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Why I’m anti anti-poverty

Why I’m anti anti-poverty

“Penie (Πενιη) is indeed well known, even though she belongs to someone else. She does not visit the marketplace or the courts, since everywhere her status is inferior, everywhere she is scorned, and everywhere she is equally hated, regardless of where she is.” – Theognis, Fragment 1. 267 6th Century (BCE)

Penie was an ancient Greek spirit, the personification of poverty. She was a sister to Amekhania (helplessness) and Ptokheia (beggary). Sometimes, she is considered the mother of the god Eros, whose Roman counterpart is well-known to us. (Cupid.) Poverty, it seems, gave birth to desire.

Anti- (ἀντί) comes from the Ancient Greek and is used as a prefix to mean “against.” It has a range of meanings, however, from “in exchange for” to “instead of.” Anti-clockwise, anti-bacterial, anti-matter. Not to be confused with ante, of Latin origin, which means “before.”

Although the Greeks did not have an anti-poverty god, they did have Ploutos, the god of wealth. As the mythology goes, Zeus blinded him so he couldn’t favour righteous men exclusively but might distribute his gifts blindly and without any regard to merit. (Mt. Olympus was apparently a socialist hotbed.) Clearly, Ploutos was not blind and rarely favoured righteous men.

October 12-18 is Anti-Poverty Week in Australia. But, I’m confused (not unusual). What does “anti-poverty” mean? (cf. girl child). I get it as a prefix elsewhere. Antibiotics are substances, such as penicillin or streptomycin, that can destroy or inhibit the growth of other microorganisms. Anti-discrimination is against the unfair treatment of a person, racial group, minority, etc., and any action based on prejudice. 

If something or someone is “anti-poverty,” what exactly are they against?

Are they against people living below the World Bank’s threshold of $2 a day (PPP) at 2005 international prices? Are they against the OECD standard of 50% of median income, which works out to roughly $51 a day? Almost 13% of the Australian population live below the latter, while 84.5% of Nigerians the former. Or, are they against multidimensional poverty?


The anti-poverty advocate

An article popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, highlighting the story of a young U.S student becoming a “global anti-poverty activist” rather than a doctor (as her parents wished). She should have studied medicine and become a doctor. In Australia, as of 2011, the medical profession is still dominated by men.  Only one third of specialists are women. Similar statistics exist in the U.S. And, this is only access. The statistics and stories behind drop-out rate, median incomes and discrimination for women in medicine highlight pervasive inequity.

We don’t need more anti-poverty advocates, because it’s unclear what you are anti- and what you can achieve by being anti-. The message is muddled. Are you against injustice, discrimination, exclusion and destitution? That’s a tall order. Do you want to “Make Poverty History” or just end extreme poverty by 2030? Those are two very different goals that are defined in very narrow terms.

The poverty of anti-poverty

When we speak and think about poverty, our concept is dominated by economic destitution. Ploutos. Cash money. However, wealth isn’t enough. Poverty is multidimensional. India’s economic growth has been strong in recent years; however, the prevalence of child malnutrition is almost 50%. Research shows that those living in poverty describe their lived experiences in broad terms: poor health, malnutrition, inadequate water and sanitation access, social exclusion, low education access, violence, discrimination, shame, disempowerment and the list goes on. Their desire to live free of Penie’s strong grip goes beyond the line of sight of Ploutos.

The UNDP has a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which was published for the first time in 2010. “Almost 1.5 billion people in the 91 countries covered by the MPI—more than a third of their population — live in multidimensional poverty…This exceeds the estimated 1.2 billion people in those countries who live on $1.25 a day or less.”

However, public advocacy campaigns and campaigners, driven by organisations such as Global Citizen, are narrowing, reducing and defining people’s experience of poverty. The focus is now on extreme poverty. That is, living on less that US$1.25 per day (PPP). It is apparently the campaign of our generation. To end extreme poverty by 2030. We are now asking people to be anti-extreme poverty.

We celebrate the halving of poverty over the past two decades, despite the fact that most of the action was in China after economic liberalisation. This statistic is often used to justify the global development and foreign aid architecture. Yet, over 27% of China’s population still lives below the US$2 per day line (almost 12% below the extreme poverty line of $1.25), the wealth gap between rural and urban citizens is widening, and one in seven of the world’s extreme poor are Chinese.

Anti anti-poverty

It is almost unnecessary to use the term “anti-poverty.” Is poverty something that needs an anti- prefix? I don’t think so. Antibiotics effectively fight other microorganisms that could otherwise kill people. Anti-discrimination laws enshrine and secure the right for people to be treated equally in economic, social and political transactions and participation. What does anti-poverty do and mean?

Martin Ravallion evaluates the evaluation of anti-poverty programs, with programs ranging from conditional cash transfers to food-for-education schemes. Besides critical findings such as the need for evaluations to draw on a range of tools and the importance of social and cultural context (duh!), what sticks out is the broad range of programs considered to be anti-poverty. Anything could be anti-poverty.

Ravallion concludes, “We have learnt that the context in which a program is placed and the characteristics of the participants can exercise a power influence on outcomes.” Oh yes, we forgot about them. The beneficiaries. The target population. The people actually experiencing poverty. Being anti-poverty takes the power away from those in poverty and gives it to the program, to the advocate. Anti-poverty frames the lived experience of people around notions of deficiency, destitution and disempowerment.

In an oft-quoted speech in 2005 for the Make Poverty History campaign, Nelson Mandela said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” He called out the generation in front of him to be those human beings. Yet, we often aim to be anti-poverty through charity, rather than justice. Anti-poverty is pro-charity, pro-foreign aid, which is not what is necessarily needed or desired.

Photo by: Brendan Rigby.

Go pro 

You are anti-poverty, anti-racism, anti-discrimination. But, what are you pro? People’s lives are defined by more than what they don’t have or what line they live below or above. Poverty is not someone’s only lived experience. There is love. There is happiness. There are dreams. There is dignity. This is not to romanticise poverty or fall into the “nobility of the poor” discourse. It’s to remind us that poverty is complex and can’t be reduced to a line you can live below or necessarily understand. Most importantly, it is not about you and your desires. Here is where I would tell you what it is about. However, that’s not for me to decide. I know nothing of poverty.

“Ah wretched Penie, why do you lie upon my shoulders and deform my body and mind? Forcibly and against my will you teach me much that is shameful, although I know what is noble and honourable among men.” – Theognis, Fragment 1. 649

Featured image: Statue of Eirene, the Greek personification of peace, with Ploutos, the god of wealth, as an infant. Photo by Francesca Tronchin.

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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