What if we tackled poverty differently?

What sort of a society would you like to live in if you knew nothing about where you would end up?

What sort of a society would you like to live in if you knew nothing about where you would end up? Picture yourself in an aware state before your birth but without any knowledge about what circumstances you were going to be born into: which neighbourhood you will live in, what jobs your parents will have, what sort of services your state will provide, and more. All this information being covered by what John Rawls named the veil of ignorance.

This experiment will shift your attention from the most advantaged to the least advantaged in our societies. A basic risk analysis would force you to consider the fact that you could end up in the latter. Most of us would probably prefer to live in Switzerland or Sweden rather than in China or the US, for example.  In the former countries, rules are objectively fairer not because all citizens are perfectly equal, but because the least advantaged are better off. If entering life would be like taking a gamble, you would probably like to change the whole game so that options like « living under the current poverty line » wouldn’t even exist.

This very simple, although incredibly powerful experiment proposed by John Rawls, the « greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century » according to Bill Clinton, allows each one of us to prioritise among the economic and social issues that should be solved. With regard to wealth distribution, perhaps inequality would still exist (and would be necessary for many), but poverty would not.

But what is it exactly that we are talking about when we refer to poverty?

For many, somebody is poor if he or she does not earn enough money to meet their basic needs. But, does money really matter? Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences and co-inventor of the Human Development Index (HDI), says that money is only a mean that gives us the « capabilities » to achieve « functionings ».

Behind these very specific terms lie some simple but revolutionary ideas that are fundamental to better understand poverty. Capabilities are to be understood as freedoms to achieve some functioning, which is in turn « beings and doings » you actually realise. For instance, the opportunity to eat a doughnut is a capability while actually eating a doughnut is a functioning.

Now think of poverty as a deprivation of capabilities: for example, the incapacity to feed yourself or have a proper education. All these examples are linked to the amount of money one might have, but needs differ with age amongst other things. Just think about the difference of nutritional needs that exists between people because of their age, height or weight. Some would simply need more money to achieve the functioning of « being sated ». In that framework, being poor means not being free to achieve one’s (subjective) well-being, being deprived of an opportunity.

Poor people stop being « unlucky » and become unfree. Just as food, education and health stop being goods and services but become basic rights.

This approach makes the debate dispassionate and can be the starting point of a more rigorous and objective, thus more efficient, discussion on the topic. Some people may act out of moral principles, but many more would act if they started thinking it is in their own interest.

Right now, South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are threatened by hunger, and almost 20 million people in these countries are in need of humanitarian assistance. Once again, many civil society actors, political parties or medias are arguing that poverty should be fought because it is our duty as human beings, calling for empathy from all of us, and this is, of course, laudable and necessary. But what if we could, on top of trying to persuade the world that poverty is simply unethical and immoral, convince everybody that it is rationally undesirable? What if we managed to show that it is in the interest of the majority to end poverty?

Currently, poverty is perceived with a lot of fatalism, and policymakers often describe fighting it as an expense. But this short-term expenditure is infinitely smaller than the costs of poverty on the (not so) long run. Of course, these costs differ whether you are talking of absolute poverty (living with less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank) or relative poverty (which depends on each country’s particular conditions), but they are significant in every situation.

Because all the effects of poverty are hardly quantifiable, the phenomenon is often neglected. But it is directly correlated to a whole set of issues. Of course, we think of hunger, malnutrition or migration, but poverty also means civil wars, terrorism, criminality, social exclusion or Immigration and is inextricable from the rise of racism and populism we are currently witnessing.

Just as James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank declared 15 years ago : « While the fight against poverty is barely begun in too many parts of the world, while the link between progress in development and progress toward peace is not recognized – we may win a battle against terror but we will not conclude a war that will yield enduring peace ». We have no choice but to note that not only was Mr Wolfensohn was right, but that the situation is not evolving in a positive way.

Financially speaking, ending poverty is not as hard as opposed to what one may think. When the consequences are properly analysed, it is perhaps the most rational decision to take. As John Maynard Keynes would argue, investing on the least advantaged of us gives the best return on investment possible. In fact, almost every penny given to an individual who lives under any given poverty line is likely to be used for consumption, and thus return into the real economy. This can be true on a global scale: if all the poorest regions of the world were to develop, production, consumption, trade, innovation would necessarily follow. Even climate change could be fought more properly as it would become a priority for everyone.

If all human beings are endowed with reason, beyond left and right, beyond north and south, beyond our different conceptions of good and evil, we should fight poverty not only because people are starving, dying or only suffering, but because the shortfalls are simply tremendous for every one of us.

Abdou Eloufir

Abdou Eloufir is an undergraduate student at Sciences Po Paris, interested in the link between markets and political institutions as enhancers for development. He is currently finishing his undergraduate studies in the University of São Paulo, where he is doing an exchange year. His areas of research involve a multidisciplinary approach to a wide variety of topics linked to global development such as inequalities, innovations and the study of democracy in developing countries.
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