It’s time to focus on poor people – not poor countries

Posted on | februari 4, 2011 | No Comments

A better title I can not come up with. I took it directly from one of the two articles I read last weeks which took my attention. Both were published on the PovertyMatters blog – part of the website of the English newspaper Guardian. A very interesting blog I would recommend to anyone with a passion for social change. I especially like the critical view of the blog. With only good intentions you won’t achieve a lot.

The two articles which took my attention are related to the work we are doing with ngo El Desafío Foundation in Rosairo, Argentina. The first article – as I already mentioned – is called “It’s time to focus on poor people – not poor countries” written by Andy Sumner and the second article is called “Where does the poverty line truly lie” written by Andrew Chambers. Both writers recognize the problem we have been facing for years now working in Argentina.

Most big ngo’s, companies, governments and people feel the need to quantify poverty. As Andrew Chambers mentions in his article: “Absolute measures of poverty based on income or consumption are attractive, as they are easily understood by policymakers and the wider population. They also provide a relatively easy way to gauge poverty levels and to measure success in poverty alleviation.”

I understand some of their reasons, but it’s a tricky business. Tricky because by putting poverty in numbers often the people who need to survive poverty are overlooked. For example, many countries in Africa are poorer than Argentina, but that does not mean that poor people in Argentina don’t deserve the same attention. Of course, different countries are facing different types of poverty, need different solutions, and some governments have a better infrastructure to tackle the problem than others, but numbers generalize and based on those numbers policymakers decide whether a country, grassroots ngo or project needs funds to work on the problems in a specific country.

Chambers uses the example of Thailand. The country is a development success story. The country is on target to meet or exceed all its millennium development goals (MDGs), and absolute poverty ($1 a day) is now less than 2%. It’s difficult to explain this to Soon Ton, a girl who lives in a small urban slum built on dusty wasteland. By sifting through rubbish bins she is able to collect enough recyclable material to make more than 200 baht (£4) a day. This puts her well above the MDG and national poverty lines. She is a success story in the eyes of most big ngo’s, companies, governments and people, based on those holy numbers.

In the other article Andy Sumner explains another part of the story. Like most countries in the world, developing countries are steadily getting richer. Great news? Not really, because it’s just a small group of people who can profit from the extra money coming in. It’s the old story again; the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. It does mean that many developing countries lose their “poor” status. “In short, most of the world’s poor no longer live in “poor” countries.” So they can forget about money from developed countries for their needs.

For most policy makers Argentina is not a poor country. It makes it difficult for El Desafío to raise awareness and communicate about the poverty many Argentineans need to deal with. And it means we can’t apply for most of the funds to support our foundation. It’s extra annoying because the numbers on Argentina are wrong. This is not strange because one of the main problems leading to poverty in Argentina is corruption. Corruption existing in many parts of the society and of course as well in governmental institutions. So, besides the fact only staring at numbers does not do justice to the situation many poor people in different countries and situations are in, policy makers seem to not even care whether those numbers are correct.

It’s time to focus on poor people – not poor countries. By not (only) looking at the correct or incorrect numbers, but by looking in the eyes of the people who need help and by listening to their part of the story.

AUTHOR: Jorn Wemmenhove


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