Roots of Poverty

Compassion and Justice

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.

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The Causes and Results of Poverty

Children in Uganda
Children in Uganda

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. Continue reading “The Causes and Results of Poverty”

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.

Greed

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.

Fear

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.

Corruption

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.

Indifference

“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.

Power

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.

Prejudice

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.

Conclusion

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

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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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Comments

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!

Selfishness or Compassionate Giving

Illustration from below book
(Photo credit Wikapedia)

Why should we give our money to other people  or to a charity? We live in a world largely based on selfishness and greed. The theory behind capitalism is that if we all look after our own interests then we will all prosper. Is there a future for altruism based on compassion and justice?

But a system based on selfishness simply does not work. The poor stay poor. Those who are less able, physically or mentally, get ignored and fall by the wayside. In practice, society has to intervene in some way. The community, church, government or the charitable sector has to care for those left behind in the mad scramble to obtain wealth.

We have all been sickened by hearing of the super-rich avoiding tax and therefore stealing from ordinary people who have no choice in paying tax on their income. We hear of politicians fiddling their expenses. Continue reading “Selfishness or Compassionate Giving”

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