Poverty ‧ Masters


Yashi Ghai

Nature of poverty

Poverty is not, as some imagine, an original state, nor are the poor the victims of their own faults and weaknesses. Nor is it due to shortcomings in personality or morality, or failures in family or upbringing. Poverty is created by societies and governments. Poverty is experienced as individuals, family and communities, although traditionally the focus in poverty studies has been the individual or family. It is now necessary to focus on the community and indeed the state, for poverty is embedded in complex of policies, interactions and relationships.

Poverty is self-sustaining. In the modern economy, once a person or group is caught in its trap, it is hard to escape the cycle of poverty. It destroys self-confidence and the capacity to organize collective action and response. Current policies connected with economic globalisation, which include the privatisation of state resources and functions, and the introduction of charges even for the most basic needs reinforce the cycle of poverty by cutting off possibilities of social mobility. A powerful economic and political class emerges on the back of this poverty, with no interest in social reform, creating further obstacles to equitable distribution of resources. In this way poverty leads to social exclusion.

Poverty and human rights

Poverty is about exclusion, physical and economic insecurity, fear of the future, a constant sense of vulnerability. This definition of poverty is sustained by the concept of human rights, which, with its overriding theme of human dignity, alerts us to the multiple dimensions of the human person. Indeed to secure an insight into the nature of poverty we should examine the ways in which poverty negates the realisation or enjoyment of human rights. The essential purpose of human rights, a life in dignity, is rendered impossible by poverty. The daily struggles of the poor constantly humiliate them and register for them their helplessness in the face of state and economy. There is no real possibility of enjoying rights, whether civil and political or social, economic and cultural, without resources such as education, physical security, health, employment, property, participation, and due process—all of which poverty negates. In poverty there can be no control over one’s life chances or even everyday life.

Poverty and human dignity

Poverty is a mockery of the concept of the ‘autonomous individual’ which lies at the heart of the dominant tradition of human rights. Existence in hovels without the basic amenities of life allows no time or ability for self-reflection, essential for identity, self- realisation, or making moral judgments. The massive dependence that arises from poverty generates habits of subservience and docility, reinforcing a hierarchy in social and economic relations that denies, as do other aspects of poverty, the underlying premise of the equality and dignity of all persons. Poverty also forces persons into slavery and bondage, and stories of parents selling children into slavery out of desperation are now common place in states like India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria—and many other parts of the world. A poor man cannot support his family and tends to draw away from it, burdening the wife with additional responsibilities to sustain the family; poverty creates or reinforces divisions within the family, in which the male members get priority over scarce family resources. In this and other ways, poverty subverts decent and fulfilling family life, at the same time as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls the family the natural and fundamental group unit of society which is entitled to protection by society and the state.

The corrosive impact of poverty

Poverty not only deprives and demeans those who are poor. It also affects the affluent—and society generally. It sharpens inequalities and therefore divides communities. It leads to enormous problems of crime, law and order, as the poor resort to various forms of self-help to eke out a living, including thefts and robberies. Security becomes an obsession for the middle classes, turning their suburbs into fortresses. The slums that grow out of poverty breed diseases and environmental degradation that can scarcely be contained within the confines of the slums. In the modern age where the images of the life of the affluent daily assault all, poverty poses a major threat to social consensus and political stability. Even more fundamentally, poverty erodes the moral fibre and the moral cohesion of a society. It destroys the self-confidence of the people caught in the cycle of poverty, and leads to the waste of human and other resources. We have yet to examine fully the social and moral implications of allowing poverty, homelessness, and widening inequality to destroy the lives of vast numbers of people and at the waste of human potential caused by poverty. Nor can these consequences be restricted to the confines of that country where poverty is pervasive— despite bans on immigrants and refugees, anti-terrorist legislation and quarantine regulations.

Poverty and ideology in Hong Kong

The above reflections may seem irrelevant to Hong Kong; its prosperity in which all allegedly enjoy a decent standard of life is widely acknowledged. It is indeed the ideology of Hong Kong: a land of equal opportunities and an enterprising people, where those who work hard are richly rewarded. And it may indeed have been true at an earlier stage of its history. But over the years a group of families under the auspices of a “founder” have consolidated themselves as the bourgeoisie. Connections not talent or imagination are critical to sustain and strengthen this class. Nor is Hong Kong’s economy as laisser-faire as it is trumped up to be; influence with the government is essential to prosperity. But its ideology is used to justify the limits on the role of the state in providing social welfare.

Disparities of opportunities and incomes have increased in recent years. The elitist political system devised first by the British and then reinforced by China favours the well off. The poor can make themselves heard only by irregular demonstrations, to limited effect. Hong Kong needs fundamental social and economic reforms to ensure all its residents a decent life in dignity which is so eminently within reach, based on its wealth and resources.