In his magisterial biography of President Johnson, Robert Caro talks at some length about the profound disdain that Johnson had towards the Kennedy clan. Johnson’s early life has been spent in rural Texas, surviving by occasionally teaching English to extremely poor migrant workers from Mexico who found seasonal work in agriculture in the USA. He had contempt for the Harvard-educated crowd that had learnt about poverty just through various seminars, and possible from looking out of the windows of their chauffeur-driven Cadillacs. This vital point – knowing poverty from the inside and reading about poverty from the outside – seem to me to be the kernel, the pivotal point on the discussions of how to tackle poverty in the South and its solution.
Many of us who have worked at the grassroots in the South will have lived in closed proximity to extremely poor people and can understand what it means. Most people, the vast majority of people across the UK, cannot. There are two fundamental reasons for this. The first is very simply that the extent of the poverty that exists in remote areas of Ethiopia, in the mines of Eastern Congo, or in the slums of Lagos are well beyond anything that we ever possibly seen or imagined. But there is another dimension to poverty, and it is this. Most of us in Britain are living a middle class style of life, most of us with reasonable creature comforts. Therefore, we see poverty as almost a fall from grace, a temporary aberration; when the economy gets better, we all opine, there will be so much less poverty. Even the less well-off have often some savings and can borrow. Few – probably none – of those who are involved in policy decisions about aid or development have to borrow from the rapacious money-lenders. In fact we have so little understanding of that extreme degree of poverty that forces people having to borrow at uxorious rates that we are not revolted when one of them manages to buy respectability by sponsoring a football club in the Premier League or advertising constantly on television.
For what it is worth, I will try to concentrate on this issue – the lack of understanding of the extent of poverty that is the way of life of so many millions of people across the global South. I do want to try to make my readers, both of them, understand that poverty is not only extreme, but all-consuming, multidimensional. It is not just a matter of not having enough to eat; it is a question of not there being enough water, no medicine for the child who is sick, no way to warm the poor quality food that is available, not being able to read or write, not having any privacy, not being able to escape from the clutches of the older members of the community (almost invariably men) who might wish you to perform services for them, including often sexual services. It is poverty in all its guises – of resources, of abilities, of physical, of hope and mental limitations.
Firstly, how many people are there?
We know that there are roughly one and a quarter billion people who are more or less constantly on the edge of starvation; they really will never be able to have a decent meal in their lives. They are undernourished. But, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO), there are another billion people who live in hidden hunger – who do not have the right combination of foods, with enough minerals, vitamins, and proteins to development their bodies and minds. If the mother does not have the right food when the baby is conceived and in the few months after birth, the child will never develop to its full potential. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, just over half of the children of Ethiopia grow stunted.
It is as simple and complicated as that; 2.4 billion people out of a world population of just over 7 billion are either undernourished or malnourished.
Our policies, our actions, all our work should aim to enable these people to develop and create their own lives, not to design policies that might deliver services that we, in the developed world, think will deliver and yet do not.