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The politics of poverty

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Judging from what is said by politicians, and many top bureaucrats too, every policy decision, every act by any government or major institution is done in the name of, and supposedly on behalf of, the poor. Combating poverty seems to be everyone’s goal, so much so that it befuddles the mind why not only there continues to be what Professor Beckford classically described as “Persistent Poverty”, but that from all indications, the problem is getting worse.{{more}}

All the statistics – Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the achievement of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) etc.- set out the targets or describe the problem, but by themselves remain nothing more than indicators. At the local level, our politicians have literally climbed over this poverty climate, so that you can hardly make a statement without talking about “the poor”. There is little attempt to try and analyse the causes of poverty, simply to keep reiterating how much “poor people” are suffering and how each and every action is hurting them.

This does little good for the poor, and in fact, at least in the case of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, has become an excuse for almost everything. If you try to enforce a law relating to environmental health, the first excuse you would hear from an offender is that ”poor people must live”, even though what the offender might be doing is detrimental to the health of the very “poor people”. In the name of “the poor”, we now have a licence to do anything that is negative. It flies in the face of our own traditions, for poverty is no excuse for untidiness, or for perpetuating ignorance.

If we care to take time to reflect on our history, we would realise that in the first place, we are all products of poverty and gross exploitation and any successes we have had, individually or collectively, have been part of the struggle to eradicate those vices. That was the motivation for ending slavery and colonial oppression, for educational advancement. We have had outstanding examples at an individual level, and poor ex-colonies have progressed to a stage where we are now a force on the international front. But we have not been able to build on the solid foundations laid by our forebears.

As a result, the lessons of those struggles, the reasons why we have progressed, have been lost as we have allowed the consumerism which feeds modern capitalist society to overwhelm us. We have great difficulty in differentiating between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, so much so that we get completely mixed up in our priorities. Let me give one example: we quite rightly complain about ‘bills to pay’, but the cheapest among them is the most essential, our water bill. Could you imagine the outcry if we had to pay one-tenth of what we spend on telephone charges for water service?

Our politicians would go livid, even though they recognize that we can’t go on like this, they would feed on the “poor people” syndrome. In the process, we are not helping poor people, not contributing to the real fight against poverty, for in the long run, the worst form of poverty is poverty of the mind. Today, as a society and people, we may be more advanced academically, but not necessarily socially or culturally. We are certainly more selfish, more inclined to make excuses for shortcomings, less critical of moral degradations, as though, by virtue of being “poor”, you have a licence for each and every infraction.

It has permeated our politics to the extent that Parliamentarians confuse their role. We pay them for making and overseeing the implementation of sound policies, but they seem to think that they can help best by buying a bottle of gas for a constituent, by trying to place square supporter pegs in round state holes, thereby jeopardizing the progress of the entire nation. Few are brave enough to face up to realities and call a spade a spade, to encourage their supporter to lift themselves up and be shining examples in their communities. Some of the worst manifestations of corruption have been by supporters of ruling parties, their crimes overlooked because of their supposed ‘loyalty’ to the party.

Poverty is real and among us with all its ramifications. Eradicating it calls for constant and consistent upliftment of our educational, social, cultural and political capacities, not for glorifying it or using it as an excuse for shoddiness, laziness and crime.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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