To Tackle Poverty, We Have To First Understand It

From the tactical beggar who knocks persistently on the BMW car window to the spirited 10-year-old entrepreneur selling phone chargers—every street corner in New Delhi is bustling with contradiction. Growing up in a city as multifarious as my own, my message to the respective leaders on how to more effectively end poverty would be to first understand it.

In our increasingly convoluted new world order, just as development can no longer entail a one-size-fits-all approach, poverty too must be understood from a contextual standpoint. Like development, poverty cannot be addressed through a linear and progressive series of widely agreed upon processes. The reality for a man engaged in crude-oil theft in the Niger Delta differs immensely from the marginalized widowed woman in Vrindavan, India. Demographics, politics, historical trends, cultural values, economic models – these are amongst the many factors that determine the nature of poverty and thereby its remedy. While pro-poor growth measures have proved to be statistically successful in China, Brazil’s pro-poor social policies have been better suited to its national context and capacity for redistribution methods. Poverty is not homogenous, so neither is its solution.

Beyond context comes sustainability. As economist Colin White stresses, modern economic development is a process by which economic development becomes self-sustained. Relatedly, short-term fixes often perpetuate vicious poverty cycles. The scope of India’s poverty is at great odds with its growth story. Why? Because India has persistently pursued unsustainable lack of poverty-reducing growth. While liberalization and information technology has invigorated its burgeoning middle class, the one in every six urban Indian residents living in slums is a parallel reality that is too often sidelined. The need for long-term participatory measures is growing increasingly apparent.

To end poverty in a sustainable manner, we have to change the way we view those in poverty. They are not targets or recipients of development. Further, poverty reduction must be understood beyond the quintessential notion of meeting basic needs. Instead, the approach to reduce poverty must be participatory and address the precursors to economic development. Whether through education, integration or job creation, the fight to alleviate is a protracted one. Nonetheless, across the developing world, the potential to do so lies in its promising demographic dividend. While countries like Singapore have recognized the importance of harnessing its youth potential, others like India have failed to create opportunities for its young. 85% of India’s jobs remain within ‘informal’ enterprises due to a dire lack of job creation on the part of the government. Walking through my own neighborhood towards the main street, these facts and figures are so pertinent between the idle security guard and the disheveled shoe-cleaner.

Embrace the context, ensure its sustainability and make it participatory. Poverty reduction begins only once we move away from a skewed paternalistic understanding of it.