UN Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs), to be agreed on by heads of state in New York
in September. Right now, tens of thousands of people—from NGOs, to
governments, to corporations—are busy negotiating them. They are trying
to get your attention, too. Their story is basically this: We’ve halved
global poverty in the last 15 years and can eradicate it by 2030, if you
support us and accept our story.
There is a hole in the story, though; a mission-critical omission in the
logic underpinning it that, unless acknowledged and corrected, will keep
all efforts in a tepid "business as usual" box that cannot possibly
deliver on its grand promises.
The missing acknowledgement is this: Mass poverty, at the level we see
globally today (i.e., about 4.3 billion people live on less that $5 a
day; the minimum amount necessary, according to UN body UNCTAD, for
health and well-being) is created by people. In other words, it isn’t
simply a natural occurrence, a common enemy that exists, as if by magic,
outside and separate from all the good stuff. Just as humans have
created enormous amounts of wealth, so we have created its corollary,
widespread poverty. One cannot be separated from the other. Until this
truth is embraced, we will be locked into a partial and deeply limited
We noted this in the article we published here a few weeks ago, "4
Things You Probably Know About Poverty that Bill and Melinda Gates Don’t
and it rubbed many people the wrong way. It’s understandable that this
feels counterintuitive at first because it seems to defy basic logic.
Wealth is something, and poverty is nothing. Wealth is the outcome of
action, so it must follow that poverty is what exists before or in the
absence of action. In other words, poverty must be a default state. Right?
The problem with this intuitive theory of poverty is that it ignores
context—from the quality of education, to race and gender privilege, to
physical and mental health, to luck and coincidence and much more. Even
more important than all that, though, is the fact that it pretends that
what happened yesterday has no bearing on today. When it comes to the
global economic system and issues of mass poverty, the all-important
yesterday is measured in decades and centuries. If we don’t understand
this long view, we don’t really understand anything.
Why is all this so important? Because it is impossible to solve an
entrenched problem like mass poverty without understanding how it came
into being. There’s every reason to believe we can overcome poverty, if
we take the time to understand and learn the lessons from how it is created.
Here are just three ways mass poverty has been created.
1: Closing Off The Commons
/Before the Industrial Revolution took off in England, most of Europe’s
population lived as peasant farmers. We tend to imagine that this must
have been a pretty miserable existence; after all, it’s hard to get any
poorer than a peasant, right?/
Well, it’s true that European peasants didn’t have the consumer
lifestyles that we take for granted today. But they did have the most
important thing they needed to determine their own futures: secure
access to land for growing their food. They also had access to "common"
land, which was managed collectively for overlapping uses: grazing for
livestock, timber for homes, and firewood for heating and cooking.
Peasants may not have been rich, but they enjoyed basic rights of
"habitation" that were protected by longstanding tradition.
But this security system came under attack in the 17th and 18th
centuries. Wealthy merchants and aristocrats began a systematic campaign
to privatize the commons and kick the peasants off their land, which
they turned into sheep runs for the highly profitable wool industry.
This became known as the "enclosure" movement, and historians regard it
as the birth of capitalism as we know it today.
Millions of people were forcibly displaced, creating a monumental
humanitarian crisis. For the first time in English history, the word
"poverty" came into common use to describe the masses of people who
literally had no way of surviving. They poured into cities like London
and scratched out a living in sprawling slums—fodder for Dickens’s
The enclosure movement gathered even more steam once it became clear
that it offered a secondary benefit: The impoverished refugees provided
the cheap labor necessary to fuel the Industrial Revolution, since they
had no choice but to accept the slave-like conditions and rock-bottom
wages of factory work. Even small children were sent to the factories by
families desperate to survive. And the more people who were displaced
from the land, the lower the wages went.
The economic historian Karl Polanyi called this period the "great
2: Outsourcing The Problem
/Okay, maybe early capitalism did produce poverty in England as an
initial condition, but surely after this rocky beginning it began to
make everyone richer, right?/
There is no doubt that ordinary people in England—and in the rest of
Europe—have become richer over the past hundred years, and quality of
life has improved dramatically. But the humanitarian crisis didn’t just
disappear into thin air—it was exported abroad.
Dispossessed by enclosures and suffering miserable conditions in the
factories, England’s working class began to riot, and by the 19th
century the country was on the brink of outright class war. England’s
industrialists realized that, unless they wanted to sacrifice some of
their own newfound power, the only way to solve these social tensions
was to find new sources of wealth abroad, and new lands and
opportunities for the country’s now "surplus" population.
This is what came to be known as colonialism. Land and resources were
grabbed across America, India, and Africa at an astonishing pace, and
the wealth was funneled back to Europe, where, beginning in the 1940s,
it was used to build hospitals and schools and generally improve the
lives of the "lower" class. This strategy succeeded in solving many of
the social problems at home, but the colonized populations didn’t fare
Land grabs in North America caused the mass dispossession of the
continent’s indigenous inhabitants: Tens of millions died of starvation
and disease. In Africa, European capitalists found that the only way to
get Africans to work on their plantations and mines was to appropriate
their land and impose taxes. People who had been working their own farms
for thousands of years found themselves compelled for the first time to
sell themselves for wages simply in order to survive—just like the
pattern in England earlier on.
And then there was India. During the 19th century, British colonizers
taxed Indian peasants in order to force them to grow crops for export to
England. They also privatized the common forests and water systems that
Indians relied on to support themselves during periods of low rainfall.
So when a series of droughts hit in 1876, more than 30 million Indians
died of famine
there was plenty of food: Indian grain exports to Britain increased by
300% during this period. Historian Mike Davis argues that the British
market system was directly responsible for this "holocaust."
3: The "Free Trade" Paradox
/We all agree that colonialism was a terrible system, but thankfully it
was mostly over by the 1950s. Since then we have all been focused on
development and poverty reduction in poor countries. Right?/
Well, after the ravages of colonialism were over there was a time when
things started getting better for poor countries. During the 1960s and
1970s, poor countries made careful use of trade tariffs and subsidies to
build their economies with great effect. Incomes grew quickly and the
gap between rich countries and poor countries began to narrow. In fact,
some poor countries became almost as wealthy as their Western counterparts.
But these two decades of hope were brought to a crashing end in the
1980s. The World Bank and the IMF began to impose "structural adjustment
programs" on developing countries as a basic condition for receiving
international finance. These programs forced poor countries to abandon
their tariffs and subsidies, and required them to sell off most of their
public services and assets to foreign companies.
According to the "free market" theory popular at the time, this was
supposed to improve economic growth. But it turned out that exactly the
opposite happened. Per capita income growth was slashed from 3.2% per
year to 0.7%. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the average GNP shrank by around
10%, and the number of people living in absolute poverty doubled. It’s
difficult to overstate the degree of human suffering that these numbers
Similarly, in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement forced
Mexico to cut barriers to imports from the U.S. As cheap American corn
flooded into Mexico, some 2 million farmers were forced to leave their
land. Many had no choice but to seek work in the sweatshops that sprang
up along the border.
By 2004, there were 19 million more Mexicans living in poverty than
before NAFTA. Today, more than half the population lives below the
poverty line, and 25% do not have access to basic food. NAFTA turned out
to be like the modern-day equivalent of the enclosure movement in England.
And just in case we think we might, finally, have changed our ways,
right now we are seeing a whole new set of trade agreements being put in
place that have taken NAFTA as their inspiration, and then supercharged
it. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and
Investment Partnership (TTIP) are in negotiation right now, and if
passed without major changes they will extend the model across the globe.
When we consider these patterns of poverty creation throughout history,
it becomes clear why the story told by many rich governments,
philanthropic organizations, and nonprofits, both in how they talk about
the problem every day and via grand maneuvers like the SDGs, is so
critically limited. Their focus on charity and foreign aid betrays a
deeply partial understanding, and offers such simplistic logic that we
must wonder whose interests they really have at heart. If we are to have
any hope of solving the problem of mass poverty, then we need to rethink
the structures and systems that cause it in the first place.
More powerfully, this process of poverty creation—the forceful
extraction of commonly managed assets to serve financial elites—is
exactly what recent social movements have called attention to. Occupy
Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the African uprisings, even the
anti-austerity stance of new political parties in Spain and Greece, all
have one thing in common: The recognition that the only way for a tiny
group of people to become obscenely rich is for huge masses of others to
be kept chronically poor.
This cold logic of poverty creation tells us what needs to be done.
Before obsessing about amounts of foreign aid, or pretending it can
solve deep systemic problems, we need to all focus on changing the rules
of economic systems to make them more inclusive, more participatory,
more focused on creating well-being than simply extracting more
aggregate wealth, and more accountable to those billions who are not
being served by the current rules. This is how mass poverty truly can be
brought to an end.
/Reach the authors on Twitter at: @jasonhickel
, and @martinkirk_ny
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2 minute read
Future Of Philanthropy
This Volunteer Network Reconnects Homeless People With Their Loved Ones
Miracle Messages uses videos of homeless people to find their
families, hopefully easing some of the emotional toll of living on
Ben Paynter 09.08.16
There are an estimated 100 million homeless people worldwide. Being
homeless obviously creates an tragic list of devastating problems, but
while the economic and health issues may be obvious, some of the
emotional ones are less discussed. For one, many homeless people,
without a fixed address or means of communication, lose touch with loved
To fix that, the nonprofit Miracle Messages
enlists volunteers to help homeless
people record messages to those with whom they’ve lost touch. The group
then uses those dispatches like clues to track down and facilitate
reunions. In doing so, they may help people feeling lost take back more
control of their lives, perhaps with a new emotional and financial
support network. "It’s really crazy how reunification can be a catalyst
for life change," says Jessica Day, the group’s program director.
Miracle Messages sprang up from a different type of project. In 2014,
founder Kevin Adler launched Homeless GoPro
which equipped people on the street with point-of-view cameras to share
daily hardships and how they were treated. (Adler dubbed the concept
"extreme living"—although not everyone loved the idea
Adler’s late uncle suffered from chronic homelessness and schizophrenia.
He wanted to generate more empathy; the footage showed how difficult an
untethered, often solitary life could be.
As he summarizes on his website: "We repeatedly heard homeless
volunteers say some variation of: 'I never realized I was homeless when
I lost my home, but only when I lost my family and friends to support me.'"
So in mid-2014, Adler changed tactics. Miracle Messages now has a team
of volunteers who create videos and use the resulting details to try to
reach family members, often through social media. Many homeless people
still have cell phones or email addresses, so the group can then
facilitate introductions. They partner with soup kitchens and shelters
to relay messages to those more off-grid.
To date, the group has recorded 95 messages and delivered 45 of them.
About 40% percent of those connections result in reunification or a
transition to stable. (Miracle Messages posts videos that haven’t
reached recipients on YouTube
. They’ve made connections
just from people searching Google.) The goal is to help 1% of the
homeless population—that's at least 1 million people—by 2021, Day says.
Meanwhile, they're humanizing the problem in new ways. Stories about
people like Jeffrey Gottshall
or Johnny Dwyer
make it clear that many
who are down on their luck ended up there through some sad twist of fate
and are fighting to change things. That makes the problem a bit harder
to ignore. Because the mission is video based, it’s essentially
pre-packaged to go viral
/Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us
know . If it's interesting and
thoughtful, we may publish your response./
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