Tuesday 18 May 2021
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Poverty alleviation: Thinking beyond the dollar

Many of us have been accustomed to think of poverty only in purely economic terms, especially in monetary terms and ownership of property. This form of thinking is actually detrimental for developing economies as it fails to realise wealth as something much more than just economics.
Our common song in Africa is that we are still fighting for economic emancipation, the kind of progress pegged against Western civilisation, standards and development frameworks. Shortly termed as civilisation. However, this ideal of economic growth based on Western standards fails to realise that there’s more to human life than just money and property. The attempt to help the poor to come of poverty by simply attaching monetary value to their conditions, in fact, undermines their humanity. How?
We need to first of all understand that poverty is much more than just a lack of money. It’s a phenomenon that affects one’s humanity by taking away one’s dignity to be fully human or even functional. The poor have no sense of culture, alternative, negotiating power, choice making and self-worth. For example, although the poor feels a deep sense of shame from begging and want to refrain from it, they have to beg in order to survive even if it were a 50 year old begging from a 10 year old. The poor person may feel deep shame to go through bins in search of food, however, going through the bin is not a choice because hunger cannot be chosen. And the poor may be aware of possible dangers for sleeping under bridges but they need to sleep even if it means endangering themselves.
This idea of poverty can’t be simply resolved through money and hand outs. The issue isn’t just lack of money but that poor people have been stripped of their dignity and are willing to engage in shameful acts just to survive. As long as we think of poverty as a lack of material resources and money, we’ll continue to cultivate a vision of poverty eradication that is based principles that have no regard for human dignity. The State which is the custodian of welfare of its citizen need to think of poverty as something that affects fundamental aspects that makes us functional humans. And set its policies and programmes in such a way that it addresses the lack of dignity experienced by poor people.
While the food bank is a commendable entry level intervention, it cannot be considered a solution to addressing poverty. The problem isn’t the lack of food but the lack of power to live in dignity, something the present economic structures are advancing. How do we restore the dignity of the poor by not coming with programmes that would further entrench their lack of dignity? For example, there is no dignity to have poor communities queue up for food while cameras are rolling and showing the faces of these helpless people being advertised. They have to endure those cameras because they lack the power of choice making, they can’t have both their dignity and absence from being advertised to the nation.
Instead of measuring poverty in monetary terms we should think much more on designing structures and programmes that would restore human dignity.
For example the push for urban land and affordable housing could be a fairly decent place to start, providing the poor a place they can call home and establish a culture of their own, and live in safety. The subsistence farmers simply need the assistance with the necessary machinery to enable them to do proper farming without having to depend on a foodbank, by all means provide them with such. The Nama people of the South need land they can call home, to build their own culture and live as a community, provide them with such land, not for money making reasons but to restore their lost cultural values, it’s all about dignity.
Poverty alleviation should be engaged with humans in minds and not in monetary terms. There’s little that could be done to help poor people regain and maintain their dignity without high financial costs. The very idea of thinking on solutions regarding our society only in monetary terms resembles a huge mental bankruptcy. Innovative and progressive leadership should be able to look at the resources at its disposal and think much more on human development. People who are able to live in dignity are happy people, even if they have little, and that happiness is sufficient motivation to have them dream big and work towards becomes contributors to society.
There is no monetary value that can be attached to restoring human dignity, however, the money we have should be used to enhance that dignity rather than to fund dehumanising and greed enhancing projects. Poverty, is not about lack of money it’s much deeper and greater than money or material possessions, poverty affects human existence. The sooner those responsible for planning activities around poverty alleviations begin to see the human faces, they would change their approaches to dealing with poverty. May we all as a nation be sensitised to see the reality of poverty and do our utmost best to combat it and help the poor help themselves, by working towards the restoration of their dignity.

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