Measuring poverty differently
What comes to mind when one hears the word poverty? Scarcity, shortage, paucity, deficiency, dearth are words that are in the Thesaurus. Yet, the word confuses me in the way it is commonly used.
I live in Sri Lanka, a developing country with GDP of about US $1,000 per capita. In western terms, this is a poor nation. I became a resident of Sri Lanka in 1988 having lived in Canada for 15 years. Economically, Sri Lankans have less material wealth than an average person in the west. In happiness, I am not sure.
I am confused about the word because in the last 20 years I have had a fulfilling life of abundance of whatever is needed to be healthy, happy and lead a meaningful existence. I have been fortunate to encounter an abundance of colourful, interesting people and nature’s bounty. I have had experiences where I have seen the best and the worst in people and the beauty of the greenery and the wrath of nature like the Tsunami. I have had some of the most memorable times – happy and sad – celebrating the wonder and the fragility of life here. We need only a small excuse to get together for a party. In fact there is a saying in Sinhala, which goes; â€œPeople here will continue the party even as the ship sinks”.
In material terms, I have not been obsessed with creating a nest egg. I do not own anything and I have had a life where I did not worry myself into thinking too much about the future, so I have enjoyed much of my life in the present. I earn well and spend well. However, I do not have the latest gadgets and technology in anything. The vehicle I drive is 15 years old and the 3 year old mobile, the 4 year old computer, they all do the job until they break. I spend money learning new things, seeing places, giving our children the best opportunities for education, novel experiences and other activities such as sports and the arts so they become balanced individuals. Then I give generously of my time, knowledge and money to the needy.
My lack of interest in the latest designs in technology is because some of the happiest people I have met have so little in material wealth. I learned my generosity from people who have not much to give, but willing to give the shirt off their back when someone is in need.
When I ran the solar energy venture two decades ago, the people who bought a system were in remote rural areas. They were mostly farmers earning about US $ 2,000 per year at the time. For them, a US $ 350 investment for a solar electricity system was significant.
Whenever visited a customer, I felt awkward when they showered gifts of rice, fruits, vegetables and a sumptuous meal on me. I would ponder on the fact that they were customers who paid good money for the product I sold them, but were still generous in their appreciation. When I asked, they said this was their way of showing me gratitude for bringing them light. I encounter these kinds of wonderful generosity on a daily basis, so that is why the word poverty and its western connotations confuse me.
The confusion comes from not understanding the narrow definition based on economics and money the west has given it. I do. However, I also realize how much this narrow measurement hurts people and nations in their dignity, esteem and confidence. If you are economically poor you are not valued and respected. So, it is easy for western nations to use their power to invade, subjugate and control as â€œthose people are poor and they cannot look after themselves”. If people are poor, life is deemed cheap too. So, when western troops kill and maim innocent people in Iraq or Afghanistan or when people kill each other in Africa, they are not valued. The implication is they are poor so they are insignificant. In effect, there is an assumption that if they are poor and different, ‘they do not think and feel like us as humans’. On the contrary, it is a catastrophe when people in the west are killed like we saw with 9/11. So, the word poverty has created a double standard.
The west’s solution is aid. However, the western model of aid creates a culture of dependence and does not build sustainable economic wealth. So the cycle continues with aid agencies doing projects mostly at a superficial level to help the poor economically and dictate terms in the name of the market and democracy that actually hurt societies, livelihoods and cultures who have managed themselves very well through another measurement – happiness, balance of nature, contentment and self sufficiency. So, we need to rethink the definition of poverty and come up with one that is broader than the current economic measure of it through GDP. This way, we will help build the esteem of those people deemed economically poor and become a part of a true globalized society based on equanimity and dignity.
A version of this essay appears in Ode Magazine.