Why do some people remain stuck in poverty: their bad luck?
When I was visiting rural Nepal last year, I stopped in a village with beautiful houses lining both sides of the road. A few motorbikes passed by as I sat at the local kiosk drinking a masala tea. It seemed to me to be a perfectly prosperous village.
But just a 15-minute walk down the ‘prosperous village’ road, I found a smaller village consisting of tiny huts made of mud and bamboo poles. The children there looked undernourished and poorly dressed. Although only a short walk, it was a long way from the prosperity I had seen up the road.
During my research trip to Nepal, I met policymakers and researchers who work to reduce the proportion of people living in poverty. They analyse massive volumes of data to work out why people stay poor and how to help them get out of it. Success stories of the few that do escape poverty are highlighted and widely shared.
While this learning from experience on anti-poverty programs is admirable, by focusing on the successes of anti-poverty programs we often miss the voices of those who remain trapped in poverty and are marginalised for decades. Listening to them is important because their stories, and the barriers they face, can be more complex than we think.
My research looks at those who have remained poor despite their individual efforts to escape poverty. It’s a topic that has recently received growing academic and policy attention, including Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century which highlights why inequality matters now more than before. To navigate different aspects of poverty I went to rural villages in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, and spoke to policymakers and local development non-government organisations.
What creates obstacles for the poor to become better-off? Is it their own failure or are there structural circumstances beyond their control that keep them in poverty? These are complex questions.
But one of my discussions with an NGO worker was enlightening. I asked him why many people in a village he was working in remained trapped in poverty. He suggested it was because they didn’t utilise the free education available to them.
When I visited the small huts of these villagers I saw goats kept beside their beds, huts not connected to electricity, and children performing household chores while their parents looked around for casual work. It seemed to me that under those circumstances it would be very hard for them to utilise free education. When I suggested this to the NGO worker, he said what I saw there was ‘bad luck’.
I have drawn two key insights from this exchange. First, there is a perception that the poor have remained poor because they have not done enough to come out of poverty traps. This notion of poverty puts all of the blame on the poor, the victims, and their failures without considering the questions of why their efforts cannot work or why they cannot make the most of the available exit options.
Second, we often assume that the poor can access free education and health facilities without considering the complex barriers that prevent them from using these services effectively. In this case, the children’s poor performance at school was to do with their household work burden and improper housing – which both prevented them from making the most of the free public education accessible to them.
In terms of pro-poor policies, we often hear that investment in education, public health and rural infrastructure can boost economic growth, which in turn, helps create employment and reduce poverty. We need more of such investments and growth. However, we should not expect the benefits to automatically reach the huts of the poor, as in the rural villages of Nepal, which have remained impoverished for generations.
Research and policy debates should consider how we could enable the chronically poor to access decent employment, free education and health facilities, and reap the fruits of economic growth.
We also need to listen more closely to those who don’t have success stories of escaping poverty to see if they can inform policy that affects them.
Research and policy re-orientation in this direction may offer better ways, if not the best alternatives, to ensure better policy for economic growth, infrastructure, health and education that will directly benefit the poor. Such policy rethinking may assist our endeavours to help the poor to turn their ‘bad luck’ to ‘prosperity’.
Otherwise we may find ourselves charting the same old road, no matter how high our hopes or aspirations.