Tales of the World: Views on Poverty

I read a couple case studies in a business course around poverty and wanted to share some thoughts on the same. Names are changed to protect the real identities of people.

Maria from Costa Rica is 45 years. She has no husband but has two brothers and one sister who have their own small businesses. She sells jewelry and paintings and often asks for help from her sister and brother in times of need. She had a fairly good education. She completed 7th standard and then went to community college and eventually landed in Bank of Commerce with a job. She prefers doing business because it is something that does not restrict her, gives her ample opportunities to grow and it is something that is her own.  In her view, a good life should be something in which children can go to school and learn and enjoy.

Maya, on the other hand is from Sri Lanka who has a husband and two sons. She sells worship materials in front of a shrine. She did not land in that position by choice because she was uneducated as well as had to opt out of workforce because she was pregnant and had to take care of her children. She landed in this position accidentally when her relatives left their shop to her when they shifted to another country. She doesn’t talk much about her husband’s role in her life. But what she mentions clearly is that both puberty and pregnancy had forced her to not work in spite of the fact that she was good in basic arithmetic and managing her father’s shop when she was kid.  

Greta is from United States who is 34 years old, stays in a small town and has studied till grade 10. She describes her husband as one who does not have any bad habits and explicitly states the fact that she supported his business of producing and distributing homemade pickles. They also have a good understanding between them that helps them plan better and take decisions together. In her interview, she talked about good detailed financial planning that she uses to run her business. In order to zero down on the pickles varieties they would sell, together, they did a market analysis to see what king of pickles were in demand and her husband used his existing market skills with the shopkeepers to sell the lot. In her case though, it was the hope to make her son enter a more respectable and well-paying job like the areas of engineering or medicine that motivated them to start their own business. Greta felt that business should be done with a sense of profit making but with service I.e. one should ensure the products are of good quality, maintain loyalty with suppliers and customers and then focus on making profit through planning and strategies. In her work, she does extensive note keeping and maintains all her budgets and primarily uses them in two directions: one is Savings that are being incurred through the business and the second is the money to use laterally for growing the business gradually. She had also involved her son in the business who has been doing an excellent job in understanding how the market functions and has been more efficient in delivery and sales of the pickles.

Greta does emphasize the impact of certain social taboos around and together with her husband does feel the lack of higher support that could have led them to study more. Because not only did she like to study, she was also good at it and believed she could have done better.

These are excerpts of conversations with women living in subsistence in different countries across the world. Keeping the geographical, social, economic and other variations aside, one is able to see a set of common threads that define the nature of poverty from a larger perspective. 

Inferences and Interpretation 

All three cases happened to be females where one realizes the following factors are critical in having impact on the lives of people from economically under privileged strata of the world.

  • Support from partner or a general sense of community: In cases where we saw that a woman is married, the support of the husband is very critical in helping her do better or at least sustain the in the workforce. More often than not, an uncooperative husband would keep the wife at home taking care of the child and doing household activities and would not share the monthly income with her. Not just economic decision making but even mental health gets affected of the whole family in this case. 
    In case the woman is not married, she should feel some kind of connectedness with her siblings or family. She should be able to reach out to them when she needs help.
  • More than money, confidence and trust are needed: Education and in these specific cases nonprofits have not given them money but the confidence and hope that things can change and requisite skills for vocation. We must remember one thing, these are people who are devising novel ways every day to survive in places where the civil society malfunctions or the government does. They must have very good coping mechanisms in sense of mental and financial resilience. It is important to acknowledge that and tap into that. They probably do not need tangible external sources to add something to their lives – in every case.   
  • Managing relationships: One might argue that the poor have to have good relationships because that is their only token to get things done. That might be fair to an extent. I would argue that this is general manifestation of human nature that they exhibit in a larger degree. In reading all the three conversations, it was extremely clear how they value and approach relationships that are professional and personal. It did not require for them to learn that in business school and on their own, it would not be wrong to think they are running some of quite efficient businesses in the world that are hidden because of not being at scale.
  • Poverty is gendered: There are many nuances of poverty that are felt only by females in one manner and certainly some by men in a certain manner. Since for women, it is a more unequal system three incidents that completely and suddenly take them away from the workforce system are puberty, marriage and pregnancy. Without any questions being asked and ways to change the trend, generation after generation adheres to existing norms within a culture that are detrimental to the overall existence of this gender. Again, to emphasize, this is not a problem of just that gender: factors of law, sociology, education and others strongly play into this.      

Larger Views on Poverty

As expressed, poverty is complex. One is not sure if it could ever be abolished but one can definitely be cognizant of how it plays out.

  • Poverty is a result of asymmetry of information in the world. This is of specific information that carries some advantage in form of some sort of power in the world. And poverty cannot be addressed unless there is a way to address this skewness or asymmetry. Even if this asymmetry continues, which it will, there can never be complete symmetry at any point of time; there should be ways in which people who are poor can break into structures of power. Affirmative action is one such mechanism but idea behind it needs to be reformed in a manner that suggests that it aims to correct societal dysfunction where one puts the privileged as unacceptable rather than the poor.
  • Poverty has to be viewed as a phenomenon like corruption or patriarchy in which both the oppressed and the oppressor have, if not equal, but vital roles to play. Therefore, it might not be both correct and possible to take sides in this case. There needs to be a holistic approach that considers all sides fairly and then lead the implementation. Conditioning has happened for both and therefore they continue to contribute to it equally in their own ways. What might help is removing the morality cap from poverty and not putting the blame completely on either of the sides.  
  • Co designing with community: From all the talk on sustainability, one must realize that more often than not things fail because community or people for whom things are being made are not involved in the discussions at all. Only when things are ready to be introduced are they called upon and made a part of the implementation. In order to have a successful interaction while co designing, one must also try to remove the heaviness that a good education carries with it because essentially it is this, that prevents them from speaking up or that makes them feel less. Their strengths have to be acknowledged in all forms.
  • Good Governance: Poverty is more political than economical.  Unless leadership in a country (and at a larger level, leadership of the world) has a clear ideology of working towards bringing better solutions to fight poverty, we might not get anywhere with the above realizations. Most of scalability and sustainability questions are now being answered by exploring opportunities by involving the government more, making it accountable and helping it meet its own objectives.  In this regard, unless the political will is set right it might be hard to change the course in which poverty in the world in increasing.

About the Author: Ananya Tiwari

Ananya is the cofounder of SwaTaleem Foundation.

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