Can we end poverty if it can't even be defined?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 October, 2009, 12:00am

The last century found that, willy-nilly, it had goals aplenty. There was always the social goal of ending unemployment, a purpose that fired people as varied as John Maynard Keynes and Adolf Hitler. There was the goal of spreading capitalism or building socialism, depending on which side of the fence you were on.

Later, there was the goal of defeating fascism and, later still, communism. Then there was the goal of ending war and the creation of a United Nations. Not least, there was the goal of spreading democracy and, hard on its heels, ending colonialism. Finally, and most recently, there was the goal of spreading human rights.

What goals are left for this century's new generations? It would be hard to make a list to rival the above for substance. But that is understandable. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: 'Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards.' Still, one unfinished task stands out head and shoulders above all others: to end poverty.

There are about 800 million people living in poverty, a large number but not an overwhelming number when one considers how fast the world's population has grown in the last 50 years and how most of those have found a way through life without falling into poverty.

Yet poverty is as misunderstood as any subject can be. We don't even understand what causes it. John Kenneth Galbraith, in his essay 'The Nature of Mass Poverty', asks if it is because of differences in natural resources. Obviously not, or Japan would be among the poorest in the world. Is it the legacy of colonialism? But many of the former English-speaking colonies are now better off than the mother country, while uncolonised Ethiopia and Nepal remain poor.

Poverty is enormously difficult to put one's finger on. Poverty at one extreme we can recognise - no clothes, no food, inadequate shelter and bad health. But a notch above the bottom level, it can become an elusive phenomenon.

Is poverty, then, an absolute or a relative state? Karl Marx, confronting the question, surmised: 'Whether the house be large or small, it meets all that is required of a dwelling from the social point of view as long as the surrounding houses are of the same size. If a palace is erected besides it, however, the little house shrivels up to become a hut.'

In his mammoth study of some 20 years ago, Poverty in the United Kingdom, Peter Townsend, of the London School of Economics, came to a similar conclusion: 'Poverty is the absence of or inadequacy of those diets, amenities, standards, services and activities which are common and customary in society.'

But to think of poverty in world terms as a relative condition opens up a Pandora's box. As the World Bank has often observed, the gap between many of the developing countries and the industrialised world may not be narrowing.

All this is to merely illustrate how complicated it is to make meaningful relative comparisons that carry conviction across cultural and social boundaries.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist