Why Poverty?

Vandana Shiva’s main argument against growth – that there is no equality of opportunity because opportunities are deliberately being closed to people – paints an accurate picture of the injustice inherent to growth-based development.


When I first listened to the debate Why Poverty? hosted by the BBC on November 30th 2012, about the origins of (and solutions to) poverty, what I noticed was that almost all debaters spoke about more (economic) growth, economic growth is supposed to be what we need to reduce poverty. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair starts off by stating that over the last twenty years we have seen one billion people being lifted out of poverty and that we should learn from these successes. This statement is correct when poverty is defined as an income below $1.25 a day. However, according to Vandana Shiva, wealth means wellbeing, and not money. I am of opinion that when we speak about poverty reduction, we need to take account of many more aspects than only economic growth. As Amartya Sen (1999) stated: ‘poverty is not just a lack of money, it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being’ (1999:11). And this is where I think the debate should start, not with more economic growth. An example of this idea, which Vandana Shiva brings up in the debate, are the indigenous peoples in the Amazons, who do not have money but are not poor either, because they are not deprived.

The BBC World debate tackles the million-dollar question: why is there still poverty in the world? The four debaters were as mentioned former Prime Minister Tony Blair, post-development theorist and grassroots activist Vandana Shiva, former Nigerian government minister Oby Ezekwesili and South African author Moeletsi Mbeki.

In my opinion, the debater who raised the strongest point in the debate was Vandana Shiva. Her main argument against growth – that there is no equality of opportunity because opportunities are deliberately being closed to people – paints an accurate picture of the injustice inherent to growth-based development. Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist who has put the injustice of seed monopolies and monocultures on the radar. She rejects the idea of growth because that is what creates poverty by robbing the poor of their livelihoods. The general idea of development, with its free globalized markets and structural adjustment programs, is not the way forward. She is also of opinion that wealth does not mean money, but wellbeing. In her words ‘We need to create measures beyond GDP, and economies beyond the global supermarket, to rejuvenate real wealth’ (Shiva, 2013: 1). In this article, the paradigm of mainstream (growth- based) development will be discussed, as well as idea of wealth as more than money, building on Amartya Sen’s notion of capabilities. The discourse of development that has made this paradigm so prominent in our way of thinking will also be discussed.

A growth- based paradigm

As mentioned, the main argument Vandana Shiva makes, which I will discuss in this article, is that there is injustice in the idea of creating ‘new growth’ by commoditizing what used to be accessible to people. Before I discuss this point more thoroughly, keep in mind that these processes have deep historical roots (Greig et al, 2007). It all goes back to the era of imperialism. To European superpowers exploiting the beauty and wealth of their colonies. They started spreading their own idea of civilization (Ansell, 2005) while stealing the resources of the South (Shiva, 2001). In the Netherlands, we refer to this era as ‘The Golden Age’, which is ironic when you think about where this gold came from. In my opinion, there never really came an end to this colonial system. Colonialism is defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically’ (Oxford dictionary, 2015). The former colonies became independent, but today the industrialized countries still live off and make money from the resources extracted from the Global South (Shiva, 2001), exploiting them economically. And besides this extraction, there is also some form of rule of the industrialized West over the former colonies. This becomes clear when we look at the policies of the IMF and their structural adjustment programs. They set certain standards to government policies and spending, and give loans in return, which in my opinion can be seen as ‘partial political control’. In 2002, former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz already called for a change within the IMF: ‘look again at financial sector liberalization and the consequence of unnecessarily imposed budgetary austerity in foreign-aid dependent countries’ (2002: 40). According to him, the IMF has a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’. Its ideology is market fundamentalism, and they do not want to be a mere adviser but have an active role in creating policy. Stiglitz notes that all too often, the approach of the IMF to developing countries made it feel like a colonial ruler (Stiglitz, 2002). The IMF’s original mandate is to support global economic stability, not to reduce poverty. In the words of Rajni Kothari, ‘where colonialism left off, development took over’ (1988: 143).

In her book ‘Stolen Harvest: the hijacking of the global food supply’, Vandana Shiva tells the story of how corporate control over food and globalization of agriculture are robbing millions of Indian farmers of heir livelihoods and their right to food. In her view, ‘what we call ‘growth’ is really a form of theft from nature and people’ (Shiva, 2001:1). She speaks of the ‘myth of free trade’ and the global economy as a means for the rich to rob the poor of their right to food and even their right to life. This is made possible by the WTO. The WTO and the GATT have institutionalized and legalized corporate growth based on harvests stolen from nature and people. The WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property rights have criminalized seed saving and seed sharing by local farmers. The Agreement on Agriculture legalized dumping of genetically engineered foods on other countries and criminalizes actions to protect cultural and biological diversity (Shiva, 2001).

State withdrawal from the economy and privatization of social services has overwhelmingly disadvantaged the poor, deepening poverty and widening the gap between the rich and the poor (Greig et al, 2007). The privatization of water, electricity, health, and education does generate growth through profits, but as Vandana Shiva stated in the debate, it also generates poverty by forcing people to spend large amounts of money on what was available at affordable costs as a common good. When every aspect of life is commercialized and commoditized, living becomes more costly, and people become poorer (Shiva, 2013). It is a simple calculation. This privatization and free markets are part of the IMF structural adjustment programs that are supposed to be promoting development (Greig et al, 2007). However, the part of the world that has received the most extensive lending and expert advice, within the structural adjustment programs – Africa – is where still most poverty is rooted (Greig et al, 2007). Proponents of the IMF and the World Bank often use as an argument for their policies that there have actually been some achievements. But in my opinion these achievements do not reflect actual poverty reduction, but merely GDP growth. Which, as we have seen, can be a cause of poverty, instead of a solution to poverty.

In line with the Structuralists I believe that we should not look at the symptoms of inequality – individual opportunities and outcomes – but at the underpinning cause. The underpinning cause is, as Vandana Shiva mentioned in the BBC World Debate, the structure of the economy and social structures that foster unequal power relations. Oby Ezekwesili is also talking about the structure of the African economy that keeps the wealth in the hands of a few elites, but she is merely referring to the distribution of the benefits of growth. But growth, according to Vandana Shiva is a ‘mismeasure’; everybody is talking about growth but not about how that growth was realized, how many forests and livelihoods were destroyed. Some proponents of growth-based development believe in trickle-down economics: it is believed that eventually the benefits of growth would trickle down to the poor (Stiglitz, 2002). However, this has never been more than just a belief. Vandana Shiva argues in the debate that growth does not produce a trickle-down effect, but rather the opposite: a grab-up effect. Social and economic processes maintain and reproduce patterns of inequality (Greig et al, 2007) and thus poverty.

Not about the money

In line with Amartya Sen (1999), I believe that poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than just a lowness of income, which is seen as the standard criterion for identifying poverty. Indeed, a lack of income is a condition for an impoverished life, but income is instrumentally significant. The capability approach concentrates on capabilities that are intrinsically important. These capabilities are the substantive freedoms that a person enjoys to realize the life he or she has reason to value. Substantive freedoms include being able to avoid such deprivations as starvation, undernourishment, escapable morbidity and premature mortality. As well as the freedoms that can be associated with being numerate and literate, enjoying political participation and uncensored speech (Sen, 1999). Development, in this sense, is the process of securing these freedoms and the assessment of development should be based on this consideration. In the debate, Vandana Shiva mentioned that the indigenous peoples living in the Amazons are not poor in the sense that they are not deprived, even though they do not have money. They do have the freedom to realize the life that they want. The origin of the problem of poverty is that resources are taken away in the name of growth. By taking away these resources, the lives of the people depending on these resources are affected in such a way that they no longer have the freedom to realize the lives they value.

Amartya Sen provides alternative ways of thinking about development, new objects of development and new methodologies for understanding development and underdevelopment. However, Vandana Shiva, as a post-development thinker, rejects the overall idea of development. This view will be discussed in the next section.

The discourse of development

In line with Vandana Shiva, I believe that the problem of poverty is inherent to the system we live in. We should step out of the paradigm of development through free markets and economic growth. What is needed, according to Escobar (1992), is ‘not more development but a different regime of truth and perception’ (1992: 412).

According to Vandana Shiva (2009), ‘Development’ was a postcolonial project: a model of progress in which the entire world remade itself on the model of the modern West. The assumption was that Western-style progress was possible for all, as Tony Blair confirmed in the debate. Development, seen as the improved wellbeing of all was thus equated with the Westernization of economic categories of needs, productivity and growth. Western concepts about economic development that had emerged in the specific context of capitalism and economic growth were raised to the level of universal assumptions and applicability in the entirely different context of needs satisfaction of the people in the newly independent countries. Thus, ‘Development’ as capital growth and the commercialization of the economy for the generation of profits not only involved a particular form of creation of wealth, but also the associated creation of poverty. Development was reduced to a continuation of colonial processes; it became an extension of the creation of wealth in the Western economic vision (Shiva, 2009).

Development, according to Escobar’s critique, should not only be seen as an instrument of economic control, but as a strategy and an invention of the ‘First World’ about the ‘underdevelopment’ of the ‘Third World’ (Escobar, 1992). To examine development as discourse requires understanding why so many countries started to see themselves as ‘underdeveloped’ and how ‘to develop’ became a fundamental goal and problem for them. And finally, how it was made real through the formation of many strategies and programs (Escobar, 1992). ‘Development’ inevitably shapes social relations and ways of thinking. Escobar argues that all the aspects of development: industrialization, macroeconomic policy, integrated rural development and so on, all repeat the same basic truth: development is about paving the way for the achievement of those conditions that characterize rich societies.

Vandana Shiva’s arguments are opposing this ‘basic truth’. According to her, we should not pave the way to a modernized society, because it is based on growth. Growth is an ill-conceived measure and we should leave it behind us. If growth is not what should be pursued, then the way we conceptualize development should be rejected. The notion of development is highly critiqued by Escobar: ‘seeking to eradicate all problems, development actually ended up multiplying them to infinity’ (1992: 25). He states that development, embodied in many institutions, practices and structures has had a profound (negative) effect on the ‘Third World’. I do not fully agree with this idea in the sense that all forms of development are essentially harmful, I think that the term development and economic growth are often used interchangeably, however, as we have seen, nowadays alternative ways of viewing development have become mainstream. I do, however, agree with Escobar that the way that language was used framing the problems in the Global South, has had great impact on policies and practices, some of which have indeed done more harm than good.

This view of development as discourse is fundamentally different from analyses carried out from different perspectives, such as dependency theory, modernization theory or even alternative development; they propose to modify the current regime of development (Escobar, 1992). They try to find ways to alter certain aspects or revise theories and perspectives, but in end the goal is always the same: development conceptualized as growth. This is reflected in the BBC debate, three debaters are speaking about ways to alter the current systems, but only Vandana Shiva rejects the system as a whole.



(This article is one chapter out of a paper written for the University of Amsterdam)

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