Questions with Obvious Answers: The Danger of Reframing and Oversimplifying Poverty

A less acknowledged poverty expert.

A less acknowledged poverty expert.

People fail to understand the power of expertise.

In my personal experience, it is more visible in some situations than in others. My academic background, as you see from my personal pages, is one of natural sciences and of engineering. One thing which frustrates me to no end is how averse the Western community is to science topics. I can understand individuals being good at a particular topic; but an entire society? Ignorance on such a scale is a symptom of many types of ignorance our society condones.

However, on the other side of the coin, I noticed people in our society are willed to be well versed in the other social sciences and the humanities. It’s a given in our society: everyone has an opinion on historical politics, how to fix the economy, and why social ills exist, or what to do to fix them.

I intend to rail against both types of ignorance.

What started this little tirade? One of my Morehouse brothers shared a thought-provoking essay on my Facebook news feed, which spoke about the reality of poverty. The essay writes about unfortunate cognitive truths about the lack of accepting poverty in our society. If we accept poverty, though, and make it a part of our knowledge, then we should do something about it.

I understand the mindset, as it is one I’ve been through as well. Growing up in an upper-middle class community with one of the greatest public school systems in the United States, with parents who are lawyers, and an education fully paid for by scholarships puts me squarely in the category of Western privilege. Because of these circumstances, I felt it made sense to devote my research and career to issues which help the impoverished.

But, here’s where the mistake of the commons seeps in. There are a lot of mistaken assumptions with what the article says, and it felt too wrong not to deconstruct them.

The article, in building an argument, uses the statement: “If you actually believed that you could save a human life for $2,500, how would you act from now on?” The statement is used to build a willing coalition to understand the present pressing issue of poverty. This, I have no problem with; what is an issue, however, is the assumption that all poverty requires is your $2500 and an intent to donate. Using a single example of malaria medication as a cost for saving a life is a GROSS oversimplification. Some interventions might cost pennies on the dollar from Western donors; some would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to help a few people. Any development official worth her or his salt understands the first step to solving a poverty entangled issue is to frame the context.

Another issue is the complexity of poverty. In a class on my campus, a representative from the International Fund for Agricultural Development introduced me to the Cynefin Framework, developed by Dave Snowden. The theory aims to compartmentalize events, situations, and scenarios into one of five different categories, dependent upon the enmeshing of causes and effects. By acknowledging the correct context of the situation, one can act accordingly in addressing the problems. For instance, problems with complicated contexts, solvable with expertise and deep understanding, should not be approached with basic problems solving skills, which aim to fix bureaucratic processes and layman categorization.

In short, poverty is a complex problem. If Western consumers could solve it by contributing $2500 more dollars to their favorite non=governmental organizations, it would have been solved by now. America spends over 200 billion (with a B) to charities annually, more than corporations, foundations, and bequests combined. Believe me, the money is there. The amount of money funneling into international development as a whole isn’t the problem; it is how it is used.

Another important point to be made is not about the argument, but about the focus. The expatriate community does much to focus on abject poverty overseas, and while doing so, communities fail to acknowledge the dark shadow of domestic poverty. If you haven’t seen the current scale of inequality, it’s literally stunning, to both the average citizen and to economics experts.

Interestingly, many laypeople believe domestic concerns of poverty should be solved either through market mechanisms or through policies of wealth redistribution and economic safety nets, but overseas poverty should be attacked with non-governmental institutions with powerful advertisement campaigns and overseas donations. Such a reality seems awfully paradoxical and patriarchal, doesn’t it?

Now, let me explain something. In no way do I mean to assume, or detract from, Bath’s expertise; his website on Ordinary Gentlemen says he used to be a business school professor, and his interests are in “philosophy of science and cognition”. In fact, that’s what his poverty article focuses upon. However, the labeling of poverty as something like a personal issue makes two big mistakes: 1) It turn the focus upon the affluent, instead of the poor, and 2) it re-pressures our community to act on a topic in a way that seems helpful, but isn’t in reality.

With all that being said, I reemphasize: Expertise counts for something. Everyone can, and should help, but before that, the passionate should learn why things are the way they are. If you want to help with poverty, learn the history of poverty, at least on a basic scale. Learn what has been tried, what is being tried now, and what the average person can do to help. The most important thing, however, is that we keep focus. If the main protagonists of poverty remediation are the privileged, like they are in many other spheres of influence, then we have already failed.


2 thoughts on “Questions with Obvious Answers: The Danger of Reframing and Oversimplifying Poverty

  1. I’ve donated to Kiva and it’s more promising upstart cousin, Zidisha.

    In theory, this provides loan capital to people that will provide work for themselves.

    How does this measure up?
    I’m looking to help in a lasting, sustainable manner and this was the closest I got.

    I don’t have enough money to donate, so this loan program allows me to stretch my dollars so I can help over and over again. Not sure how well it works though.

    1. Well, it’s definitely a new way, and it is enticing. It is about time somebody made a kick starter specifically for poverty-based issues, and it has it advantages and issues.

      One advantage is that one doesn’t have to depend on single, powerful benefactors, and the benefactors are kept ‘in the know’ as much as possible. One disadvantage of the system is a one that the system has been harbor ink for a while: the users, the individuals who will eventually use the intervention, have the least power in its crowd funding, its design, and its implementation.

      Moreover, arguably the largest issue isn’t solved through Kiva: there is no way to tell, or mediate. if the intervention is successful… and in some situations, what success even is. Of course, this is an issue of the entire development aid community, and the onus should not just be placed upon Kiva and its model.

      However, this democratization of power, even on the side of the benefactors, is interesting and should be explored further.

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