My Two Cents on Poverty – Part 1

August 14th 2015

After a week of battling with Bilharzia, I’m back! (If you don’t know what Bilharzia is you should look it up, it’s gross).

Just a warning, since I only have two weeks left in East Africa the blog posts are going to be coming in fast and furious. I have a whole folder full of half written, un-posted entries to upload, and only 16 days to do it. So prepare yourselves.

Secondly, this post needs a disclaimer: I wrote a version of it a month or so ago, and then revamped it this week to submit as part of the course I’m taking while I’m here. Given that it’s for a course, it’s a little bit dry and has a lot of academic references. So I won’t be offended if you fall asleep. Also, it’s completely based on my subjective opinion as I muddle through these issues. And even though it’s referring to the Ugandan context, these same questions could be asked about anywhere in the world.

So without further ado:

Approximately half of all human beings alive today are living in severe poverty. According to the World Bank, severe poverty is defined as living on USD 2 or less per day. And on each of these days there are approximately 50,000 deaths due to poverty related causes. Therefore, poverty is arguable the greatest killer in the world.

Uganda as a country is no stranger to severe poverty. In fact, it is the third poorest country in the world. Jeremy, Shelby and I regularly see young children begging for money on the streets, or women selling mangos, hoping to make ends meet. On our visit to a school a few weeks ago – which is located in Kampala’s biggest slum – we learned that the children used to leave school at noon to go beg for their lunch. It was only after the school was given money for a lunch program that the students would stay the whole day. Such is the reality of life for many Ugandans.

Many believe that severe poverty is a violation of human rights. At the organization I work for here for example, access to affordable food in adequate quantities is seen as a fundamental right. The staff there work tirelessly to ensure that Uganda moves towards food security for all. If a person is too poor to buy food, then that poverty also falls under the category of a human rights violation. According to scholar Elizabeth Ashford, the prevalence of people who lack basic necessities is the largest scale deprivation of human rights the world has ever seen. And almost anyone would agree that depriving a child of food, water, housing, or education because she lacks funds is wrong. So, although this argument could be elaborated upon, in the interest of time and space I will hold that severe poverty is a human rights violation.

Having made the above claim, the issue then becomes how to enforce this right. Thomas Pogge succinctly explains that rights have corresponding duties. These rights are only plausible if the duties attached are plausible as well. Unfortunately, it is clear that “it is not plausible to hold everyone responsible for supplying basic necessities to all other human beings who need them”. Therefore, does the human right to be free from severe poverty become void? Or do we give it our best shot, knowing that one life saved is better than none?

More importantly, in the above instance who is ‘we’? Who is responsible for making sure all human beings do not live in severe poverty? As Pogge puts it, it is not clear what human rights bind other agents to do or not to do. Ashford would take a different stance, saying that the responsibility to implement these rights lies largely with the citizens of affluent countries. She says there are two concepts of human rights: institutional and interactional. Institutions can create laws protecting human rights, but people must be the ones to implement these laws.

The problem is that in this globalized world it is hard to distinguish who has done what. How do I know whether my actions as a consumer have led to the death of a person, or people? The diversity of causes makes it hard to assign responsibility. Moreover, the causal chains do not fit our conceptions of human rights violations. For example, we have no language to penalize omissions. What punishment befits a company who pays its employees too little? If an employee dies due to poverty related causes, is that the fault of the company? Similarly, can the affluent be called violators of human rights for not helping someone living in severe poverty, through no fault of their own? There are no clear answers.

One set of guidelines for taking responsibility would be the ‘concentric circles model’ of obligations to others. Essentially, this model states that we have stronger responsibilities to people closer to others, and weaker ones to those further away. In the innermost circle is our family, followed by our friends, then a circle with our compatriots, and finally the rest of the human race falls into the outermost circle. Although W.E.H Lecky’s theory of the Expanding Circle holds that throughout history our circle of responsibility has expanded to include the entire human race, the concentric circles model claims that this responsibility is not evenly distributed. We have more obligations to those closer to us – our compatriots – than to people in other parts of the world.

I could argue for both sides of this theory. On the one hand, it is too easy to run to the developing world in order to ‘help’, and as a result you ignore the problems at home. The problems at home are harder, because as a local you understand the complexity of them. Which is the very reason why locals should be the ones to address them. No one understands the problems of a place like the people who are from there. Which is exactly why foreigners proposing shallow solutions to problems in the Global South can be problematic.

On the other hand, I agree with all of scholar Gillian Brock’s arguments for why the concentric circles model is not valid. For example, she questions the idea that we have more responsibility to our compatriots because we owe them a debt of gratitude for shaping who we are. If this is true, she says that we only owe gratitude to the small group of people who impacted our lives – teachers, friends, etc. She goes on to argue that owing responsibility to our compatriots due to our shared history is no longer valid. In an increasingly globalized world, people can share a history with cultural or religious groups that are spread across national borders. Therefore responsibility to others should be spread out as well. Through these arguments, Brock convincingly entices the reader to adopt a more cosmopolitan view.

Although Brock outlines many valid counterarguments to this theory in her article, she fails to discuss what happens when we are not surrounded by our compatriots. According to the concentric circles model, what rules apply when our compatriots are far away and our non-compatriots are close? Here in Uganda we experience this every day. We are close to the usually distant ‘other’, which according to the concentric circles model – and our morality – puts us in a good position to help. People have the right to be free from severe poverty, and we have a responsibility to others, so does that mean we have a responsibility to help alleviate their poverty? In theory, it would seem so.

But enough theory. I could spout philosophy all day and I would still feel unprepared to face the poverty I see on the streets every day, both here in Uganda and in Canada. So let me move away from the philosophizing and give some practical examples from our time here in Uganda:

The first time I was faced with severe poverty here was when a young mother approached me on the street. She came up to me, holding her baby, and started speaking to me in broken English. I smiled at her and tried to understand what she was saying. Eventually, I figured out that she was asking me to sponsor her baby. Having only been in Uganda for a week I had very little idea of what sponsorship meant. But I politely told her that I am a student who does not have the means or the connections to provide sponsorship. She did not seem to understand however, and eventually I was pulled away to go find a boda boda.

The second time I was directly approached was outside Acacia Mall. The mall is one of the nicest in Kampala. It is a hub for foreigners, and as such we always feel a bit weird going there. On this occasion we were waiting for our boda after a trip to the gym. A crowd had gathered to watch a traditional dance performance going on on the steps, and we contentedly watched from a few meters away. As we were chatting, a group of school girls were walking past. When they got close, one broke off from her friends and stopped in front of us. She asked if we had any food to eat, and when we said no she asked if we could buy her something. In our confusion we told her we were sorry but we were waiting for our boda. She walked on, and we were left to muddle through what just happened.

I was a bit stunned by the layered interaction that had just occurred in a matter of seconds. My immediate feeling was guilt. Here I was, working at an NGO that promotes the right to food, and I had just denied a sixteen year old girl a meal. I felt like such a hypocrite. How can I claim to want to do good and help others, when I had just turned down a direct request to do so? True, we were waiting for our boda, but I had used that as an excuse to avoid navigating the difficult ethical pathway that would have followed. I had taken the easy way out, and I felt ashamed.

On my way home I unpacked the complex dynamics of that brief interaction. My IDS background immediately kicked in: first, I thought about the impact buying that girl food would have had. For example, it might have reinforced the stereotype that all foreigners are wealthy. Stereotypes go both ways – just as people from North America tend to think the whole African continent is starving, people here think everyone in the West is rich. For instance, people have been shocked when we tell them that there are homeless people in big cities in Canada and the United States. So what this girl asking for food probably didn’t realize was that Shelby and I are students with debt who worry about money every day. The cost of living is much higher in Canada, so even though we are relatively rich here, back home we technically live below the poverty line.

That being said, even I, a poor student, have enough disposable income to go to a spinning class or buy a gelato. I have never gone hungry because I couldn’t afford to eat, so I can’t understand what it would feel like. So even though I do not think of myself as having much money, I can afford luxuries that many people here would not even dream of. So I do not blame the girl for approaching two foreigners as her best bet for a free meal.

Next, say I had bought the girl food (as I had been tempted to do). Then the question of dependency would have been another thing to think about. If I had gotten that girl something to eat, it would have reinforced the belief that every time she is hungry she can find a white person who will feed her. While that may not be a problem in such a small example, on a larger scale there are huge negative repercussions of countries relying on foreign aid. Recognizing this, Rwanda for example has stopped accepting foreign aid. Instead, it has imposed a small tax on its citizens that goes towards development initiatives. This example is empowering, but there are many instances where countries are overly dependent on foreign aid from the West. Therefore, even in a small scale example, dependency is something to consider.

Further, would buying food for one girl then morally obligate me to buy food for every child who asks? That solution is not sustainable for me or them. For me because I would quickly run out of money, and for them because each child would get one meal and then go hungry the next day. I have a good friend who lives in Rwanda, and her response to children begging is to tell that that she “is not a bank”. This may seem cold, especially coming from someone who has committed her life to development work. However, she explained that she does many good things for her community. For her, that is a better way to help than to give money to kids of the street. It is more sustainable and she knows it has an impact. Therefore her decision to not give money to street children is justified.

Still, I would have liked to make sure that the girl did not go to bed hungry. The fact of the matter is that I can argue the theoretical pros and cons of helping that girl all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the moment I stood there paralyzed. I can write about what I should have done, but the fact remains that I didn’t do it. My university education has taught me to think critically about the issues in the world – so much so that I cannot look at a scenario without seeing the potential negatives. As such, no solution looks perfect. But unfortunately, this results in not doing anything. I know that when you give to charity often your money goes to the wrong place, but that does not necessarily mean that you should not give. IDS students are often paralyzed by their fear of doing something wrong. Of doing ‘bad development’. But then the problem is that we end up doing nothing.

I said no to the girl asking for food because I didn’t know what damage I would do by saying yes. But even though I am reflecting now, it doesn’t change the fact that that girl went to bed hungry. If I could have prevented that, wouldn’t it be worth the risk that she now might think of Westerners as being rich? I can hear philosopher Peter Singer’s voice in my head saying “if you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you should do it”. For once I completely agree with him.

To be continued


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