What do you think of when you think of extreme poverty? Do you think of a person huddling under an awning on a downtown corner? Or a mud hut surrounded by children in tattered clothing and empty plates? Both demonstrate poverty: a complex issue that provokes deep thought and a need for understanding.
Poverty is commonly defined as living in a deficit: lacking enough resources to provide the necessities of life – food, clean water, shelter, clothing, education, and healthcare. However, studies throughout the 2000’s show us poverty is more than “not having enough”. In his book “Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practice of Transformational Development” Bryant L. Myers’s definition of poverty is my favourite, as it moves beyond defining poverty as a deficit to looking at it holistically. He defines poverty as broken relationship with self, with others, with creation and with God. Humanity and creation are not living in harmony the way we were created to be. The more broken a relationship with self, others, creation and God is, the more poverty a person feels. This encapsulating view of poverty creates space for a holistic response to promote whole living; as Bryant calls it, Transformational Development. HFL’s Kenyan partner, Bishop Silas Odour explains in his own experience poverty comes when a person feels hopeless (broken relationship with self) and resents those who have (broken relationship with others) and can’t change their circumstance (broken relationship with environment) to make their lives better.
We know poverty exists everywhere, it is both visible and invisible. Almost every day behind my office I see people existing on the fringe, unable to provide for their own basic needs. When traveling one sees vendors trying to scratch out a living selling their wares while the children bus for change. While it is important to recognize that poverty exists in Canada, it is equally important to acknowledge that there are public support structures in place to help people out of poverty. The road out is far from easy and the process often flawed, however, living in Canada does grant one access to support if they so choose. It is estimated that 3% of Canada’s population lives in extreme poverty whereas 40% of the population of sub-Sahara Africa lives in extreme poverty. An obvious disparity between these two numbers, so why the gap? How do communities around the globe survive when their members don’t have the support of a public framework to give that hand up when needed? How do these people survive their circumstances of extreme poverty? The goal of this article is to look at that very question, how does one survive extreme poverty when the social system has failed and there is no access to any public means of support.
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Why the gap?
The causes of poverty are multifaceted. They are both internal and external with natural and human contributing. Consider this article that summarizes 11 causes of poverty around the world. Many of the poorest nations in the world were former colonies from which resources had been systematically extracted for the benefit of the colonizing countries leaving indigenous members little or no ability to access land, capital, education, and other resources that allowed people to sustain themselves adequately. In addition to complex histories, poor countries are prevalent with inequality, conflict, lack of food security, lack of education, lack of sanitation & clean water, poor social support systems and corrupt governments. And in recent years climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic has also pushed more people into economic despair. World Bank article on Threats to Poverty Reduction.
People living in extreme poverty may be able to climb out if they are only contending with a few of the factors listed above; such is the case with Canada and most of the communities within its borders. However, most of the globe’s poor communities face multiple, if not all, of these poverty risk factors daily. Hence, countries struggle with the problem of extreme poverty where the majority of the population is affected.
The rest of this article will focus on communities living within the framework of risk factors listed above. I went on a quest to find out how members of extremely poor communities survive day to day, when there is so much instability and disparity that surrounds them. Also, how they can lift themselves out of their poverty situations. Much to my suspicions, I could not find many scholarly articles that gave a good insight into this topic, so again I turned to HFL’s partners living and working in vulnerable communities and asked them to share their stories. Some things I learned surprised me and some things I already expected. What I didn’t expect at all was the gift and responsibility of this quest. I had the gift of hearing amazing stories of hope, struggle and resilience, and now I have the humbling privilege to share it.
Discoveries: What our partners had to say
The supports people have living in extreme poverty really varies by development level in the country and how akin a government feels about supporting its members. Tribalism in the case of Kenya and Uganda play a role in access to programs and government supports. The same beast with a different name does the same in places like Ukraine and Peru. In all cases there is unequal distribution of resources, if there is any distribution of resources at all.
Take Peru for example. In the case of the Quechua people the government has a program that offers a stipend of 125 Sol per month (approximately $33 USD, the median income for sustainable living in Peru is about 1300 Soles per month) for the adults 65 year of age or older. However, in order to collect that stipend, there has to be a government office in that community, otherwise that person has to travel to the nearest city with a government building. Often this is a 3 hour plus trek through rugged terrain. The journey is hard and often includes many expenses. Similarly, Peru has a family support program. Eligible Quechua families are able to receive 100 Sol per month, with the condition that their children are enrolled and attend school that the family is registered with the national health care service. This is problematic however, as there are no schools or health care centres in many Quechua communities. Families must decide if they will move to a larger community with more services, send their children away to attend school, or choose not to collect much needed funds to help with survival.
Most countries where HFL works have very little government supports for its citizens if any. Regularly, people in power take advantage of the vulnerable population. The situation in Cambodia is dire for the extremely poor. Corrupt government has an iron grip of control on the people of Cambodia. So much so that the population lives in constant fear and suspicion. The government wants to rid poor communities from its cities to use the land for development or take action to demonstrate their power. Poor communities are often blockaded with restricted access in and out, on a whim a neighbourhood is flattened and all the members immediately homeless. People live with an ever-present feeling of instability. Those who do rise against injustice often go missing. Families have to bribe teachers to allow their children to attend schools. In this country the government works against its people to serve its own purposes.
Social oppression and systemic discrimination perpetuate the cycle of poverty. This is the systematic mistreatment, exploitation and abuse of a people group and unfortunately is the living experience of many in at risk communities. The situation many Cambodians face is a prime example of how social oppression by the government has led to instability forcing many citizens into poverty. The government works against its people to serve its own purposes through means of aggression, unjustified and violent land appropriation and taking bribes for access to public services such as education. People subjected to this misuse of power have suitable shelter one day and are homeless the next without the economic means to access any resources to make their lives better. The overall result is not just physical poverty but also living under fear and oppression resulting in worse health and higher mortality rates.
Without social security what supports do at risk people have?
Where governments have failed or are under resourced to support their citizens, NGO’s (Non-Government Organizations) have stepped in to fulfill the parts of a social support role. For example, in Haiti approximately 85% of schools are operated by private organizations. Disadvantaged communities have come to rely on NGO’s support through their local leaders or churches to provide food staples to those in extreme need. Temporarily needs are provided for, but considerable support is required for those living day to day. All partners interviewed told me food is the most immediate need for those living in extreme poverty. Food is the basis of survival.
Vulnerable communities throughout developing nations rely heavily on NGO’s for food, health care, education, sanitation and clean water. Unfortunately, throughout the late 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s NGO’s focus solely on suffering alleviation has unintentionally perpetuated a poverty mindset where people have learned to rely on others to change their circumstances. There has been a slight shift where the focus is moving to sustainable development, but many NGO’s and religious groups still proceed in ignorance, and don’t contribute to sustainable long term poverty relief.
The reach of NGO’s has gone beyond immediate suffering alleviation. The UN has stepped in as a ruling authority to help countries attain their global goals, the top 6 being:
These are all good things in concept but looking deeper there is a power differential that is created when NGO groups step in. Power of decision making and implementation is taken away from the indigenous leaders, this can contribute to a feeling of shame that they can’t help their own communities, or the opposite can happen and community leaders find themselves in position of power where they now have access to a seemingly endless piggy bank to do their bidding and they exploit their power in interactions with beneficiaries. Regardless, the relationship between aid givers and community leaders is complicated. If aid groups are not careful, they too can find themselves caught in traps of supporting bad government to get a good job done, bribe paying, supporting discrimination, creating dependency, and unknowingly prolonging the poverty cycle.
In some communities we see models of communal living as a support mechanism. This is most apparent in communities that have a value for the collective. In these collective minded communities it is often a group of a few neighbours looking our for each other. They may find work together and share their earnings or borrow from each other. However, this model only works when there is trust between neighbours and the relationship is reciprocal. Everlyne (Imbenzi Foundation, Kenya) tells me that while some community members help each other out, there is a risk of creating a power differential and the members receiving help are in servitude of the “help” givers.
The Roma people of Ukraine operate in a way where the community works together supporting each other as an entity. However, if members don’t “pull their weight” they are excommunicated from the community and left to fend for themselves. In my discussions I noticed that there was a difference between the urban poor and the rural poor. Rural communities seem to embrace communal reciprocity more than neighbourhoods in urban settings. Where this is different is with the Quechua in Peru. Most Quechua don’t help their community members personally, they believe that is up to each individual. The community is only interested in matters that affect the community. For example, if a person was sick and couldn’t afford the medicine they needed, that person would likely sell something they had of value, such as livestock, to pay for the medicine. This puts their future earnings at risk in order to uphold the need of providing care for oneself.
The COVID-19 pandemic did see more communities come together to support each other but after two years this is waning. Job loss due to the pandemic was more impacting on the extreme poor than the virus itself. As industry shut down in urban areas, people migrated back to their rural roots where they could rely on the agriculture of their family members to help sustain them. Rural communities rely almost exclusively an agriculture to sustain their families and derive an income.
Families are the core support mechanism to survive extreme poverty. Even though alcoholism, domestic and sexual abuse are rampant in families living with extreme scarcity, families still rely on each other for support and survival. Again, going to our Quechua example, most families have a minimum of 4-5 children with the intention of creating a work force for their family farm. Many children leave home at the age of 12 because of a dysfunctional home life. Fortunate students who are educated and can find jobs in larger cities will cut themselves off from their families in rural areas, but this only lasts for a time. These kids are drawn by deep obligation to care for their family members, whether that is sending meagre earnings back home or bringing younger siblings to live with them in the city so they can provide for them.
In Ukraine many people leave the country to work and they send their pay back to their homeland to help support aging parents or younger siblings. In most cases this is the only way for the elderly to survive. The government provides a small retirement fund to elderly people of approximately 2700 Hryvnia (equal to approximately $100 USD). This amount does not even cover an average heating bill in the winter of a 2-bedroom apartment shared by a multi generational family.
Sharing wealth to support family members is the strongest and most consistent support mechanism among all communities discussed. However, this too has its limits. The expectations for relatives who have managed to find sustainable income are weighed down with the extensive responsibility to care for their families. I was surprised to learn of a story in Haiti where some preferred not to work because the burden of extended family was too great for them to bear. Good Haitian friends of my colleague had moved from a rural village into Port-au-Prince. They were destitute but managed to find work after a time. Throughout the time of the destitution, they did not hear from their family still living in the mountains. However, once these friends started earning money the relationship and communication picked up again as the family expected money to be sent in support of those who didn’t have employment. My colleague observed that if a person is not contributing in any way, the poor may be despised, ignored and sometimes neglected…Proverbs 19:7 says “The relatives of the poor despise them; how much more will their friends avoid them! Though the poor plead with them, their friends are gone.” (New Living Translation). Families and the odd neighbourhood offer support to their members, but this is short lived if there is no mutuality.
Finally, there are those who have no support mechanism. They are either alone or with their nuclear family and are forced to scratch out a survival by any means necessary. People living in these situations lose the discerning ability to determine right from wrong as their primary motivation is survival by any means necessary. Theft often becomes a means of survival. Drug and alcohol abuse also provide an escape and are used to cope. Survival for the extremely poor means they must make hard choice daily and face difficult living situations. In order to endure many must forgo regular meals, clean water and sanitation, and safe shelter. They are forced to borrow and put their families in debt to provide food.
You may ask yourself, why don’t people make a choice to change their situation?
The solution to poverty is only simple from a distance. Parts of poverty are endemic. People are born into multigenerational poverty and have absolutely no way of getting themselves out unless there is an intervention for them. Parents lack education themselves and don’t have the ability to even see a different way of living. Groups that have been oppressed for generations have become comfortable in their poverty and the fight for something better is gone from them. Some communities have become dependent on handouts and don’t have the ability to sustain themselves. Constant malnourishment has caused stunting and people do not have the capability to learn new ways of living. External environments also keep people in poverty. Such examples include government oppression in Cambodia, conflict in the middle east, climate change in sub-Sahara Africa, the COVID pandemic. Access to jobs and education also limit one's ability to climb out of poverty.
What will it take?
According to one Kenyan partner whose own story is one of survival and escape from the trenches of extreme poverty; all of these situations lead to two perspectives: either hopelessness or a breaking point where somebody starts looking for opportunities to change. I asked interviewees what it would take to change this overwhelming problem in their own communities. While the answers were varied there was a similar theme.
A Spiritual renewal of the mind and spirit. Somehow people need to realize their own need for change and break free from a poverty mindset. Once this happens possibilities start to surface.
People need to see members of their own communities rise out of poverty and tell their story of success. This breeds hope and a feeling of “I can do that too”. When individuals rise-up, it inspires the community and a movement can start where people will work to better themselves.
Good education. Equipping the younger generation with useable skills will create a means for them to support themselves. In addition, helping adults acquire employable skill sets is important. Once parents see the value of education, they will continue to promote it in their children.
Food security and job opportunities.
Access to clean water. It is usually a child’s task to fetch water for their family. Often the water source is many kilometres away and the hours spent walking take away from time a child can be in school. As well, these hidden pathways put women and children at risk to acts of violence.
Leader development and accountability. Local problems have local solutions. Community leaders understand their context better than westerners ever will. What national leaders need is training and support in how to lead effectively.
Fight against injustice and racism. I asked Sarady (Dove, Cambodia) what can we do in the west? Her answer (and this was echoed by multiple partners) was to use our voice to speak out against the atrocities happening. For some living in oppression silence is the only means of survival and they depend on us to be a voice to our own spheres of influence about the situation going on around the globe.
This journey of discovery evoked a lot of emotion both in me and the partners I had the privilege of hearing from. Poverty is complex, and while there are some supports for people to hold onto for survival, there are not a lot of opportunities for people to thrive. These discussions instilled in me a deeper sense that those of us living in nations of privilege have a responsibility before God and our fellow humans to seek justice and work to alleviate needless suffering. Pastor Silas left me with this quote which sums up the feeling quite well, “Sometimes those in the ditch have nothing to grasp and all they need is a hand to climb out.” We have to offer the best hand.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions for HFL’s partners across the globe for their input into this article. Bishop Silas Oduor (Christ Glory Center, Kenya), Everlyne Imbenzi (Imbenzi Foundation, Kenya), Marc Honorat (Haiti Arise, Haiti), Milagros Alluaca (Atek, Peru), , and Sarady Na (Dove, Cambodia). As well I would like to thank Wilhelmina Krul (HFL staff) for her insights and sharing her experiences while living in Haiti and Mary Martz (HFL staff and Ukrainian national).