Thursday, August 2, 2007

Re-thinking Poverty

Re-thinking Poverty (from the Bolivian Andes to southern Appalachia)

One of the greatest challenges in my adult life-as an artist,
activist, and son of southern Appalachia- has been the experience of
growing into the life of a rural farming village in the foothills of
the Bolivian Andes and the ways in which I've had to radically rethink
the very notion of "poverty". From UN reports to leftist journalism,
Bolivia is almost always described as "a dirt poor, landlocked,
primarily indigenous country in South America". Yet when I walk down
to my friend don Ramiro's house to pick up my son Camilo, after a day
of playing with his nine kids, I oftentimes literally feel giddy due
to the abundance and sense of generosity surrounding me. Any
well-intentioned development specialist would look out upon our
village and think, "How can we elevate these poor people out of their
stagnant and regressive lives?". I've learned to ask (myself first and
now others),'What Western myths need to be debunked to affirm the
dignified life here[in Totorkawa]?" Interrogating the confused Western
notion of "poverty", the lynchpin of the whole Western development
discourse, lies before me as a central task in the collective struggle
to recuperate human dignity.

Every day I interact with people here in East Tennessee who lead an
extremely impoverished existence, yet are swimming in goods, services,
modern amenities, and technological trinkets of all sorts. It could
be more precisely, responsibly, defined as "scarcity" although the
application of this term seems misplaced at first. When walking down
any one aisle at a typical grocery store in the United States,
"scarcity" may be the last word that comes to mind. One's thinking
gets jarred when striving to illuminate and understand all of the
subtle aspects residing within the blanket term "poverty". In the
chapter titled "Production" , in The Development Dictionary (Zed
Books, 1992), Jean Robert offers this insight into the violence and
degradation residing within these subtleties :

"Perhaps the modern economy is essentially a way of organizing reality
in a way that actually transforms both people and nature into waste.
For modern production to function, the economy must first establish a
system in which people become dependent upon goods and services
produced for them; and to do this, it must devalue historically
determined patterns of subsisting and corrupt cultural webs of
meaning. The mass production of modern goods, services and images
demands cultural blight through the spread of disvalue, that is, the
systematic devaluation of the goods found in traditional cultures.
Disvalue, to the extent that the economy is productive, entails a
degradation which touches everything and everyone affected by or
involved with this modern mode of organizing reality. A person is less
a person, the more he or she is immersed in the economy. And less a
friend. Less a participant in leisure- that is, in culture. The air is
less pure, the wild places fewer, the soil less rich, the water less

Many would beg to differ with this viewpoint, that one's humanity is
eroded the more they become involved in the economy. As a matter of
fact, many would say that "the poor" will only be freed by lifting
them up out of their villages and placing them into the labor force.
Ask a Chinese miner, an unemployed Nigerian tapping oil pipelines
under the cover of night, or a southern Appalachian miner's son
clocking in for his shift as guard -"over-seeing" primarily
African-American and Latino men- at the new Supermax prison about the
"freedom" and "dignity" they've found in the global economy. Wolfgang
Sachs' (along with others such as Ashis Nandy and Ivan Illich)
disentangling of notions of scarcity, destitution, and frugality from
the blanket term of "poverty" can greatly assist in the recuperation
of our critical faculties inside of imperial strongholds. Below is a
segment from Sachs' writings that is helpful in getting out from
underneath the suffocating blanket term of "poverty". It is a grave
injustice to define a whole people, a whole country, as "dirt poor".
It is an imposition and a violent assumption that wounds everyone
involved. It behooves us, especially Westerners suffering through an
accelerated process of social and cultural degeneration (inextricably
linked to our widespread ecological degradation), to hold this notion
up to the light.

Jack Herranen
(August the 2nd, 2007- southern Appalachia)

"Poverty" - In Need Of A Few Distinctions

You can't measure wealth by cash alone

by Wolfgang Sachs

One of the articles in Exploring Our Interconnectedness (IC#34)
Winter 1993, Page 6
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Many in the West misjudge our planet's diverse peoples by comparing
them with northern European and North American cultures. The following
excerpt from the October-December 1992 issue of Edges, published by
the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, points to the
often-overlooked quality of life in communities that have kept their
distance from the commodity economy.

I could have kicked myself afterwards. Yet my remark had seemed the
most natural thing on Earth at the time. It was six months after
Mexico City's catastrophic earthquake in 1985 and I had spent the
whole day walking around Tepito , a dilapidated quarter inhabited by
ordinary people but threatened by land speculators. I had expected
ruins and resignation, decay and squalor, but the visit had made me
think again: there was a proud neighborly spirit, vigorous building
activity, and a flourishing shadow economy. [For more on Tepito , see
IC #30].

But at the end of the day the remark slipped out: "It's all very well
but, when it comes down to it, these people are still terribly poor."

Promptly, one of my companions stiffened: " No somos pobres, somos
Tepitanos! " (We are not poor people, we are Tepitans ).

What a reprimand! I had to admit to myself in embarrassment that,
quite involuntarily, the cliches of development philosophy had
triggered my reaction.

"Poverty" on a global scale was discovered after World War II.
Whenever "poverty" was mentioned at all in the documents of the 1940s
and 1950s, it took the form of a measurement of per-capita income
whose significance rested on the fact that it lay ridiculously far
below the US standard.

Once the scale of incomes had been established, such different worlds
as those of the Zapotec people of Mexico, the Tuareg of North Africa,
and the Rajasthani of India could be classed together; a comparison to
the "rich" nations demanded relegating them to a position of almost
immeasurable inferiority. In this way, "poverty" was used to define
whole peoples, not according to what they are and want to be, but
according to what they lack.

This approach provided a justification for intervention; wherever low
income is the problem the only answer would be "economic development."
There was no mention of the idea that poverty might also result from
oppression and thus demand liberation. Or that a culture of
sufficiency might be essential for long-term survival. Or even less
that a culture might direct its energies toward spheres other than
economic ones.

Binary divisions, such as healthy/ill, normal/abnormal, or, more
pertinently, rich/poor, are like steamrollers of the mind; they level
a multiform world, flattening out that which does not fit. That
approach also fails to distinguish between frugality, destitution, and

Frugality is a mark of cultures free from the frenzy of accumulation.
In these cultures, the necessities of everyday life are mostly gained
through subsistence production. To our eyes, these people have rather
meager possessions - maybe a hut and some pots and a special Sunday
outfit - with money playing only a marginal role.

Instead of cash wealth, everyone usually has access to fields, rivers,
and woods, while kinship and community duties guarantee services that
elsewhere must be paid for in hard cash. Nobody goes hungry.

In a traditional Mexican village, for example, the private
accumulation of wealth results in social ostracism - prestige is
gained precisely by spending even small profits on good deeds for the
community. Such a lifestyle only turns into demeaning "poverty" when
under the pressure of an "accumulating" society.

Destitution, on the other hand, becomes rampant as soon as frugality
is deprived of its foundation - community ties, land, forest, and

Scarcity derives from modernized poverty. It affects mostly urban
groups caught up in the money economy as workers and consumers whose
spending power is so low that they fall by the wayside. Their capacity
to achieve through their own efforts gradually fades, while at the
same time their desires, fueled by glimpses of high society, spiral
toward infinity. This scissor-like effect of want is what
characterizes modern poverty.

Until now, development politicians have viewed "poverty" as the
problem and "growth" as the solution. They have not yet admitted that
they have been largely working with a concept of poverty fashioned by
the experience of commodity-based need in the North. With the less
well-off Homo Economicus in mind, they have encouraged growth and
often produced destitution by bringing multifarious cultures of
frugality to ruin. The culture of growth can only be erected on the
ruins of frugality, and so destitution and dependence on commodities
are its price.

In societies that are not built on the compulsion to amass material
wealth, economic activity is not geared to slick zippy output. Rather,
economic activities - like choosing an occupation, cultivating the
land, or exchanging goods - are understood as ways of enacting that
particular social drama in which members of a community see themselves
as the actors. The economy is closely bound up with life, but it does
not stamp its rule and rhythms on the rest of society. Only in the
West does the economy dictate the drama and everyone's role in it.

It seems my friend from Tepito knew of this when he refused to be
labeled "poor." His honor was at stake; his pride too. He clung to his
Tepito form of sufficiency, perhaps sensing that without it there
loomed only destitution or never-ending scarcity. "


Alice said...

Hello Rick!
I’m so happy that I’ve found you on the web.

I am an old Valentina’s friend. Both of us met in Bolivia ¿15 years ago? We lived together in a community. And after, maybe 10 or 11 years ago both of you were in my house in Madrid –oh, time passes by…-. Do you remember? So you became an “organic intellectual”… (I like that self-definition :).
I am willing to get in contact with you again… You had another child!! Boy or girl? (I just read it on the blog!) Great! And you are back in Bolivia.
I hope you are reading this blog. I had an old Valentina’s e-mail but I can’t find it.
Do you know that I found that she published the Mamalas book in India and I bought a copy on line in a dutch second hand bookstore?? Her paintings are beautiful, just as she is…
In case that I don’t get an answer I will try making phone calls to old friends… But this is the beginning, at least. And today is the 2008 global day of actions of the WSF, so… I’m going to go out. Janury 26th, 2008, Global Call for Action. ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!!

Alice is my nick name and I have an email on the profile.
Kisses an hugs and besos y abrazos in all possible languages…

(You can delete this post if you want to, since it is quite personal).

TAMARA said...


Jim Schultz suggested I contact you. I am developing a global living program that is based on native teachings, sustainability, and bridging of the global north/south in a way to create meaningful community for humanity. I'm in the begining stages of this for my doctoral thesis and am pooling resources. I lived and work in Bolivia (and VT, USA) and want to have my program be Bolivia based. Lets share ideas.
-Tamara Stenn