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The struggle against poverty: Slogan or Alibi?

Max Kupelesa Ilunga SJ




Development has been replaced by globalization; and we are careful to point out that people continue to believe in it, with less fervour than before no doubt, but with the secret hope that all is not really lost. Is the need to believe perhaps stronger than the content of belief in our world? True, a number of researchers, even those who ‘militantly’ supported the cause, today experience a growing disaffection with development, but the fact is that the development cause in the course of the last fifty years legitimized enormous bureaucracies, notably those of the U.N. These tend more and more to reproduce to assure their own survival; in order not to disappear, they must support situations that justify their presence. At this precise moment it is logical that they take up service again on the forefront of development. How? By banding together to “combat” poverty. (UNDP report, 2000: Conquering Poverty)

   The theme of poverty is at once ancient and serious. The world is made in such a way that the existence of poor people has accompanied – and sometimes disturbed – the existence of all societies; but till today none has conceived the project of eradicating it. In this age of no faults, war with no casualties, we also envisage a world with no poor people! However sympathetic one may be to such a project, it is worth asking seriously why these U.N. and international institutions would have us believe that it is achievable. (World Bank report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty)


The Problematic of Poverty


To enter into the problematic of poverty it is advisable to take a short detour into history – not to make it history (Sassier, Du Bon Usage des pauvres. Histoire d’un thème politique XVIè – XXè siècle, Fayard, 1990), but simply to recall that we have constantly oscillated around three poles, trying to accommodate them. The first is “charity or philanthropy,” which rests on compassion, often confronted by a sense of religious obligation. The rich person is expected to be generous and to give alms, or an institution (the Church) is entrusted with amassing donations for their distribution.

   The second solution is political and arises from the maintenance of order: poor people are a disturbance, hence they must be banished from society along with criminals and the insane. Such was the practice which France generalized, starting 1662, when more than 30,000 poor people were interned in the General Hospice of Paris. Even in 1949, President Truman considered poverty a “handicap and a threat.” In 1990, Aminata Sow Fall proposed an African version of this policy in her novel La grève des bàttu, an illustration of the temptation to purge the capital city of beggars and the poor… In a way, this was prefigured by the fears which associated the working classes with the dangerous classes.

   The third way consists in obliging the poor to make themselves useful so as to deserve the help which society accords them – whence the creation of domestic work, where the poor are put to work. To be sure, these three approaches to poverty only concern the poor who are near us, in the same country; they do not constitute “poverty eradication strategies” on a global scale. They merely aim at keeping poverty within acceptable limits, taking into account the political context.

   This threefold typology of poverty reduction is not without interest for our reflection.

   As regards “development” policies, the subject of poverty had already appeared in the 1970s, when the president of the World Bank at the time wrote dramatically about the condition of those who lived in “extreme poverty,” and proposed to satisfy their “basic needs” in order to include them more and more in the economic system. In 1972 Robert McNamara presented the struggle against poverty in a philanthropic manner: “We are not asking the rich countries to reduce their prosperity to help the poor countries, but simply to ‘share’ with them a tiny fraction of their wealth.” The futile debate on the “satisfaction of needs” finally petered out, and attention quickly turned to “structural adjustment programs,” the harbingers of globalization.

   Who can deny that the increase in the numbers of the poor is a serious problem? How can we tolerate the fact that 1.2 billion people live today on less than one dollar a day? How can one not subscribe to the Millennium Declaration, proclaimed by the General Assembly of the U.N., to “reduce poverty by half by 2015”?

   This is why most international organizations recently committed themselves with such “unanimity” to a “strategy of struggle against poverty.” What one should must think of this new “slogan,”[1] remains to be seen. To return to our debate, we prefer to wonder about some points.


Where is the problem?


In the language of international organizations one must attack the “problem” of poverty. Poverty is thus a problem. Just as before there was the “black problem,” the “Indian problem,” and today the “problem of violence against women,” the “problem of child soldiers,” the “problem of education for girls,” the “immigrant problem,” the “AIDS problem,” etc.

   But for such problems to arise, there must be at least two terms: there are no poor people without rich people, etc. The process has two advantages: first, that of putting responsibility for the “problem” on the weaker party; and second, that of removing from the “problem” the one who assumes the power to state it. This discursive sleight of hand allows one, by glossing over social relations, to create a new, apparently objective reality, in this case “poverty.” From here one can talk about it, quantify it, attack it and seek to eradicate it.

   Now things are not as simple as that, for poverty develops in a social relationship, which separates and unites the rich and the poor at one and the same time. International organizations obviously cannot completely ignore that. Thus, the UNDP has calculated that the 225 greatest personal fortunes in the world equal the annual earnings of 2.5 billion poor people (Report on Human Development, 1998, p.33). But what can such a comparison mean? Must one advise the rich to distribute their fortunes to the poor? The UNDP does not go that far. On the other hand, it lists minutely the disparities, international and internal, and deplores their increase, but without really asking about their origin. The latter however are not at all mysterious; from the pint of view of a rational capitalist system, disparities are in no way a “defect” which one must get rid of, but on the contrary a “sign of good health.”

   There is therefore something absurd about international organizations which “feel sorry about poverty and claim to combat it,” while at the same time recommending ways to make the markets work better for the advantage of the poor.

   The question to ask therefore is whether one can speak about poverty without speaking about wealth, and in this precise case, whether one can fight against poverty without fighting equally against wealth. This idea is not, and never will be envisaged; and when the World Bank mawkishly asserts that “poverty in the midst of abundance is the greatest challenge given to the world,” it betrays itself in two ways: first, in stating an untruth (this is the contrary of what it should have asserted, for at the global level, abundance is but a tiny island in a sea of poverty); and secondly, by making poverty a “challenge” (given by whom?) it makes poverty a thing in itself, devoid of any context. There is more wisdom in this proverb: “Where there is no wealth, there is no more poverty.”


Who is a poor person?


In an ordinary sense, a poor person is one who “lacks the necessities of life or has only what is strictly necessary, who has not got enough money, or means, to meet his needs.” Poverty thus seems linked to indigence, the absence of economic resources.

   But it was not always so. Without speaking of numerous traditions that value poverty (the Mendicant Orders and other religious congregations, the Sufis, Buddhist monks, etc.), there are numerous ways of defining poverty: medieval poverty was opposed to power, not to wealth; a rich person could just as well pass for affectively poor, and in traditional Africa, the poor person was not one who lacked material goods, but who had no one to turn to and passed as a kind of “social orphan.” (Seyni Ndione, 1987)

   Besides, since poverty is a “social construction,” it is to be expected that its definition varies according to the position of the one who formulates it. Westerners , or better, developers who visit South African villages, frequently assert that “these people have nothing; they are poor,” for the simple reason that they themselves are “blind” to the forms of wealth which are not part of their conceptual and material universe. Without a doubt the people in question would protest if they knew that others considered them poor!

   Collective frugality cannot be confused with poverty. This is not a matter, of course, of a Rousseau-like elegy of poverty, but of not confusing the simplicity of certain ways of life with “modernized poverty,” created by the spread of the market system.

   That said, we cannot reproach international organizations for “reducing poverty” to its economic dimension, nor for ignoring the point of view of the poor. They recognize that “poverty is not limited to income, and has many dimensions” (UNDP Report on Poverty, 2000, p.8), and that the situation of the poor is linked to a low level of education, to precarious health conditions, to a lack of power and to a general situation of social vulnerability. (Report on Human Development, 2000/2001) Besides, the World Bank questioned more than 60,000 poor people in over 60 countries to know how they saw their own situation. Thus, all seems ready to “attack” poverty globally and do justice to its multiple interpretations.

   However, in their conclusions, these inquiries yield “measures which are far from deviating from the accepted doctrine.” The reasons for the rich getting richer are obviously not invoked. The only question is “how the poor can become new rich people,” for that is the ultimate objective. To the three historical ways of approaching the question of poverty, which were recalled above (charitable action, repression, and obliging the poor to be socially useful), the international organizations have now added a fourth: the injunction to get rich. How can poverty be eradicated once for all if not by inciting the poor to join the rich or the not-so-rich? (Corten, 1998)


To Intervene Everywhere


The strategies adopted are at least as multidimensional as the diverse aspects of poverty we have identified. In any case, international organizations always flatter themselves that they favour “global approaches.” Thus, for the UNDP, it is necessary to stop “targeting the poor,” and to “multiply social spending in their favour,” but to rely more in “the effects of good governance”, that is, to “help states to develop strategies to combat poverty.” This implies not only favouring infrastructure (roads, sanitation, schools) in poor areas, but above all giving poor people access to employment in agriculture, construction and small businesses. As for the World Bank, it seeks first to “make the markets work better for the poor,” which means in practice to “better integrate the poor into the market system”, by inciting public administrations to take the demands of the poor more seriously, while the poor are invited to “mobilize to make their voice heard.” By what means? There is no answer.

   The numerous measures containing these diverse “strategies” hardly facilitate a brief presentation, and U.N. rhetoric, characterized by the search for consensus at the cost of “saying the least,” does not contribute to clarity.

   What the World Bank calls the “complexity of development” justifies the international organizations extending their action (we know not how) into every domain of social life: economic growth, social services, environment, gender issues, public administration, decentralization, social capital, mobilization of the poor, international aid, debt reduction, governance, etc. To be sure, for the authors of these reports, all these policies, to have any chance of success, must be applied simultaneously and together, taking into account the specific context. Even if different reports list a considerable number of cases in which a given measure, linked to this or that other measure, reduced poverty, one cannot fail to be struck by the huge number of prerequisites for the action, by the very many obstacles to be overcome, and by the repeated warnings of possible perverse effects of the recommended measures.

   We might also wonder about this frenetic activism and this will to interfere henceforth in the whole of social life. After the liberal certitudes of the World Bank in the decade of structural adjustment, moderated by the disastrous effects, and the first global reports on human development from the UNDP dedicated to specific themes, why this sudden profusion of recommendations, counsels and orders intended to overcome poverty? Would interest in the poor have the virtue of making for a more complex and more human world?


The time of alibis?


In the name of the struggle against poverty – whose emotional and moral connotations suffice to form a broad international consensus – are we not justifying a serious takeover of development policies, or simply of “policies” by international organizations? Behind the good intentions, and especially behind the multitude of measures presented as necessary for their realization, is there a more basic message, a kind of “red thread” which would permit the priorities to be organized into a hierarchy?

   In trying to disentangle the strands, we shall rely on the two reports published by the World Bank and the UNDP.

   The World Bank identifies three priorities: to give the poor better access to employment, the market and education; to strengthen the means of action of the poor; to ensure security for the poor when confronted with illness, natural disasters, violence and economic shocks. How could you not approve of such a plan? But why this scheme of prioritizing? First, one must justify the will to “stimulate economic growth and make the markets function better” for the benefit of the poor and increase their assets. Then one must watch over the functioning of public institutions. Finally, calamities that affect the poor aggravate and weaken their negotiating position.

   The UNDP considers offering a “targeted” aid, essentially aimed at helping poor countries improve the development of national policies and to reform the institutions of governance. Bad governance often breaks the link between efforts against poverty and the reduction of poverty. That is why one entire chapter is devoted to governance.

   What does this mean? If the World Bank is concerned with the functioning of the market, it shares with the UNDP the placing of public institutions which are supposed to be ineffective, at least as far as the poor are concerned. Apart from the complexity of development, two themes seem of one accord: on the one hand, make the markets more effective and give everyone access to them to buy and sell; and on the other hand, assure “good governance”, which gives power to “civil society”, and which, thanks to decentralizing measures, limits the “arbitrary” power of the state.

   These two preoccupations, which appear between the lines, are obviously legitimate for the struggle against poverty. But they also fix fundamental policies, which can then be translated into all sorts of prompt measures, linked to others all equally difficult to put into practice – which promise an uncertain success. In the end what remains are two principal requirements: growth tied to the market, and the setting aside of the State, in favour of “community associations” which are supposed to be closer to the needs of the population. (UNDP report on poverty, 2000, p.5)

   At the end of the report, one notices that the famous “struggle against poverty” is wholly written into the project of the “globalizing the economy.” It adds a supplementary soul, needed to appease all those who, through many spectacular demonstrations or individual protests, try to oppose it.

   Here we find the principle of using indisputable values to justify programmes or strategies that result in the exact opposite of what they claim to achieve. (Perrot et al, 1992) The struggle against poverty claims to solve the problem by getting rid of it, so that the poor become as rich or less poor.

   Just as those who foretell the future never say they lose when their remedy does not work but quickly blame the sick person for not complying with the prohibitions, so the international institutions multiply ineffective plans and then condemn the poor for not being rigorous, for not respecting the rules of the game... this is fetishism. Soothsayers, like international institutions, play on the naïveté of the poor in order to profit from them with plans effective on paper and inside air-conditioned offices.




If the West still tries hard to make the poor useful and obliges them to earn the help which society brings them, the usefulness of the poor in poor countries is from now on of a different order: they serve above all today to justify a grand project which surpasses them-- globalization, even if it brings them only suffering. Indeed, looking back at the way the Belgian colonizers justified their colony and involved all the colonized, we see an effective strategy, different from what is proposed to us today: alongside the large companies and industries there were many small and medium enterprises which employed people even in the remotest villages. Thus the standard of living rose quickly because the majority of the colonized had a certain purchasing power.

   Criticism of new development proposals is more than ever criticism of the actual, and must be carried out first of all at the level of economic theory – not in a cosmetic manner, to adapt it to care of the environment or to the famous struggle against poverty, but seriously to re-examine the fundamentals, and especially the hidden presuppositions of the specialists in such projects.

   Obviously the market economy must continue to play its role, which is not negligible, but it cannot be the only idea or the only economy. Human motivations are too diverse to be channelled into a one-track rationality. There are social practices beyond the reach of economic theory, which however claims to explain all patterns of human behaviour. This theory is desperately blind because well-known practices are still in search of a theory that can take explain them.

   If the idea of development still persists today, it is because it symbolizes for some people an ideal of justice and equity. But this has nothing to do with the struggle against poverty. From now on it is not a question of avoiding humanitarian disasters, but of the triumph of globalization.


Original French

Translation by Joseph P. Newman SJ


Max Kupelesa Ilunga SJ

Collegio Bellarmino

Via del Seminario 120

00186 Roma






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[1] Etymologically, “slogan” means “war cry.”