Modernization of Poverty

Modernity is supposed to be committed to improve the lot of mankind and reduce the gap between haves and have-nots. It is presumed that development is inversely proportional to poverty. With increasing development destitution will decrease, and ultimately development will remove forever all poverty at all corners of the world. But the emerging scenario shows that the presumption is illusory. For societies which have experienced unprecedented prosperity during the last few decades, have not been able to eliminate either poverty or destitution within their borders.

This raises the questions:

  1. Is the philosophy and this model of development flawed?
  2. Can one stick out one’s neck and claim that the dominant model of development, whatever it can or cannot do, will not remove poverty?
  3. Could it be that in all large multiethnic societies, once the number of poor dwindles and they can be ignored during elections, the political parties are left with no incentives to pursue the cause of poor?

Observation:  Those living in relative prosperity develop a vested interest in not doing anything for the poor.

Poverty is not destitution

Large-scale destitution is often a direct result of urbanization and development. It usually follows the destruction of commons and the shared life-support systems of the poor. That is why the most glaring examples of destitution are not found in traditional isolated, tribal communities. But among the poor communities moving into urban slums, among daily wage earners in industrial cities, or among landless agricultural laborers when agriculture begins to be industrialized. They are the ones who are unable to cope up with the demands of an impersonal market and a modern political economy.

Inference: Poverty in non-modern societies did not necessarily mean starvation or collapse of life-support system, because life styles in those societies were not fully monetized and the global commons were relatively intact. Even with no income, one could hope to survive at a ’low’ level of sustenance. The community and partly nature took care of the needs of the poor, especially given that those needs were not many.

Destitution now means zero income in a fully modern contractual political economy. In an impersonal situation where individualism reigns, in the absence of cash income, one cannot fall back upon the global commons, either because it is exhausted or depleted or because it has been taken over by the ubiquitous global market. Neither can you live off the forest or the land nor can you depend on the magnanimity of your neighbors.

Observation: The difference that separated the life styles of the rich and the poor began to disappear simultaneously with development. That distinction protected the latter from complete destruction and loss of dignity. In many Afro-Asian societies, the rich lived in brick and concrete houses; the poor lived in mud houses. The rich wore expensive clothes or western dress; the poor had two pairs of traditional clothes. They wore one set when they washed the other, but they could stay reasonably clean. The rich ate well, the poor ate poorly, but they did eat. In sum, the poor survived and constituted in some cases a significant presence in society.

Rich-Poor version: In developed societies, the poor have everything the rich have. Only they are its fourth rate, down market version. The difference between the two classes becomes less cultural and more economic. In an American slum, the poor have the same thing the rich have - a broken television set purchased in a garage sale, shabby blue jeans made by some unknown low-brow clothiers, and even a sofa set with springs coming out of the upholstery. Go to the poorest Bangladeshi village or African tribe and you will find the rich and the poor living differently. But they do not have the usual features of a first world slum - large scale drug addiction or alcoholism, high crime rates and pathetic dependence on means of mass communication for interpersonal linkages or entertainment.

Conclusion: That safety net now lies in tatters all over the world. The poor are increasingly not only poor, they are destitute. Development may have sometimes decreased poverty, but it has done so by increasing destitution. All exceptions to this rule are either due to the ability to extract wealth through formal or informal colonialism or through ruthless authoritarian exploitation.
It can be argued that other forms of social change also do not remove poverty, and therefore, we have no option but to live under a developmental regime. But no system becomes morally acceptable on the ground that human ingenuity has not yet found a better system. Nor does any system acquire the right to snuff out alternative possibilities by virtue of the fact that earlier systems were worse.   


More by :  Ganganand Jha

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