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Develop me: Is poverty what you know you don’t have or what they say you don’t have?


It is almost impossible to define development without understanding poverty because absence of one is the presence of the other.

Reaching a common and universally agreeable definition of poverty is not only a mammoth task, but a controversial one. Unless people understand the intricacies of poverty, it is hard to escape it.

As Africans, we have accepted to be seen as poor based on indicators and frames which are foreign to us.

And we have adopted the philosophy of development at face value, parochially as gospel truth without challenging it.

Of course, when you look at people dying of hunger in Somalia, this argument may sound fallacious, but experience shows that success follows those who forge or stick to their own ways than those who follow.

Understanding poverty is not an easy task, because as products of colonial orientation, we have been socialised not to understand it, but to believe in it.

We are poor because there are so many of us who believe in certain factors that define poverty. Human kind has never been good at challenging beliefs.
Perhaps before defining poverty, let’s ask a few questions.

Is poverty what you know you don’t have or what they say you don’t have? Is poverty what you have been socialised to think you don’t have or things that you need to have?

Wikipedia provides a basic definition of poverty as the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money.

If you believe this, then Adam and Eve were poor from creation notwithstanding the rich garden in which they domiciled.

In fact they didn’t have to posses anything. Wikipedia elaborates further by stating that absolute poverty or destitution is inability to afford basic human needs, which includes clean and fresh water, nutrition, healthcare, education, clothing and shelter.

The second definition gives one enough meat to chew on. I base my argument on basic human needs.

Of interest in the fight against what we have been made to believe is poverty, is the framing of the concepts of basic human needs.

This to a great extent has created unnecessary pressure, expectations, anxiety and is a source of conflict among many African countries.

Let’s take Somalia, for example. The country is currently faced with the worst food crisis in recent history. Thousands of lives are in danger if food is not provided urgently.

In a country where traditional meals were meat-based you would expect non- governmental organisations to be providing cows, goats and sheep to the starving people, but alas, they are sending in cereals which were introduced to their diet by the Italians, French and British many decades ago.

So drought and poverty are shaped by the absence or failure of a food type which is foreign to or unsustainable to Somaliland.

And if they had continued with their meat-based meals, drought would mean failure of pastures not of crops.

It is the same with many African countries, including Zimbabwe, where we are socialised to believe that Western concepts of development hold more value than our own hence they impose poverty on us because we want to be like them.

If they decide today to make iPads a basic human need, then the entire country will be poor of iPads.
A villager who owns a thousand cattle is seen as poorer than an urbanite that drives a car.

A person who eats wild fruit for vitamin C, no matter how nutritious they are, is seen as desperate unless they buy oranges and apples.

Mopane worms are among the most nutritious delicacies and yet many fly-by-night food security experts see them as desperate measures, which warrant food aid intervention.

A country with a low literacy level is also considered poor. Literacy is seen here as the ability to read, write and count in a language foreign to us and yet we know that each society has its own cultural way of doing so.

Conclusively, we are poor because we lack the Western attributes that define basic human needs not necessarily that we lack what we need.

China has refused to budge and today the world is forced to accept mandarin as one of the main languages.

Some are even learning how to eat like them. That’s how parochial we have become. China is successful because they refuse to be defined.

That African life is built around its natural environment does not matter for as long as we are not living the same life as New York or London then we will remain poor in their eyes.

But even in the process of being dragged into the Western way of life, there are some limits. And again, only big brother China has broken the limits with ease, style and success.

At a recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit US President Barack Obama cautioned his Chinese counterpart by stating that China must play by international rules when it comes to trade and must stop poaching US intellectual property.

“For an economy like the United States — where our biggest competitive advantage is our knowledge, our innovation, our patents, our copyrights — for us not to get the kind of protection we need in a large marketplace like China is not acceptable,” said Obama.

In simpler terms the US is saying stop being successful by stealing from us. But does China care? They refuse to be defined.

There you have it. If they control your poverty then they can control how far you can develop, but if you understand your poverty, you can achieve your goals. Ask China.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa

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