Creating A Poverty-free Future
Approximately 10 years ago, I was standing with my mother at a food store in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. We wanted
to buy yogurt required by a recipe to finish a dish. It didn’t cross our minds that between her, who worked
as a senior manager, and myself, employed as an associate lecturer at the university, we wouldn’t have enough
money to make such a purchase. At that time it was only the cash economy that worked, as personal checks and
credit cards were no longer accepted.
The prices of all goods regularly skyrocketed over night as inflation
reached the highest ever-recorded in history. People were going straight from their workplaces - where
everyone received income as banks collapsed - directly to the markets.
Delaying your visit to the market by a
couple of hours would cost half of your salary. Our family friend, gynecologist and director of a maternity
hospital, was too busy to go for a couple of days. Eventually, for his half-monthly income, he managed to buy
a bar of soap.
The interesting thing is that most people didn’t feel as horrible, depressed or anxious as you would expect.
When we could not afford the yogurt, my mother and myself could not help but laugh. Running to the market
became some sort of national sport. Women “competed” to find out exactly how many liters of juice could be
made from one orange (I still have a recipe which makes four to five). But at that time we could laugh,
because we felt that our poverty was temporary. We still had other assets, apart from our income, that we
could use. We could still envision a better future. And for some reason, we stopped comparing ourselves with
“the West,” as we did in the previous years of relative affluence (a comparison which would give us the sense
of inadequacy, apprehension and inferiority). We looked around us and concluded that most people were in the
same boat, and, compared to many others, we were still quite fortunate.
My first thought in coming to Australia was that this country would collapse under sanctions. At that time,
petrol in Yugoslavia could be found only sporadically but people of Novi Sad could walk to most places,
drive bicycles or easily organise car polling. Other strategies included waiting in queues for days and
taking turns to do so, borrowing cars from family and friends that spend less gas, smuggling petrol over
the border and buying at the black market. The joke at the time was that while a western European earns
3,000 spends 2,500 and saves 500 DEM, the average Yugoslav person earns 30 but spends 3,000 DEM a month.
While probably serving to boost everyone’s morale, this joke, as well as the previous petrol and juice
examples, help make a few important points.
First, it is to move from a situation of relative affluence to a situation of poverty. This has happened
to millions of people in Eastern Europe, over a relatively short period of time. For example, using the
cost of a basket of basic goods as a measure of poverty, the figures show that child poverty in Russia
has now reached 98 per cent (Bradbury and Jantti, 1999)! Throughout history, this has not only happened
to the members of the middle class, like myself, but to the members of the financial and social elite as
well, and not only in Eastern Europe. Empires fell, the economic system collapsed, wars occurred, family,
age and work situations changed, and so on. Because of what I saw in my life and learned from glimpses
into history, I believe that no one is safe from poverty. And, if we factor in environmental degradation
as an indicator of overall quality of life, we all might already be poor, without even knowing it.
Therefore, addressing and resolving poverty is everyone’s business, and should be everyone’s priority.
Second, people who find themselves in situations of poverty use multiple strategies to alleviate their
condition. The poorer they are the more elaborate and ingenious their strategies for survival are. At
the same time, it is often thought that the poor are totally powerless to change their situation and that
their only hope is to be passive recipients of aid. Because of this, strategies that today’s poor use or
have used before to maintain their societies are rarely considered in poverty elevation measures. In
Australia, for example, Aborigines stress the importance of the land at all levels as necessary in
addressing their current disadvantage. However, the government’s reply to Aboriginal poverty is almost
entirely through welfare statemeasures which primarily focus on financial transaction (welfare handouts).
This reply is a product of the Western, materialistic and industrialised society. It fails to address
the issue of importance of traditional natural and cultural assets as well as the importance of spiritual
progress and wellbeing along material welfare. Another example is the 1994 boycott of products produced
by child labour, led mostly by the USA, which resulted in 50,000 Bangladeshi children losing their jobs,
and as a result many of them then turned to begging and prostitution (Bjonnes, 2001). While the boycott
had good intentions it was one more case “of Westerners selectively applying universal principles to a
situation they did not understand” (Marcus quoted in Bjonnes, 2001). It is depressing that more strategies
for alleviation of poverty have failed rather then succeeded. In addition, some have directly contributed
to an increase in poverty. For example, development policies in the Third World have made many people
landless and/or destroyed their environmental assets, as well as their social cohesion and traditional
economy. This has not only contributed to the increase in their poverty but has sometimes been the single
biggest factor that created it in the first place. Still, just because poverty alleviation measures have
not been successful in the past does not mean that the problem of poverty is such that it cannot be
resolved. This, however, requires tapping into the experiences and strategies developed by those who
experience poverty on daily basis.
Third, and related to the previous perception that the poor are powerless, is the conviction that the
poor have no future since their predicament will only get worse (S P Udayakumar,1995:339). For
example, a 1995 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded that poor countries
that now suffer widespread malnutrition and a general lack of food security can look forward to little
improvement in the foreseeable future (Gately, 2001). Another study (Hanmer et al, 2001) concluded
that Sub-Saharan Africa will not be able to meet the international development targets - halving of the
extreme poverty by 2015- in any likely future scenario. While such forecasting and trend analysis is
powerful and might be accurate, it does little when it comes to envisioning alternative futures and
motivating people to work toward social change.
Fourth, poverty is a complex, multidimensional issue which cannot be understood only in terms of
economic indicators, such as GNP or per capita income. Access to other assets such as community
support, infrastructure and knowledge base play an equally if not a more important role. This is why
poverty alleviation strategies in the future need to be based on the reconceptualized understanding of
poverty, if they are to be successful. This includes understanding that there are poverties not poverty,
that these poverties are processes, not states and that prevention rather then relief is crucial
(Walker and Park, 1998:47).
Fifth, poverty needs to be defined from the perspective of the poor. For example, one study shows that
poor rarely speak of income but rather focus on their ability to manage physical, human, social and
environmental assets (Narayan, 2000:5). This means asking the poor how they define and see their living
and working conditions and which areas do they believe need to be transformed.
Sixth, poverty is a cumulative process. The longer it goes on the more difficult it is to uproot it.
And while the common understanding is that the poor somehow get accustomed to the situation, in fact,
the longer poverty goes on the more difficult it is to bear it. People who find themselves temporarily
poor might respond to that situation with dignity, humour and resourcefulness. But sooner or later
other feelings such as shame, humiliation and despair set in and the opportunities and assets for
ingenuity decrease. That the poor do not get accustomed to the situations of poverty can be easily seen
from the higher level of poor health and illness among poor as well as from their higher mortality rates.
Around 500,000 women die yearly from pregnancy and birth related complications which are usually related
to a lack of proper nutrition and adequate health services. Almost 2 million children will die this year
because of poverty. And it is estimated that around 30 million people die each year from hunger.
These are only some of the important factors that need to be considered if we are to eradicate poverty.
The literature on poverty is huge, including both the economy oriented studies as well as critical and
alternative approaches. In order to summarise what I see to be crucial issues in regard to poverty
eradication, I use the Causal Layered Analysis methodological approach, developed by Inayatullah (1998).
This approach offers deconstruction, reorders the knowledge and seeks to find the root causes of social
diseases (Fricker, 2000). It implies that there are different levels of reality and different ways of
knowing. Consequently this requires different levels of analysis and understanding of various realms for
implementation of social and individual transformations. Causal Layered Analysis has four levels: the
litany, social causes, discourse/worldviews and myths/metaphor. The litany focuses on quantitative trends
and problems which are often exaggerated and used for political purposes. At the level of social causes,
interpretation is given to the quantitative data. The third level is concerned with structure and the
discourse/worldview that supports and legitimates it. At the fourth level analysis looks for the deep
stories, the collective archetypes, subconscious dimension of the issue under inquiry. Causal Layered
Analysis does not privilege a particular level but attempts to integrate discourses, ways of knowing and
worldviews as well as create transformative spaces for the creation of alternative futures
At the litany level poverty is measured only through economic and other quantitative indicators. The
discourse tends to focus on the overwhelming nature of global poverty, for example, estimates that
currently 53% of the world population is classified as poor and that around 3 billion people live on
less then 2US$ a day. The number of people in poverty is represented as a matter of fact and causes
are rarely explored. In the Western media, poverty is usually constructed to be “out there”, among
“the Others” and rarely “here”. The common results of poverty, such as high fertility rates, low literacy
levels, political arrest, organised crime and scarcity of resources are often presented as its main
causes. For example, in the mainstream discourse on poverty there is a huge concern about overpopulation.
It is often stressed that world population is expected to increase from 6 billion, as it is today, to
7.2 billion in 2015, and somewhere between 7.7 and 11.2 billion in year 2050. As 95% of this increase is
projected to occur in the countries with currently have high proportion of the poor, it is implicit that
the poor themselves are “guilty” of creating a future of poverty.
At this level, the strategies for elevation of poverty mostly focus on the poverty relief and aid
packages. The common response among the affluent is either apathy - the problem of poverty is so huge
that it cannot be resolved; helplessness - I wish there is something I/we could do; or projected action
- the government, UN or NGO’s should do something!
Sometimes, magical solutions, such as genetically modified rice and other crops, are also discussed.
At the level of social causes analysis, economic, cultural, political and historical factors are
discussed. Social causes analysis is most commonly found among policy planners and academics. At this
level, processes such as colonization, modernization, globalization, capitalism, urbanisation, as well
as national and international governance are discussed. Other indicators of poverty, such as access
to education, health care, are included but poverty is still primarily measured through economic
indicators, such as GNP and income per capita.
Strategies usually include suggestions on how to increase economic growth rate or labour productivity
and how to encourage foreign investment. Other suggested strategies include investments in agricultural
research, education, health, creation of welfare safety net and so on.
At the worldview discourse, the main debate is whether economy needs to be regulated. Libertarians and
conservatives argue against any or against any significant interference into the free-market economy,
and maintain that poverty can only be elevated through the free flow of capital and labour. Some also
argue that the widening gap between the rich and the poor is “a natural, necessary and even desirable
component and hallmark of the improvement of the human condition” (www.libertarians.org). That is,
poverty is the normal condition of men and if the rich were not allowed to get ever richer the poor
would never have any chance to improve their conditions at all. This they could do through ever-
increasing access to tools of everincreasing productivity, through acquiring advanced technology and by
“jumping on the bandwagon” of the general development and economic growth that entrepreneurs create
(www.libertarians.org). Left-liberals, environmentalists and socialists argue that the global Casino
capitalism is directly complicit in creation of poverty where previously there was none as well as that
the unregulated, “free” economy/markets is a myth. They stress that poverty is not created through
production (or the lack of it) but because of the way profits are distributed. They argue that although
global economic activity has grown at nearly 3% each year and doubled in size twice over the past
50 years the number of people living in absolute poverty hadn’t been reduced at the same pace. In regard
to the widening gap between rich and poor they argue that this indeed is a problem because in the future
world where “two-thirds are poor and deprived of basics and promise, there will not be any peace and
security” (Udayakumar, 1995:347). Contrary to the focus only on the competitive aspects of the human
nature it is the cooperation that is seen as the only possible way out. The future is seen as a
collaborative enterprise in which “well-being of the poor demands on the cooperation of the rich, and
the safety of the rich relies on justice for the poor” (Udayakumar, 1995:347). Discussions on this level
also allow for an analysis of the ways in which the discourses themselves not only mediate issues but
also constitute them. Or how discourses we use to understand poverty directly influence strategies that
are being put in place. For example, if poverty is understood predominantly in terms of economic
indicators, only economic measures are going to be suggested. The strategies will therefore not include
measures that work against oppressive social structures that are complicit in creation and sustenance
of poverty, such as, patriarchy, for example.
At the myth/metaphor level deeper cultural stories are discussed. For example, in which ways Western
advertisement or other propaganda makes indigenous populations believe that their own culture, dress,
food, or language are inferior as well as how needs for products and lifestyles produced elsewhere
are created (Bjonnes, 2001). Or, through local and global narratives, creating a situation in which
some become easy prey for economic exploitation by others. At this level, we can see how deep beliefs,
such as the belief that humans are inherently competitive and selfish, create a worldview that informs
discussions that formulate policies that determine the actions (or the lack of it). Or how these actions
and policies differ from those that are formed by the worldview that emphasizes the role of
communication, cooperation, altruism, caring and nurturing as the main themes in human evolution.
At this level we can also investigate deep cultural myths and their relevance for poverty creation and
elevation. For example, in the Western history two basic narratives about the relationship between men
and nature exist (Hollis, 1998). One is the myth of “The Land of Cockaygne”, the land of milk and honey,
the “golden age” where the nature provides abundant resources and the magic bowl of porridge never
empties. This is the land of unlimited consumption, limitless choices, and ever increasing growth and
progress. The current version is consumer based global capitalism where new wealth and products are
constantly being created. This is being done both through technological and economic innovations as well
as through the colonisation of nature, lands, peoples, and space. Another myth is that of Arcadia, where
nature is bountiful but humans do not indulge themselves beyond their needs (Hollis, 1998). It is the
idea and the image about the harmony between humanity and nature rather then the image of domination and
control of the nature by humanity so as to produce society and civilisation. Throughout European history,
the Land of Cockaygne was especially popular during medieval ages and among lower classes which sought to
relieve the drudgery of their everyday lives “through the pure satisfaction of sensual pleasures”
(Hollis, 1998:14). Arcadia, on the other hand, originated in ancient Greece and was revived by Renaissance
humanists that were “seeking to restrain the selfish tendencies of the rich and powerful classes”
(Hollis, 1998:14). Its modern version are today’s ecological, New-Age and anti-globalisation movements.
Poverty is not a necessary evil but the result of how we perceive the world and act within it. Poverty is
continuing because the poor are truly silenced, that is, alternatives that incorporate local knowledge,
experiences, desires and worldviews of the poor are invisible in the mainstream discourses. Writing and
reading about poverty is a luxury in itself, a luxury that is beyond the means of the poor. In addition,
the official discourse rarely allows for a discussion about the ways in which we, the affluent of the
world, are complicit in creation and perpetuation of poverty. Or in which ways spiritual poverty -“a
psychological state, generally among the affluent, expressed as a constant hunger for more material things;
a sense of alienation, loneliness, and spiritual emptiness” (Bjoness, 2001) - is complicit in creating
But the main problem with mainstream discourse, as well as both the “left” and the “right” worldviews, is
that poverty is described in terms that it becomes unthinkable to imagine poverty-free futures. Together
with the focus on the overwhelming nature of current poverty this lack of imagination makes us powerless
to act today, one step at the time. But for this to happen, we do not need to travel far and wide, nor do
we need to carry with us the influence of political power and huge wealth. We can address destitution
amongst ourselves, listen to those amongst us who are not allowed to speak, and help them carry their
imagination into a poverty-free future. A future in which every person will have an easy access to at least
one delicious yogurt a day.
Ivana Milojevic is currently completing her doctorate at the School of Education, The University of
Queensland. Born and raised in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, she now resides in Mooloolaba, Australia. Some of her
other articles are available at www.metafuture.com You can email her at: email@example.com
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