Poverty Has a Creation Story: Let’s Tell It
What would you say if we told you that the human mind is the real frontline in the battle to end poverty? What about if we said anti-poverty organizations need to spend a lot more effort understanding the cognitive sciences, rather than focussing exclusively on researching vaccines, micro-finance and even opinion polling? And that a good place to start is with the idea of common sense?
If there is anything that epitomizes the concept of simple truth, common sense is it. Merriam-Webster describes it as "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”
But contemporary research in cognitive science tells us that, rather than being a simple objective thing, common sense is actually a highly complex, largely invisible and inherently subjective collection of subconscious mechanisms, assumptions, experiences and perceptions. This means, however well educated or dispassionate we strive to be, because we rely on our common sense, we are always and forever prone to selective understanding and irrational, emotional judgments.
To date, precious little work has been done to study common sense when it comes to inequality and poverty. We helped prepare the Finding Frames report that looked at this question in the British context, and have commissioned some top-line research into global common sense, but so much more needs to be done.
What is clear from preliminary studies is that what counts as common sense around poverty in the UK, and very possibly across the Global North, is not encouraging. In summary, most people conceive of global poverty as synonymous with “aid,” which is seen as an act of charity. Charity, in turn, rests on the interaction between a powerful giver—be that an individual or a nation—and a grateful receiver. Agency resides almost exclusively with the powerful givers; the grateful receivers are simply understood as poor, needy, and without control over their own destiny. Further, in global settings, “the poor” are understood as an undifferentiated group without intrinsic strength, often referred to through the shorthand of “Africa,” where nothing ever changes.
This won’t surprise most people who live in the Global South (another label that tends to cluster people into a category of anonymity). When you are on the receiving end of judgmental or paternalistic frames, you can feel it. What might be more surprising is what we found when we looked at the global picture.
The need for a creation story
One of the major discoveries was that anti-poverty groups, both in North and South, rarely if ever explain where poverty comes from. This is a critical omission in the common sense of poverty. It means that there is no clear, logically robust understanding of (a) what causes poverty, (b) who the principal actors are, and therefore (c) a solution that can be readily and widely accepted.
Every religion has a creation story. So does every tribe, nation, and ideological camp. The creation story provides the original cause from which all else logically follows. Because poverty has no creation story, there is no mental architecture that helps us envision it ever being eradicated. To succeed at changing this common sense, we need to introduce the creation story.
So where does poverty come from? An in-depth answer to this is beyond the scope of this piece, but we published this article recently to bring attention to what we believe are structural and systemic causes of inequality—a set of financial rules introduced by an elite minority to game the global economy.
By framing mass poverty as something that is created by human beings, we fill a crucial hole in the logic of poverty. And once this hole is filled, logical targets arise, it becomes apparent where to invest resources to create meaningful change, and how others can get involved. In short, we gain an agenda for change that is bigger and more radical than small transfers of money from rich to poor and one that, crucially, works with the power of common sense.
If we are to transform the systems that create and perpetuate poverty, we will have to change the logic of the debate. Doing this will require that we incorporate the best science of human understanding into our strategies. The knowledge exists for us to begin down this road; we just need to use it.
This post is condensed from a longer version that appears on Think Africa Press, and is republished with permission.
Creative Commons photo used courtesy Matteo Angelino.