by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA /Illustration by: Janet-Lange and Dutheil
Remember the poor - it costs nothing -Mark Twain
Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential. - Barack Obama
People can be so apathetic. They continue to ignore the real people trapped in poverty and homelessness. It's almost maddening. - Daphne Zuniga
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. - Mother Teresa
On a Friday evening in April 2012 during a visit to Barcelona, I sat down somewhere along the Passeig de Gràcia avenue. Around 6:30pm, as Barcelonans were either heading home, shopping or getting ready for the weekend, an event occurred which got me thinking. A middle-aged man who was suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) appeared on the street with a brown cup in his hands. As he struggled to walk along the pavement, he suddenly stopped and with his wrinkled hands he slowly lifted up the cup, hoping that the pedestrians walking along the busy Passeig de Gràcia would put some money into his cup.
After a couple of minutes, with nothing coming into his cup, the man walked a few meters along the busy street in anticipation of getting a better response from the pedestrians. What should have taken him ten seconds to get to his new destination took him about forty seconds to achieve because of his ailment. After forty seconds, he then arrived at his new destination along Passeig de Gràcia. For the next forty-five minutes, I observed the interaction between the man begging for money and the pedestrians walking along Passeig de Gràcia. There must have been one thousand and five hundred people who passed by the beggar. The one thousand five hundred pedestrians could be classified into five different groupings.
The first groupings of pedestrians were those who frowned at the beggar as they passed by him. The frowners looked at him straight into the eye and walked pass him without dropping anything into the cup.
The second group of pedestrians comprised of those who did not even notice the beggar. They must have been preoccupied with shopping, preoccupied with rushing to get home or preoccupied talking with their friends. In short, they were too preoccupied to notice the man in despair.
The third group that engaged with the beggar were those who must have been observing the beggar from a distance. I am not really sure how many people fall into this category, but I know for sure that I was part of this category. This group observed the interaction between the beggar and the other pedestrians from afar, however, they did nothing to solve the plight of the beggar.
The fourth group of pedestrians were those who flipped a coin into the man’s cup without maintaining eye contact with the beggar. As a side note, among the hundreds of people that passed by the beggar, there was a little girl walking along Passeig de Gràcia with her mother. The girl who must have been five years old stopped and looked at the man with compassion as he struggled to hold the cup and maintain his balance. As she stopped, her mother held the girls hand so that they could continue their journey. However, the little girl refused to follow her mother and continued to look at the man with compassion. In order to distract the girl from focusing on the man, the mother put her hands over the girl’s eyes. Once the girl was unable to see the beggar, the mother effectively succeeded in making the little girl continue the journey.
The fifth group of pedestrians were those who immediately turned their face away from the man as soon as they saw the man with his outstretched arms.
After forty-five minutes, I got up from my seat, went to the beggar and put money into his cup and left. As I looked into his cup, I realised that for all his efforts standing along Passeig de Gràcia for forty-five minutes, he received only a couple of coins from the over one thousand five hundred pedestrians that passed by him.
The forty-five minute event at Passeig de Gràcia is a useful symbol to understand why poverty continues to prevail in our world today. In this article, I will use the interaction between the beggar and the pedestrians at Passeig de Gràcia as a template to analyse the world’s attitude towards the poor and others at the margin of society.
In understanding why poverty persists in our world today, it is important to analyse the interactions of the five classes of pedestrians and the beggar at Passeig de Gràcia. In short the poverty on the Passeig de Gràcia pavement leads us to understand poverty on the world’s pavement. For the purpose of this article, I use five descriptors of the Passeig de Gràcia pedestrians mentioned earlier to describe the various attitudes of people towards poverty:
• The Frowners: comprises of those that looked at the beggar straight in the eye and frowned at him. Frowners have a dislike for the poor.
• The Occupiers: comprises of those too busy and too preoccupied with their own life to notice the beggar. Occupier’s busyness ensures that they ignore the poor’s plight.
• The Observers: comprises of those that observed the beggars plight and did nothing to solve his plight. Though observers see the sufferings of the poor, they remain apathetic to poverty.
• The Throwers: comprises of those that flipped or threw a coin into the beggar’s cup without maintaining eye contact with the beggar. Throwers offer short-term solutions to poverty.
• The Deniers: comprises of those that turned their face away from the beggar upon sighting the beggar. Deniers, deny the existence of poverty.
If Canaan was described in Scriptures as the land flowing with milk and honey, Passeig de Gràcia could be described as a street flowing with opulence and luxury. It is one of the most expensive avenues in Europe and it plays host to some of the world’s most exclusive brands such as Ferrari, Rolex, Tiffany and Cartier.
Paradoxically, in the oasis of opulence that is called Passeig de Gràcia, there was a man – and this man was sick- and this man that was sick was poor- and this man who was sick and poor had to beg. This man thought that the best way to get help was to go to the richest street in Spain and beg, hoping that his problems would be solved on the rich pavement of Passeig de Gràcia.
Was his problem solved? Did his poverty end? No it did not. Why? Because the beggar encountered the frowners, the occupiers, the observers, the throwers and the deniers at Passeig de Gràcia.
Like Passeig de Gràcia where a man had to go begging on a street paved with gold, the world is also a place where despite the abundance of rich resources, billions of people live in poverty. According to the World Bank, the world Gross Domestic Product at current prices is $63.12 trillion. With the world population currently at seven billion, the global GDP on a per capita basis translates to $9,017. However according to the World Bank, nearly three billion people live below the international poverty line of two dollars a day.
It should therefore not be out of place to ask: Why billions of people around the world are poor? Why millions of people around the world are homeless? Why billions of people around the world do not have access to adequate healthcare, water and education? Just like the man at Passeig de Gràcia, the poor in most parts of the world are struggling because they keep on coming across the frowners, the occupiers, the observers, the throwers and the deniers in life’s journey at the individual, corporate and governmental levels.
In the next couple of paragraphs, I will discuss in detail the role of each player in the poverty continuation chain
The Frowners: often have a dislike for the poor. They are of the school of thought that believes that if a man or woman is poor, then they have chosen to be poor. They look down on the poor and treat them as non-humans. The frowners relegate the poor to the status of things. They are strong believers that if the poor are to rise above their condition, the poor should lift themselves up by themselves and for themselves. The frowners oppose government policies such as welfare benefits and healthcare reforms, which could help the poor. When it comes to the poor, the frowners often use the moral hazard argument to discourage the implementation of policies to lift up the poor, by arguing that such programs will only encourage the poor to be lazy and do nothing. Frowners are at the forefront of scrounger rhetoric’s.
They assume that all people benefiting from government welfare programmes are ‘milking the system’ and lazy. The frowners take a Social Darwinian approach towards poverty. They believe that life is a rat race in which only the ‘fittest’ will and should survive. They regard the poor as lazy, immoral and weak. They have confidence in their own wealth, fame, career, connections and education, so they can’t understand why people ‘choose’ to be poor.
The frowners lack a human soul and I guess these are the people Jesus must have referred to when he said: “watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
At the government level, the frowner mentality is demonstrated when government officials demonise the poor in order to gain public support in withdrawing whatever level of support the poor get from government.
The Occupiers: are not as ruthless as the frowners. Instead, they are so busy with their own life that they have no time to notice the sufferings of others around them. Just like the occupiers in Passeig de Gràcia, who were so absorbed in their own world to notice the condition of the beggar, the occupiers in other parts of the world live in wonderland. While it is good to be concerned with one’s own welfare, family and career, it is equally important for one to be his or her brothers/sisters keeper.
Unfortunately, the occupiers are caught up in their own world, which beclouds their view of the world of the poor.
Occupiers are too occupied with their own family to see the sufferings of millions of other families trapped in the poverty cage. Occupiers are too occupied with putting food on their table to be bothered about the man next door that has nothing to eat; occupiers are too occupied with climbing the social ladder to be concerned about the needs of those at the bottom of the social ladder.
The occupier is caught up in the routine business of life and so has no time for the poor. As a consequence, they are too busy with their careers to see the tears of the poor; they are too busy with their friends to hear the silent whisper of the poor saying ”help, help, help” and they are too busy with their comfort to feel the pain of the poor.
They believe that their money, talents, skills and education is meant to be used only for themselves and the people they love. They are the ‘me, myself and mine’ people.
They are self-centred and self-seeking people and because of this selfish attitude by the occupiers, the poor do not get help. Unfortunately, they fail to realise that these short-term traits of self-centeredness, and self-seekingness, will in the long run translate to self-contemptuousness. To the occupiers, Martin Luther King’s comment that “an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity,” amounts to blasphemy, heresy and gibberish talk.
At the corporate level, organisations adopt this occupier mentality when it carries out activities that benefit the organization and staff without regards of the impact on the wider society especially those at the margin of society. An example of this occupier mentality in the corporate world can be seen in the sweatshops of Asia where large corporations exploit under aged workers who work under very in inhumane conditions - all in the name of increasing profit margins. Another example is the case of the recent financial crisis in which a number of institutions rewarded workers with bonuses running into millions of Dollars even though the activities of some of these employees led directly or indirectly to thousand of suicides, millions of job losses and billions wiped out of peoples pensions.
Governments operate this occupier mentality when it pursues policies to protect its interest to the detriment of the people at the margin of society. One area where this is glaring is when governments spend astronomical amounts on defence at the expense of other expenditures that could help lift the people on the margin of society.
For instance, despite the fact that in the UK, youth unemployment is over twenty percent (fifty percent for black youths), the British government recently deployed the £1 billion HMS Dauntless destroyer to secure the coast of Falkland Islands, which is 12,700 kilometers away from the UK. In another case, the Indian government opened a commercial bid to equip its air force with one hundred and twenty six multi-role aircrafts valued at $10 billion even though around forty percent of the Indian population lives below the international poverty line. In Nigeria, legislators earn almost $140,000 a month, while the government continues to drag its feet to implement the minuscule minimum wage of $90 a month.
The Throwers: unlike the frowner and the occupier, the thrower engages with the poor. She also attempts to solve the pauper’s problem by “throwing him a coin”. However, despite the sincere intention of the thrower, the poor still remain in the same condition. This is because the thrower addresses the symptoms rather than the root cause of the poverty. When the throwers at Passeig de Gràcia ‘threw’ coins into the beggar’s brown cup, they did not look him in the eye. The lack of eye contact symbolises the throwers inability to critically look at the structural factors that causes the poverty in the first place. It also symbolises the throwers inability to see the pain in the eyes of the poor.
Throwing money at the poor without addressing the root cause of poverty will not go far in eradicating poverty. Martin Luther King caught this many years ago when he said: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Structural barriers such as racism, inequality, poor education, inadequate housing, among other barriers would need to be pulled down in order to give the poor a fair chance in life. In the race of life, the poor are at a competitive disadvantage. They are expected to complete the race of life on a racecourse filled with obstacles and hurdles right from the beginning of the racetrack to the end of the racetrack. It is therefore necessary for these impediments to be removed so as to create a level playing field. In this way, we can make poverty history.
Corporate bodies can also exhibit the thrower mentality. For instance, some companies encourage employees to go to socially deprived areas to help mentor children, teach children, build fences and paint walls, even though these same companies employment policies do not give people from these deprived neighbourhoods a fair chance of getting employed in the company.
At the governmental level, many rich countries give overseas aids to a number of least developing countries (LDC) in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even though these overseas aids run into billions of Dollars, they often come with conditions, which are detrimental to the recipient countries. These aids flowing from rich to poor countries have sometimes created a dependency culture in which the latter becomes dependent on the former. To make poverty history, the rich countries would need to pull down some of the barriers that continue to impoverish the poor nations. For instance, agricultural subsidies paid to US and European farmers have succeeded in putting African farmers at a competitive disadvantage. These subsidies, which total around $300bn a year, drive down prices and the resulting cheap agricultural products produced by USA and European farmers, are then dumped into Africa thereby making the continents agricultural sector less viable. These agricultural policies are hampering economic development in Africa. According to a Christian Aid report, trade liberalization has cost sub-Saharan Africa around $275bn over the past 20 years. Furthermore, high tariffs, some as high as 300% are imposed on African produce, thereby denying African farmers access to international markets. According to the World Bank, rich countries export subsidies and tariffs cost poor farmers around $100bn annually in lost income.
These subsidies have resulted in mass unemployment and an unprofitable agriculture industry in the continent. According to Mike Moore, the former Director-General of the World Trade Organization, the total value of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) agricultural subsidies are two-thirds of Africa's total GDP and abolition of these subsidies will give Africa as much as 4 to 5 times all the combined debt relief and overseas aids. Furthermore, the continuous delay in concluding the Doha round of talks continues to hamper farmers in poor countries.
The Observers: see the poverty in the land, they are also aware of the devastation caused by poverty, yet inspite of this knowledge, they do nothing about it. Apathy is a key characteristic of this group of people. Inequality, racism and poverty prevail as a result of their silence. These people remain apathetic for a number of reasons. First they believe that poverty will always remain, so there is no need to do anything. This is a flawed reasoning because it fails to take into consideration the fact that change does not come on a platter of gold. It occurs when people stand up and work towards bringing change. President Obama eloquently stated the need for people to throw away apathetic attitudes when he said: “one voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world."
Another reason why observers are sometimes apathetic is because they fear that if they become vocal on issues relating to poverty and social justice, they may be branded troublemakers, they may lose their jobs or they may lose their friends and influence.
Apathy in the face of injustice can have devastating effects, afterall Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said: “So much attention is paid to the aggressive sins, such as violence and cruelty and greed with all their tragic effects, that too little attention is paid to the passive sins, such as apathy and laziness, which in the long run can have a more devastating effect.”
The Deniers: are those who deny the existence of poverty or its impact. They choose to deny the existence of poverty because it makes them sad. In other instances, they choose to focus on the wealthy aspect of life because they associate with only the wealthy. They don’t come across the poor in their day-to-day living.
The denier’s use statistics, percentages and numbers as excuses to deny the reality that many people are living on the margins of society. For instance, in countries like Nigeria where millions of people live below the poverty line, deniers try to deny the existence of poverty by saying things like: “there is no poverty in Nigeria, afterall the richest man in Africa is a Nigerian” or “there is no poverty in Nigeria, afterall Nigeria’s growth projection of 7 percent makes it the third fastest growing economy in the world. ”
Deniers are also susceptible to being deceived by tokenism. Once they see a person cross a high hurdle, they assume that every one else has and should be able to cross the hurdle. If a group has been marginalised because of the colour of their skin or socio-economic background, the deniers fail to see such injustice and will focus on the achievement of the token black person or the token traveller or the token female high flyer.
Another characteristic of the deniers is that they discourage those who want to make a change. From the Passeig de Gràcia avenue illustration, the woman who tried to prevent her daughter from showing compassion to the beggar could be described as a denier. Deniers sow seeds of discouragement in the heart of those willing to help because they deny the existence of poverty. Like the woman who covered her daughter’s eyes, deniers put a veil across the eyes of potential helpers by either ridiculing them or encouraging them to focus on more mundane things. So they could say: “at least the poor are still alive, so why bother about them”; “you have got to focus on your career, rather than the poor.”
So from the above, one can see that we live in a world that is accustomed to not caring about the poor or those at the margin of society. Having a compassion for the poor is seen as a form of weakness and one can be accused of having a victim mentality. The first and greatest commandment, which the Master taught us: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” has been replaced in our world with another commandment that says: “Thou shalt hate the poor with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
Any society that has no regard for the poor and the people at the margin of society has lost its soul and is on its way to hell where there will be "wailing and gnashing of teeth". A society that can spend trillions of Euros to bailout financial institutions and yet watch millions of people go homeless has lost its soul and is on its way to hell where there will be "wailing and gnashing of teeth"; a society that encourages corrupt politicians to siphon almost $130 billion out of a country within eight years and yet watch millions of children go to bed with a hungry stomach has lost its soul and is on its way to hell where there will be "wailing and gnashing of teeth"; a society that spends billions of Dollars on nuclear weapons to maintain military supremacy and yet watch millions of people die because they have inadequate medical coverage has lost its soul and is on its way to hell where there will be "wailing and gnashing of teeth".
Though I have spoken about the reasons why poverty continues to prevail in our world, I will be doing the reader a great injustice if I stop here, without discussing what can be done to address the poverty in our world.
If the world is to become a more just place, one may have to examine the side note of the event that took place at Passeig de Gràcia. As explained earlier, I mentioned that there was a little girl who saw the beggar and stopped. This little girl was disturbed by the beggar’s plight. She had something that all the other one thousand and five hundred people that walked pass the beggar did not have: EMPATHY. In short, if poverty is to become history, the solution would not be found on the brow of the frowner or head of the occupier or the eyes of the observer or the hands of the thrower or the brain of the denier. Rather the solution will be found in the heart of the EMPATHISER.
Empathy is the capacity to see the world from the prism of another person. It is putting oneself in someone’s shoes. It is important to differentiate empathy from sympathy, as what the poor needs is empathy and not sympathy. Sympathy is a distant feeling, while empathy is a close understanding. A sympathiser pities the sufferer, whereas an empathiser not only pities the sufferer, but also shares in the sufferers emotional pain, as a result, she has a better understanding of what the sufferer is going through. A sympathiser’s sympathy is detached from the sufferer once he is far away from the sufferer, whereas an empathiser’s empathy is still attached to the sufferer even if he is far away from the sufferer. A sympathiser sees a sufferer as another person, whereas an empathiser sees the sufferer as herself. Barack Obama once said: “we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses”. If governments, businesses and individuals can move away from either a sympathising or selfish spirit towards an empathising spirit, then perhaps ending poverty could be achieved in our world. Viewing poverty from the perspective of the poor will accelerate the urgency on the part of mankind to do everything possible to end poverty.
Over a hundred years ago, William Booth, the founder of the Salvation army when encouraging his congregation to become more compassionate about human souls said: “most Christians would like to send their recruits to Bible college for five years. I would like to send them to hell for five minutes. That would do more than anything
else to prepare them for a lifetime of compassionate ministry.” Perhaps if the frowner could spend five days in the poor woman’s hell on earth, his frown towards the poor will be converted to a smile; perhaps if the occupier could spend five days in the poor man’s hell on earth, her busy attitude towards the poor will be converted to a compassionate attitude; perhaps if the observer could spend five days in the poor woman’s hell on earth, his apathy towards the poor will be converted to action; perhaps if the thrower could spend five days in the poor man’s hell on earth, her short-term gifts towards the poor will be converted to long-term structural solutions; perhaps if the denier could spend five days in the poor woman’s hell on earth, his amnesia towards the poor will be converted to remembrance and love.
Why Poverty Continues To Prevail In Our World
By Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
The views stated in this article are personal to the writer and does not represent the views or opinions of any company or organization with which the author is or was associated.
© Ahmed Sule, 2012
Some information sources on ending poverty