I have travelled to many countries and seen poverty wherever I have been. Even in ‘developed’ countries like the United States or the United Kingdom the curse of poverty still blights the human race. Poverty is often unseen and definitely not photogenic. A tourist in Sri Lanka for instance may not see real poverty at all: but look along the river banks and other places and you will see people living a marginal existence.
There is no simple answer to the question, “What causes poverty?” As we think about the causes of poverty we also need to think about the results, the effects and the symptoms of poverty. In many cases the result of poverty is to cause yet more poverty. So in practice it is difficult to distinguish between the causes and the symptoms of poverty.
The cycle of Poverty
For example a drought can cause undernourishment – that in turn can cause a loss of education – that in turn produces more poverty – and that in turn can cause more undernourishment. Fear can produce war and conflict, a source of much poverty throughout the world, but that conflict causes yet more fear.
I have distinguished between 3 types of causes and results:-
- Root causes of poverty (though some of these can also be the results of poverty).
- Intermediate causes of poverty (and also the results of poverty).
- The results of poverty (though these can also be the cause of yet more poverty).
The Root causes of poverty
Things like fear and greed are very seldom mentioned in academic writings as a cause of poverty. But if their opposites, compassion and unselfishness, ruled the day, poverty would be largely eliminated. It may be uncomfortable to think about greed, indifference, prejudice etc., but they lie behind all the more obvious causes of poverty.
Human nature is fundamental to the causes and results of poverty, and we cannot underestimate its relevance. The Bible says that God loves justice and he is not indifferent to the needs of the poor – and neither should we be! At the end of the day, the root causes of poverty will only be dealt with by, “God’s will being done on Earth as it is in Heaven”.
We can help bring about the Kingdom of God on the Earth – but not just in our actions in combating the causes of poverty. I need to seek, with God’s help, to deal with things like greed and prejudice in my own life, before pointing them out in other people.
Here is a list of some of the root causes of poverty:
- Greed. Wanting more than our fair share of resources. Accumulating excessive wealth.
- Fear. Fear of people different to ourselves, Fear that helping others will have a negative effect on our life-style.
- Indifference. Indifference to the needs of others. This is not limited to people in developed countries – the rich in developing countries are often indifferent to their fellow countrymen.
- Corruption. This is found both at an International level and at Governmental, Corporate and Social levels.
- Power. Love of power and control, often largely for its own sake.
- Prejudice. This can take the form of racism and the class system or caste system – thinking of other people of races or cultures as inferior to our own.
- Injustice and Oppression. Caused by any of the above.
Note on Corruption
There are many types of corruption. The taking of bribes by officials is one obvious one. Corruption is not limited to the one taking the bribe. The giver of the bribe, whether a wealthy government, a big corporate entity or an individual seeking an unfair advantage is equally at fault.
Corruption damages us all. It is probably the largest single obstacle to giving aid by donor countries. Many people cite corruption as the reason they are reluctant to give aid.
The map below gives an indication of perceived corruption but does not necessarily measure the true situation.
- The perception of Corruption throughout the world
Intermediate Causes and Results
The following list contains things that are both causes of poverty and are themselves the results or the symptoms of poverty. Some of these would normally be considered as root causes: for example natural disasters. But an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 in New Zealand, although causing much structural damage, resulted in no direct deaths whereas a similar earthquake in Iran caused 40,000 deaths and left 500,000 homeless. So poverty makes the situation considerably worse.
The following fit into this category:
- War and conflict.
- Unfair International Trade. For instance: restrictions which prevent countries adding extra value to their exports.
- Unethical international debt – having to be repaid by people who did not benefit from the loan in the first place.
- “Structural Adjustment” – imposed by creditors, the IMF and World Bank, resulting in lack of money for educational and medical needs.
- Inequality of consumption of the earth’s resources.
- Natural disasters – droughts, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes.
- Family breakdown – a major cause of poverty in developed countries.
- Adverse climate or unproductive soil.
- Disease and sickness, preventable or otherwise.
Results of poverty – and causes of more poverty
The following are the results of poverty and also the causes of more poverty. Together with the things listed above, they result in a vicious circle. For example, a lack of access to clean water causes disease which, if not fatal, results in less education – resulting in even more poverty.
- Individual Debt and lack of access to ethical investment.
- Under-nourishment and ill-health causing less education and economic efficiency.
- Unacceptable child mortality rate
- A lack of:
- Adequate shelter
- Access to clean water and sanitation
- Adequate education
- Health-care facilities
- Employment opportunities
- Political or economic power
There are very many interrelated causes of poverty. These are difficult to distinguish from the symptoms of poverty. But the root causes are to be found in human nature. As humans we have an amazing capacity for compassion and selflessness but the root causes of poverty are still to be found in greed, fear, indifference and prejudice.
It is a challenge for us all. We are made in the image of God and with His help we can overcome those things that cause so much suffering in the world.