Friday, March 17, 2006

False Assumptions about Poverty

In an article that has appeared both in print and on the internet, Indian physicist Vandana Shiva argues that poverty is misunderstood and that the Industrialized nations' proposals for dealing with poverty are based on false assumptions. That the poor have been "left behind" while the rest of the world has advanced, she says, "is a totally false history of poverty. The poor are not those who have been 'left behind'; they are the ones who have been robbed." She continues:
The wealth accumulated by Europe and North America is largely based on riches taken from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Without the destruction of India's rich textile industry, without the takeover of the spice trade, without the genocide of the Native American tribes, without African slavery, the Industrial Revolution would not have resulted in new riches for Europe or North America. It was this violent takeover of Third World resources and markets that created wealth in the North and poverty in the South.

Two of the great economic myths of our time allow people to deny this intimate link, and spread misconceptions about what poverty is.

First, the destruction of nature and of people's ability to look after themselves are blamed not on industrial growth and economic colonialism, but on poor people themselves. Poverty, it is stated, causes environmental destruction. The disease is then offered as a cure: further economic growth is supposed to solve the very problems of poverty and ecological decline that it gave rise to in the first place. This is the message at the heart of Sachs analysis.

The second myth is an assumption that if you consume what you produce, you do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then it doesn't contribute to GDP, and therefore does not contribute towards "growth".

People are perceived as “poor” if they eat food they have grown rather than commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from ecologically well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cinder block or cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.

Yet sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life—when measured in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of meaning in people’s lives. Because these poor don’t share in the perceived benefits of economic growth, however, they are portrayed as those “left behind”.
Dr. Shiva poses a thought provoking argument, especially in light of our consumerist driven, resource depleting society.

For the whole article, see "Two myths that keep the world poor".

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist and prominent Indian environmental activist. She founded Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers' rights. She directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy. Her most recent books are Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge and Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.

LP

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