The desire for freedom is one of the most basic human needs. Wars and civil wars have been fought to seek freedom. This article explains how extreme poverty, and relative poverty, can be expressed as a lack of basic freedom.
Slavery involves a total lack of freedom over every aspect of life. A slave has no rights, no income and no hope of a better life. Extreme poverty means that in terms of freedom, people living under extreme poverty are virtual slaves to that poverty. They can no more set themselves free than a slave can, by self-effort, become a free man or woman. Even people living in relative poverty lack freedoms in various ways.
I am well aware that there is also the issue of spiritual slavery: but I am not addressing spiritual freedom in this article. I am going to consider the ways in which poverty destroys freedom and affects people’s desire to live the sort of life-style they want.
- Freedom to expect a long life free from severe illnesses and disabilities.
- Freedom to expect that children will live and survive well into adulthood.
- Freedom to have a meaningful family life.
- Freedom from violence and the effects of crime and corruption.
- Freedom to have a good education.
- Freedom to have good access to health-care.
- Freedom to play a part in the way a community or nation is run.
- Freedom to have a nourishing diet.
- Freedom to expect availability of jobs and a good return from labour.
- Freedom to relocate or make other changes which will improve lifestyles.
All the above freedoms affect poverty. A person living in extreme poverty will lack all, or most, of these basic freedoms and be a slave to poverty. Even if we live in a more affluent community, a lack of financial resources can mean we lack certain of these freedoms.
The deepest of longings
If you live in a prosperous country, and are middle class, you may not be fully aware of what it means to live in poverty and what it would then mean to be free from poverty. “Freedom from poverty” may not greatly stir the emotions. But to those who experience poverty on a daily basis, the possibility of freedom from that poverty would stir the deepest of longings.
- Imagine being a mother and not being able to buy enough food to feed your family.
- Imagine being the wage-earner but finding that day after day there are no jobs available.
- Imagine being a parent and having to stand helplessly by while your child dies for want of simple medicine which is not available to you.
- Imagine having to walk 5 miles to collect muddy water which you know contains life-threatening bacteria.
- Imagine being a child wanting to be a doctor but being told that even a secondary education is financially impossible.
This is not rocket science. At an individual level these could be solved easily by digging wells, providing schools and medicine and an investment in the infrastructure of these societies. It is only when we look at the worldwide picture that the whole situation can seem hopeless.
But there is hope. Freedom from (extreme) poverty could be achieved if individuals in more developed countries, and also the well-off in developing countries, really decided that they could no longer tolerate their fellow human beings or fellow countrymen living in abject poverty.
Altruism, charity and compassion cry out that poverty should simply not be tolerated. But logic says the same thing. Even if we are motivated by self-interest, the economic reality is that in lifting the poorest out of their poverty, the whole of mankind benefits.
A new way of thinking
It is my contention that the whole world needs freedom from poverty. It is not just the desperately poor who need that freedom. In tolerating a situation in which two billion people survive on less than $2 a day (or £9 a week), we are all implicated and corrupted and we all need setting free from the slavery of poverty.
Imagine if the millionaires of India were motivated to help the low-caste millions by sharing some of their resources, and allowing freedom of opportunity in jobs and creating a climate of freedom from poverty. India could become a truly prosperous nation and that prosperity could be shared by all the population. The underprivileged would no longer be dependent on aid from the West and the country could be a source of development investment into other less-developed countries.
In my home country (the United Kingdom), we need a new way of thinking. We can still help whether it is through volunteering, campaigning or giving money. But we must realise that we are no longer world rulers. We do not have a divine right to tell the developing world how they should be doing things. We have some expertise to share, but that needs to be given with a spirit of humility – being willing to learn from others and resolving together what works best in their culture and circumstances.
In the United Kingdom we have benefited from the world’s resources and it is time to give something back. In the past we benefited by the transportation, selling and exploitation of slaves. We have benefited from cheap natural resources and unfair trade restrictions. We have a limited window of opportunity to give back to the world. How long do we have? Perhaps 50 years, perhaps less. There is no guarantee that the western system will last. All empires of the past have eventually fallen. Perhaps we need to treat the rest of the world as we would want them to treat us in future!
In talking about freedom from poverty we need to address the causes of poverty and the effects of poverty. Of course we want to deal with the root causes, but when disaster or famine strike, we can’t sit idly by, debating the causes. We have to deal with the effects of poverty as well as the causes.
Freedom from poverty is the great need of so many people living in absolute poverty around the world and in relative poverty in all countries. But freedom from poverty does not just effect the poor. I believe that tolerating poverty corrupts us all. Every man, woman and child in the world, billionaire and peasant alike would know greater freedom if poverty were to be abolished and relegated to history.
Freedom from poverty for us all!
- Extreme poverty (georgedowdell.org)
- Relative poverty (georgedowdell.org)
- The root causes of Poverty (georgedowdell.org)
- Development as Freedom (a book by economist Amartya Sen)