There seems to have been a rash of posts about being poor since Hurricane Katrina, and many of the comments in response have turned into a debate about how best to help poor people, and whose responsibility this might be.
What has disturbed me about these debates is the dominance of the view that somehow individuals are responsible for their own poverty (or conversely their own wealth), and that any assistance is more of an act of charity than an obligation.
Rather than attempt to write on behalf of people whose experiences I have not shared, I thought that I would attempt to contribute to this debate, by adding my own experience of being privileged:
I was born into a family that:
• was not only middle class, but also highly educated;
• believed that girls should have a decent education and genuine career aspirations; and
• made me believe that I could do anything – and that I was entitled to be able to.
I was born into a country where:
• the public education and healthcare system is of a high standard and is accessible to me;
• I am a member of the privileged group – the original colonisers, not the colonised or more recent arrivals; and
• my average income enables me to live comfortably and to afford running water, food, shelter, clothing and even international travel.
I was born into a world where:
• my nationality allows me to gain visas to travel, live and to work internationally;
• I can purchase natural resources from all over the world for a fraction of my
income – and consume more in a day than many people can in a year;
• if everyone consumed as much as me, we would need a couple more planets;
• 46% of humankind live on less than $2 per day in PPP terms (or roughly $241 per
year in 2001*) for working long hours in often dangerous conditions, while I get
more than 50 times this amount to research my PhD; and
• the rules of the international system (such as WTO treaties) are written and
enforced by my government and its allies to continue to maintain our privileged
-- selectively opening up markets in the Global South while protecting our own;
-- by enforcing the intellectual property rights of our corporations, even when
they have stolen knowledge from others or have invented nothing (but merely
identified a gene that already existed);
-- by granting the power to corrupt elites to sell off their countries’ natural
resources in a manner that does not benefit their people; and
-- by allowing those same elites to borrow in the name of their people without
ensuring that those same people actually benefit from the funds – and still
insisting that they pay back the debt (with interest).
For most people who are poor, you could simply reverse this list. They are not poor by choice, or even by random chance. They are poor so that I (and people like me) can be rich. Without their poverty we would not be so privileged, and (more importantly) without our privilege many of them would not be so poor.
Poverty and privilege are systemic, not serendipitous, and the solution to poverty is justice not charity.
* Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 2002, Polity Press, Cambridge, p.97.