Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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Poverty Has a Creation Story: Let's Tell It

It is rarely explained how poverty is perpetuated, leading many to see it as natural and inevitable. If poverty is truly to be tackled, the logic of the debate must be changed.
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A Ugandan boy looks into the camera. Photograph by bel0ved.

What would you say if we told you that the biggest obstacle to eradicating poverty is the way we think about it? That the human mind and our common sense logic about how the world works is where the battle to end poverty must first be waged? How might that alter how we approach concerns about economic development, healthcare, education, women’s rights, trade relations, and national debt?

We all know what “common sense” is supposed to mean. And it’s a bit like ‘taste’, in that most of us think we have it. If there is anything that epitomises the concept of simple truth, common sense is it. In fact, Merriam-Webster describes it as "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts”.

It is such a feather-light, seemingly benign little phrase. And yet it is a driver of almost all human problems in the world. This is because what we call ‘common sense’ informs everything we do – it is the water our minds swim in. And, like fish in water, we barely recognise it’s there, let alone know how to account for it.

But contemporary research in cognitive science tells us that, rather than being a reliable and simple thing, common sense is a highly complex and largely invisible collection of subconscious mechanisms, intertwined assumptions, persistent bodily experiences and habitual perceptions layered up over our lives. It is shaped and influenced by the cultures we live in, and it can be faulty and misleading in all sorts of ways.

In fact, if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that we can never assume clear or absolute – and certainly never ‘simple’ – common sense. Because we have human brains, we inevitably hold false information; are beholden to the perspective engendered by our own particular lives; and rely on stereotypes and archetypes to understand both ourselves and each other. This means, however well-educated or seemingly dispassionate we strive to be, we are always and forever prone to selective understanding and knee-jerk, irrational, and emotional judgments.

Swimming in common sense soup

So how does this apply to the practice of tackling inequality and poverty? Well, as with everything in life, there’s a lot of ‘common sense’ employed around ideas of inequality and poverty by NGOs, foundations, businesses, government agencies, and the broader public. It is the implied logic we subconsciously employ to filter and process information. For example, it informs whether we understand poor people more as victims or perpetrators of their situation.

This ‘common sense’ is inevitably mixed with ideas of race, class, gender, nationality and any number of other variables, and inevitably affected by factors such as personal experience, age, educational background, social and cultural environment, and even mood. What we usually call fact, data, or empirical evidence therefore exists as one type of seasoning – albeit a very important one – in a highly personalised soup of thought. So understanding the ‘common sense’ logic that exists in our minds – individually and collectively – around inequality and poverty is essential if we are to engender action that might tackle it successfully, not to mention sustainably.

Luckily for anti-poverty activists and groups, a lot is now known about the science of common sense. Linguists have studied it for decades, revealing the mental structures (called “frames”) that organise our social experiences into webs of inferential logic and associated knowledge. Psychologists have identified the emotional triggers that give rise to moral judgments, values and beliefs. Brain researchers have shown how perceptions arise as information processed in our heads. In other words, these frames – this ‘common sense’ – can be defined, studied, measured and affected in a rigorous and systematic manner to improve our effectiveness in real-world campaigns. What is needed now is for practitioners in the field to adopt this learning as a new standard, and put it into everyday practice.

Poor, passive, undifferentiated

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 (published in 2011) that looked at this question in the British context, and have commissioned some top-line research into global common sense for our global anti-poverty campaign /The Rules, but so much more needs to be done. Anti-poverty advocates need to understand how it varies across geographies and in different cultural contexts if we are to build a coordinated, planetary-scale response to the structural causes of inequality.

What is clear from preliminary studies is that attitudes to poverty in the UK, and very possibly across the Global North, are not encouraging. When we looked at all the available data and did some linguistic analysis, we found a set of very troubling underlying assumptions. The soup, you might say, was off.

The whole study can be seen here, but in summary most people conceive of global poverty as an issue 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. In this common sense, agency lies 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. It is in the photos of starving children in fund-raising advertisements; in pop concerts designed to raise a few million pounds or dollars; and in nonprofit charity shops where secondhand goods are bought and sold cheaply that this common sense of poverty is perpetuated.

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 negative, judgemental or paternalistic frames, you can feel it. What might be more surprising is some of what we found when we looked more at the global picture.

The need for a creation story

One of the major discoveries from our research 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 there is a gaping hole in the logic that stands in the way of commensurate action to tackle it. In other words, because there is no commonly understood creation story, 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 follows. For example, the Story of Original Sin from the Abrahamic religious tradition tells us where human fallibility came from – an apple plucked from the Tree of Knowledge by an unwitting woman in the Garden of Eden. It offers a historic context from which all evil sprang forth onto the world in a moment of human weakness. And it does so with such memorable visual concreteness that most of us can recite the entire tale thousands of years after it was first written down.

Poverty, as we talk about it today, has no creation story. It lacks a commonly understood cause. And so there is no logical solution for how to end it. In other words, there is no mental architecture that helps us intuit and envision it ever being eradicated. To succeed at changing this common sense, anti-poverty groups will need to introduce a creation story

Shifting the narrative of poverty

So where does poverty come from? An in-depth answer to this question is not within 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. We have recently launched a new organisation, /The Rules, to embody and promote this common sense in the operational setting of campaigns and collective actions.

Empowered with this creation story, we can mobilise around concrete goals that readily make sense within the context of the economy as a cooperative game. Employing this commonplace frame to make sense of our collective experience, we are able to tell a story about the unfair policy structures that were set up intentionally by a recognisable cohort of people to extract wealth and pool it in their personal coffers. It was this common sense that fuelled the Occupy Movement in 2012, enabling it to spread from a tiny park in New York to the world stage in a few short weeks – the frame used was already widely shared in the minds of people everywhere. We are now deploying it as a narrative vehicle to deliver what we believe to be deep truths about the state of the world we are living in today.

By framing mass poverty as something that is created by human beings, what we do is fill a crucial hole in the logic for the common sense of poverty. And once this hole is filled, all sorts of new options become more concrete and apparent. Immediately, 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.

Deliberate and mindful framing is essential to effective communication. We are at base camp of a mountain of knowledge that should be considered critical to anyone interested in shifting narratives and common sense, including around poverty. At /The Rules we are working to put this knowledge to use in what will be a long uphill battle against entrenched powers that benefit from the status quo. But before we can succeed against them, we have to deeply and thoroughly understand ourselves.

If we are to transform the political and economic 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 for communication and engagement. The knowledge exists today for us to begin down this long road to cultural change that we believe to be a prerequisite for success.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com

For further reading around the subject see:

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Comments

For a refreshing counter to this preoccupation with poverty as a human condition, a fellow Briton has written on this same topic, but focused on the question:"how prosperity evolves".  His name is Matt Ridley and the book where his thoughts on poverty vs. prosperity are laid out very clearly is, "The Rational Optimist".  It seems to me that he is on to something.  Having lived in Africa much of my life, I have reflected on these questions most of that time. I ask: Why not concentrate on figuring out how prosperity evolved in human history and draw some lessons from that.  Then one can look at various countries struggling with poverty...or the other side of that coin...a lack of prosperity...and see what lessons of history can be applied.  Surely it makes sense to learn from 3000  or more years of recorded history and even longer into unrecorded history that is understood through archeology and similar methods.  There have been many, many stories of great growth of prosperity in relative terms and subsequent regress.  Why?  Matt Ridley has studied these stories in great detail and brought some simple principles out of this "economic history" study.  I have found that it fits with my lifetime of observations in Africa and elsewhere.  In order to think positively about the future of the world and the inequality that exists between the rich and the poor worlds, why not focus on ideas that work, that create prosperity, and encourage the poor to believe that they can rise up out of poverty.  They must demand good government, equal opportunity for both sexes in school and jobs and legal protection, they must demand that the rule of law is respected so that their hard work is not taken away by unscrupulous parties willing to use intimidation and force.  And, yes, they must demand that private property is protected, that it can be transferred by mutual agreement, and that agreements(contracts) are enforceable by the court system.  When these conditions are present, the creative and intellectual force of humankind can be released and amazing things will happen.  We are actually seeing this happen right now in the so called BRIC countries.I remain optimistic about the possibilities for Africa.  No, they will not all advance in lockstep together; some will falter while others surge ahead.  But that has always happened in human history...it is our responsibility in the rich world to encourage those processes that work to create prosperity and so what we can(sometimes little) to discourage negative practices that prevent the people from prospering.  A seed planted in good soil can be watered, fertilized, and tended...but we cannot create the growth.  It must occur by it's own internal drivers, encouraged by well wishers from without.  But, let us not get in the way of growth; that would be a crime!

Thanks for the comment, Paul. Yes, I'm familiar with Matt Ridley's work. I think it's great, and he has a lot of very important insights. And I agree that there is a lot that can be done with positive stories, with focussing on benefits and being optimistic and hopeful. What we're talking about above doesn't stand in opposition to that at all, in my mind. In fact, at The Rules, we use a mix of positive and oppositional stories to underpin our campaigns. I wouldn't say that there is no place for poverty-focussed narratives, though. And we shouldn't ignore where there are dangers with some positive narratives, too. Think about The American Dream - with hard work you can achieve anything. It is the quintessential example of what you are talking about. It is one of the foundational cultural 'myths' (i.e. unifying stories, not necessarily falsehood, before anyone from America screams at me) of America. And it is in many ways a wonderful thing. But look how it can be warped, and co-opted to excuse extreme inequality, obsessive focus on insatiable profit and economic growth at all costs (where economic growth fits in the logic of poverty and inequality is a very interesting point, and one I don't think we can cover in comments. Simply put, my view is that aggregate economic growth = unequivocal good is not sustained by the evidence. Which is not the same as saying we should not strive towards positive and sustainable growth, only that we should not treat economic growth, in itself, as a panacea). More than anything, the article is an appeal to learning. To know ourselves better. To understand the mission-critical power, and the inherent weaknesses, of our cognition and logic, and realise where we can do better in the service of greater common good. 

The "greater common good" has taken on a life of its' own. Greater can mean many things, to many different people around our globe. Common good can be defined many ways, bymany different people around our globe. Poverty and prosperity are acceptable terms tomany different people around our globe.

Repetitive words uttered simply to calm the masses, history has taught all of us well. To learn from history we must take another course. To act will take strength and courage. To change requires no words, for words are the chains. To breathe the air, to drink the water, to grow and eat the food, to sleep well at days end, that is all we ever need do.

How much does a prosperous person need? Just a little more.
How much does a person in poverty need? Just a little more.

What does any human being need? Air, water, food and sleep.

What energy commodity exists on our globe in seemingly endless supply?

Us. Human beings.

We are the "product".

More than 3.5 billion people on this planet live under poverty whilst the top 1% eg: the Rockefellers, Rothschilds, Royal family of England and ofcourse the Fortune 500 companies own 98 % of the worlds wealth.The problem of poverty stems from the fact that these oligarchical blood lines have always had the ambition of ruling the world by controlling the basic needs of survival i.e food, water, money, security and governments. In their quest to achieve global dominance they have created structures in society where a few at the top are the masters and rest of us are slaves. In order to control the rest of the population, they have bullied the governments worldwide to bend the rules which favor them such as tax evasion, no corporate socio-responsibility, no community building in countries from which they acquire labor and raw materials at dirt cheap prices.They use organizations such as the UN, IMF, Worlbank and secure loans to third world countires worldwide on the pretext of development and burry them in the debt cycle thereby ensuring a continuous supply of raw materials needed to expand their global empires. In countries like the US, UK and rest of the developed nations they have used the power of the federal reserve, wall street and other avenues to gamble with people's money and when they lost the bet, they forced the govt's to bail them out and further push nations into economic hardship.In countries where they havent been able to stamp their authority or have their own way, they have waged wars to secure oil contracts for companies like Exxon, Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Halliburton to achieve their own energy security and keep the shareholders happy.They have tried to control the global food supply by forcing GMO's on countries which have been able to produce food organically. Corporations like Monsanto, Bayer, Dupont, Dow and Sygenta are on the verge on taking control of entire global food supply by deciet, power and influence. This has not only increased the cost for the poor farmers but have forced thousands of them in countries like India, Mexico and other developing nations and even farmers within the United States and Canada on the verge of bankruptcy and ultimately suicide.Water is the essence of life which was freely and naturally available, but not any more. Companies like Coca cola, Pepsico, Nestle, Suez etc have made bilions by selling water and taking control of water resources in many countries.Corporations for their own greed and profit making and ultimately power mongering have pushed millions of people into poverty and this situation will only get worse. They have gotten all the tax breaks and bailouts while taxes on the middle and lower income groups keeps on increasing. They have mansions while ordinary people are loosing homes and are on the streets. They get the multi-million $ bonuses and pay rise and vacations while the rest are struggling to earn a minimum wage.This socio-economic disparity will continue to rise until the oligarchs of society change their mindset or the govt. finally takes control and stops these bullies from destroying our very fabric of society.The elite believe in the concept of Eugenics, where the elite blood lines thrive and rule and the rest try to survive and be enslaved.