On poverty and prosperity


What do we know about this menace?


Read or listen to the commentary about poverty reduction and you will eventually notice a common theme which is quite remarkable if you stop to think about it. Almost always there is a call for people of goodwill to understand ‘the root causes of poverty’. And what is remarkable is the unspoken apparent assumption that prosperity is the natural condition of mankind, and poverty an aberration that requires explaining. In reality, in most places and for most of human history, the vast majority of people have lived in poverty. Poverty is not the exception, in historical terms. Prosperity is.

So I believe the more interesting and fruitful question to ask is: What are the root causes of prosperity? Favourable geography and climate undeniably play a role. But beyond such externals, I believe that the foundation of prosperity is solid bedrock of respect for individual human dignity.

If that respect for human dignity seems to be the defining feature of prosperity, then the lack of that respect should, and does, tell us something important about poverty as well. Another unspoken assumption in the poverty debates is a utilitarian and materialist account of the human person. Poverty, in this account, is simply insufficient money to acquire material necessities: food, shelter, medicine. But to define poverty solely in material terms is to confuse the human person with the human organism.

Humans do need food and shelter and medicine, of course. But so do animals. Unique among creation, human beings need—need—respect, especially self-respect, of their innate and unique dignity. And contrary to the notion that dignity is a luxury good that can be tackled after material needs are met, the need for respect is absolute and universal.

Because if the “hierarchy of needs” pop philosophy were true, then there would be no permanent underclass in the Western welfare states. Instead, we see families in the West whose basic animal needs have all been addressed through public assistance for generations, but who live in a state of despair and degradation that shocks the conscience. It may be shocking but it’s hardly surprising. People who are told in unmistakable terms that the larger community assumes they have no gifts worth contributing—in short, that they have no innate dignity—will always live in poverty and dysfunction, even if their bellies are full and they have a flat-screen TV.

The genius of the microfinance industry, in which it is my privilege to work, is that its theory of change is based on a far more profound understanding of the human person. Forty years ago, Muhammad Yunus looked at a group of impoverished women artisans in his native Bangladesh. Where others might have seen pitiful people in need of rescue, Yunus saw brains and drive and talent in need of venture capital. So he lent them $26 out of his own pocket to use in their weaving business. They paid him back, on time, with interest, and their business began to prosper. Forty years later, more of the world sees now what Yunus saw then: that every human being is not just a mouth to feed but a person of dignity, with energy and God-given talents it is not just our right but our duty to cultivate in ourselves and each other.

From my own experience, one of the most inspiring examples is that of Rashid Ali (his real name) of Faisalabad. The son of an economically struggling family, Mr Ali apprenticed in a factory that manufactured specialty brushes used in the construction industry. But Mr Ali began going blind as a young man, within a few years completely losing his eyesight, and his job.

Despite the stress of unemployment, Mr Ali never doubted his innate ability. He relearned his brush-making trade as a blind person, and went into business for himself. And with a loan from our bank, he expanded that business into a thriving factory. Now he not only has a profitable business and a home to leave to his children, he is also a respected employer in his community, providing well-paying jobs for his neighbours.

Mr Ali says that his message is simple: Never give up hope. I believe this is as true for societies as it is for individuals. Societies where a critical mass of people have simply given up are societies that stop innovating and inventing, that live only for momentary fleeting pleasures, that breed and tolerate corruption, that enter into a downward spiral from which it can be very difficult ever to escape. A hopeful people, on the other hand, can work together diligently for the common good even when the going gets tough, in the spirit of mutual respect and commitment to human potential that history suggests is the only path to true prosperity.