Addressing the root causes of poverty

Yesterday, in a class on Wealth, Poverty, and International Aid, I asked students what they thought the root causes of poverty were. The class looks at cultural constructions of wealth and poverty in places that range from rural Papua New Guinea to urban China to the Prosperity Gospel churches that dot the US landscape. We haven’t talked about “root causes” of poverty, but one of the students brought up the phrase.

The students had just completed an assignment in which they asked the following question of three poverty relief organizations: Does this group act as a “charity” (which meets the short-term needs of the poor) or a “philanthropy” (which attempts to resolve poverty through social change)? It was during a conversation about what ideas of charity and philanthropy look like in practice that one student used the phrase “root causes.”

Here’s what the undergraduates and graduate students listed as some of the root causes of poverty:

-          failed states

-          corruption

-          war

-          greed

-          laziness

-          a refusal to move for better opportunities

-          oppression

-          exploitation

-          illness or physical disability

-          mental health problems

-          natural disaster/environmental conditions

It was an eye-opening moment. We haven’t been talking about many of these topics. But more eye-opening was the disconnect between the students’ list and the prescriptions offered by the organizations they are studying.

The aid organizations include large and small institutions; groups with a global reach and groups that focus on individuals; groups that are well known in our campus community and groups whose reach does not extend to Raleigh. I gave students a long list of possible groups to examine and asked each student to choose three for their personal exploration. Students could also go off the list to study a group of their own choosing with one caveat. The organization had to focus on matters of poverty and provide the information needed to meet course assignments. (Sorry, Madonna, I had to turn down your group for a lack of publicly available financial and other reporting.)

Some of the aid organizations address healthcare, but none explicitly work toward peace, transparency in government and private sector finances, resilient and accountable state operations, or social justice. I don’t doubt that many people working in the aid industry believe in these principals. They just aren’t in the forefront of the organizations that students first turn to when they think of poverty relief.

One group that has proved inspiring for students, the group I think might come closest to what the students are seeking, is Harlem Children’s Zone. HCZ’s work centers uses schooling as a springboard to carry out larger, neighborhood transformation. HCZ’s approach is comprehensive. The group acknowledges the complex personal and social factors that stand as obstacles on the road to well-being. I don’t have first-hand experience of HCZ, and I don’t think there’s a magic formula out there than can change economic relations across the planet. But as an anthropologist, I appreciate HCZ’s holistic practice.