The root causes of Poverty

Mumbai slum street scene
Mumbai slum street scene

War, disease, famine, debt, unsafe water and many other things contribute to poverty in the world, But are these the root causes of poverty? We need to drill a bit deeper, and as we do, we come face to face with human nature and attitudes.  In this article I argue that things like greed, fear, power and prejudice are the real root causes of a state of affairs where a quarter of the world lives in absolute poverty and many more live without the “necessities” that we take for granted.

Take war and conflict for instance. There is no doubt that violence between nations, or communities within a nation, causes vast poverty among the civilian population. But wars are caused by fear of other cultures or by the seeking of power or economic benefit over enemies. Civil wars or violence between governments and “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” have their source in fear, prejudice or injustice.

It is not very popular to talk about fear and greed. But their opposites, compassion and unselfishness, would transform society and eliminate poverty.  The Bible declares that God loves justice and cares for the poor, and he urges us to be motivated by compassion and justice. As Christians we often pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. As we seek God’s help in changing our own attitudes, we can affect the whole world and see an increase of the rule of God in our world.


land-grabGreed [1] is an ugly word and yet it is encouraged by some economists as the basis of a free market, or capitalism. It is wanting more than our fair share of the worlds resources. Wealth is often accumulated purely for its own sake, or as a measure of a persons status or worth. I long for a world where a person will be valued by the wealth they give away rather than accumulate.

There is enough food produced in the world to give everyone 3000 calories per day. Yet obesity is common while so many suffer from the damaging effects of under-nourishment.

Greed as a root cause of poverty causes unequal distribution of resources, unfair trade, conflict and unethical debt.


This can be fear of people we see as different to ourselves. It can be fear of other cultures, nationality, tribal group, social status or caste, language or religion. Fear can produce war, conflict or violence. Fear may stop us being generous to other people if we are afraid that giving may have a detrimental effect on our lifestyle.


The perception of Corruption throughout the world
The perception of Corruption throughout the word

Corruption [2] is caused by greed, or a love of Power. When corruption is endemic in society its effect on poverty in that society cannot be over-estimated. At a national level it is a positive disincentive to international aid as so often the “aid” ends up in a leader’s Swiss bank account. Ask the average man or woman in one of the aid-donor countries about international aid and he is likely to mention corruption.

People in a position of power over others may seek a bribe. They may be politicians, custom officials, police or lawyers, corporate buyers, or gang members seeking “protection money” from local businesses. The giving and offering of bribes corrupts us all and has a damaging effect on the most vulnerable members of society, the poor.


“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
(Generally attributed to Edmund Burke)

Plato-IndifferenceWe do not have to be greedy, fearful or dishonest to have a detrimental effect on others. Indifference to the need of others is a major cause of poverty and enables it to persist. What is the opposite? Love, compassion and generosity is the antidote.

Indifference is not just found in developed nations. Comparatively rich people, living in developing countries, are so often indifferent to the needs of their fellow countrymen.

Each one of us, as well as being generous ourselves, can have a positive influence on our communities, by our example, and by the way we seek to make others aware of needs.


Money is not the only thing which people desire to the detriment of others. The pursuit of power, often for its own sake, can be used to oppress other people, creating or re-enforcing poverty.


This can take the form of racism, or social status snobbery. People of other ethnic groups, language, religion or social class (or caste) are thought of as inferior. Extremes can be regarding others as sub-human or simply that somehow people living “over there” do not share the same thoughts, values or aspirations as ourselves.

Prejudice causes poverty because we may not value others as we value ourselves and therefore they are not worthy of help, or fairness in our dealings with them.


The root causes of poverty are found within human nature. They affect us all, regardless of whether we are Christian, Moslem, Hindu or of no faith at all. As human beings we have been made in the image of God and have an amazing capacity for compassion and selflessness as well as the potential for awful cruelty and indifference. But it is my firm belief that we can change our own attitudes and actions, but we need the help of God.

Note 1  Greed is defined in a Wikipedia article

Greed (Latin, avaritia), also known as avarice, cupidity, or covetousness, is the inordinate desire to possess wealth, goods, or objects of abstract value with the intention to keep it for one’s self, far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort. It is applied to a markedly high desire for and pursuit of wealth, status, and power


Note 2  Corruption:  Wikipedia says:

The word corrupt when used as an adjective literally means “utterly broken”.

  • The word was first used by Aristotle and later by Cicero who added the terms bribe and abandonment of good habits.
  • Morris, a professor of politics, corruption is the illegitimate use of public power to benefit a private interest.
  • Economist I. Senior defines corruption as an action to secretly provide a good or a service to a third-party so that he or she can influence certain actions which benefit the corrupt, a third-party, or both in which the corrupt agent has authority.
  • Kauffman, from the World Bank extends the concept to include ‘legal corruption’ in which power is abused within the confines of the law – as those with power often have the ability to shape the law for their protection.


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I would really welcome any comments on this post. What do you think are the root causes of poverty? Whether you can add to my list, disagree with me or agree with me, your comments will be visible to all. You will need to give your email address, but you can be anonymous. I promise to delete only abusive comments!

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

27 thoughts on “The root causes of Poverty”

  1. Pingback: Imperial Advance
  2. “the answer to human needs lies within human nature” I think this is categorically untrue. I think human nature is by it’s very nature selfish and thus greedy. If we strip ourselves back and allow ourselves to operate purely in our “human nature” we will simply live individualistic lives, living in ‘caves’ caring only for ourselves and our own interests. I believe the answer is as you first stated George, with God. It is as we seek to be more Christ like that we become the answer.

    Also we can always point the finger at someone who is more greedy than ourselves. We can always justify how we live and what we need to live on. Our measure of greed surely must be measured against our level of generosity


    1. Dear Simon

      My quote was “The ROOT CAUSES of poverty are found within human nature.” I did not say the ANSWER was in human nature. I think that what I said was exactly what you expressed in a slightly different way. I am saying that the root causes are not war, famine etc but that human nature is the root cause, which is the same as you said.

      I agree with what you said about greed and generosity.



  3. George, great post and so pertinent. I also share Dan’s feelings about globalization of business. My thesis is as long as their is growth opportunity elsewhere, an organization will be less altruistic at home. For example, I will be less concerned about fair wages, as I can get cheaper labor elsewhere. If you merely look at the textile industry, you can find closed plants in England, in New England, in southern US as companies chased cheap labor to China. When China got more expensive, they chased cheap labor to Vietnam and Bangladesh, for example.

    Based on earlier posts you have written, I believe our greatest threats to the planet are corruption and climate change, which impact everything else, but hit the poor the most. Keep fighting the good fight. BTG


  4. I do agree with you however , some aid providers have in one way or another intensified poverty . Some give conditional cash and some just give out millions of money and never follow up to know what the money has done. In addition to your point corrupt leaders should be well punished . It’s so surprising that a corrupt leader with so visible evidence is left unpunished I think this has encouraged corruption. Little salaries are also a problem if a full time government nurse for example is paid about $250 per month expecting to do everything from that money I think it’s not fair.Also some people are used to be on the receiving side they don’t work even when there is what to do and wait for aid. People should be forced to work at least to produce their own food.


  5. Hello George, kind of related, you might be interested to watch this video (“Bitter Seeds”) while it’s free for the next few days:

    I am increasingly concerned by the globalisation of business, and am beginning to see it as a major source of poverty, as the people at the very top are taking way too much profit home for themselves, while the people at the bottom suffer. Intertwined with this is the globalisation and monopolisation of the seed-supply industry which is being increasingly dominated by biotech companies such as Monsanto, who are using patentable genetically modified seed to ensure that farmers have to repurchase seed from them every year, and they even try charging “royalties” for the harvest on top of this.

    Unfortunately Monsanto’s domination of the seed-supply industry is now aided by so-called charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also quite likely follows a global depopulation agenda. Maybe you’re already aware of these things.


  6. Uncle George: thank you for posting this.
    It’s something that I’ve really been thinking about…since we did a whole topic on “Bridging the Development Gap” in Geography.
    …I appreciated reading Mark’s comment and your response. This was really thought provoking.
    One question: is it possible to have a capitalist economy without being greedy? Or being a capitalist without being greedy?
    …coz I’ve been thinking a lot about politics lately. I generally think of myself as Conservative…but I don’t agree with everything they do. I like some policies of both Left and Right but disagree with most of them on both sides! Still, I don’t think I know enough about politics yet, but I’m thinking it through.
    I guess ending poverty really comes down to individuals and not to politicians.

    Thanks again.


    1. You are right Nathan, it is ordinary people like you and me who can change the world. Greed is not just a capitalist vice – the communist system produced its own greed. It is basic human nature but we can rise above it. It is actually good logic to be unselfish and treat other people as we want them to treat us.


  7. I believe we, as Christians, need to be persistent in our prayers for the world, for all to know Jesus as their personal Saviour ….


    1. That is offensive and disgusting. Everyone has their own religion. Why does Christianity have to preside over any other religion?


      1. Dear JH

        I am sorry you were offended. I am not sure whether your disgust was for the article I wrote of the comment at the bottom. I am unashamedly a Christian but believe in tolerance and understanding others.


  8. At what point do you believe that we are being greedy or just working hard to provide ourselves and family with nice things?

    I am “guilty” of wanting a bit more money so that I can have a nice holiday or having a bank balance not in the red. I do want to have nice things for my family and don’t generally feel bad that I have those desires. As the “provider”, I am constantly wanting to ensure my family are provided for. I absolutely recognise that what I already have is a lot more than many in the world, but I do not consider myself greedy.

    The people I meet on a daily basis in “my world” are of similar financial position, some better off and some worse off, but I hardly encounter many extremes. I do not believe it is greedy having enough money to not only survive, but to also to enjoy life (holiday, car, spare disposable income each month). Whilst this may be selfish, I do not believe it is greedy. Greed for me is where someone has more money than they need to fulfil the above. But how many in the UK actually would come under this definition of greedy? Would imagine it is certainly a minority. Certainly the vast majority of the population under the age of 40 have large mortgages and essential expenditure each month, leaving themselves little left to spend on the “nice” things in life. Yes, certainly some spare money to go without on some things and instead give to charity, but wouldn’t class this as greedy?

    Is it not natural to compare oneself with those around you? An obvious response would be to look further afield and see how many in the world are living in poverty. I do, however I still live my life in line with those around me – I can’t get away from that. Whether it is nature or nurture that I feel like this, I am not sure but guessing both.

    So are a vast number of people living a greedy life in the UK or are they living a life like me where they may care that others elsewhere have less than me and may help in some small way, but their priority is to provide for their family, do have some nice things, but do not have excess finances. I genuinely respect those that would put others first to the point where they will live a relatively poorer life, so that others with even less may benefit.

    I am sure many would suggest that my comments are exactly the problem. That many like me continue to live with a blindness (conscious or sub-conscious) into how we are actually living with a greater than fair accumulation of wealth, but does that make us greedy or is it just human nature / survival instinct / want of acceptance within our peers?

    George – you wrote that “we cannot easily change our own attitudes and actions, and we need the help of God to change us”. But as the vast majority will not seek God’s help to change, how else would you plan to help change their thinking?


    1. Dear Mark

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I certainly do not want to judge and call individually greedy. I think the line between providing for our family and greed is a straight line continuum. It is impossible to say for someone else when to define where along that line, the desire to provide become greed. I think we all need to decide for ourselves. The purpose of my article was to provoke thought and help people to be aware that the answer to human needs lies within human nature,

      I have been blessed with sufficient income and resources and I know how to enjoy good things. I have also learned a lot about the way other people live and want to do something about it. i think it is a matter of balance.

      As I said, I do not wish to judge, only to provoke thought and hopefully to re-address the balance in some way. I am also aware of the generosity of so many people on my mailing list (including you, I think).

      Can we change or attitudes without relying on God. Yes, I believe we can though my belief as God as the creator and designer of everything means that his help is important.

      Actually I believe that God’s plan for the human race means he is constantly at work, gradually changing public opinions and attitudes, whether we acknowledge God or not!


      1. George – never once reading your blog did I believe you were judging in any way. In fact your wish to provoke thought was exactly what you did. I was questioning my own views. I do give monthly, but in reality this is such a small amount compared to what I earn, so am I really being generous? I don’t think so.


  9. I think that a lot of poverty is due to over-population and would be interested to hear of your views on the Christian response to how, or indeed whether, this should be tackled.


    1. Dear Alex

      I have looked into over-population being a cause of poverty and have come to the conclusion that it is not. I wrote about it in a previous post, under the heading Fill the Earth.

      In all developed nations, over-population has ceased as the country has dealt with extreme poverty. Over-population is a result of poverty not a cause of it.

      I hope that helps.


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