Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Artificial Imposition of Poverty

Most of the world's poverty is not self-inflicted, yet apparently many seem to think it is.

My experience, living in Africa, tells me otherwise. Much of global poverty is imposed and I don't mean by evil "multi-national corporations" or "globalization." Those myths are easily debunked. The real causes of poverty in these nations are not hard to find.

First, however, I'd like to start with what is not the cause of poverty. People in poor nations are not poor because they lack ambition or are lazy.

When I first moved to Africa, I lived in small apartment. Almost immediately upon moving in there was a knock on the door. A woman asked if she could have a job cleaning for me. The idea was foreign to me. I even had negative emotions about people "exploiting" the poor and hiring them at low wages. I declined, but she begged. She insisted she was a hard worker. My dilemma was that I didn't have a lot of money. I told her that. She named a wage that seemed ridiculously low.

I could not pay her what I thought to be a decent wage. Yet, by refusing her services I was sending her away with nothing. Clearly, she did not agree with my evaluation of the situation. I relented and hired her.

When I moved to a house, the same thing happened. A woman with a child appeared at my door looking for work. She had no home and was staying in a small "maid's quarters" with another women she knew. The child was a grandchild that she cared for. I agreed to hire her without a second thought and then she asked if I had a place for her to live. There was a small building behind the house, with storage on the ground level and two rooms above it. I thought it insufficient but it was all I had to offer. She thought it fantastic and started clapping her hands with joy when she looked at it. It was a huge improvement for her.

I regularly had people asking for work, while few asked for hand-outs. These people were willing to work. In the streets of the city, I would pass hundreds of hawkers, with blankets on the ground, or just cardboard. They would have paper plates of tomatoes or potatoes or some other vegetable. Some sold handicrafts. They would sit on the ground from early morning until it was dark, trying to earn what most Westerners would see as small change.

Outside the cities, the industriousness of the poor was more apparent. In rural areas, women would walk long distances for water. Their homes, sometimes barely shelters at all, were built by themselves, as best they could. There were villages I would drive by, with every home built by the people who lived in them. People would plant small gardens to grow food. Some just planted flowers to make the desolation a bit more bearable.

But here is what else I saw. Periodically, the police would sweep through the cities confiscating all the goods hawkers were trying to sell. Hundreds at a time would lose everything they had, because they didn't have permits to sell their goods. Nor did the legal system recognize their property rights. It was not unheard of for governments to send in bulldozers and level entire villages because no land titles were held.

Read the rest of this column at Huffington Post.

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