Monday, 9 November 2015

The poverty blame game that we cannot afford to continue

My heart sank when I read an illustrious Professor in Samoa joined the ranks of those who continue to blame the poor for their poverty. This negative - lens approach is not only disempowering, but also contributes  to a greater misunderstanding about the multidimensional nature of poverty, and to the inflation of some of the worst myths and stereotypes we have about our own people (simply lazy, that's why they are poor) hampering any genuine attempts to greater understand this in critical depth, also undermining  attempts  to mobilize social support in initiating change within our communities.
In reading this article I wasn't fully sure what point Professor Viali was trying to make. In his attempt to provide a level headed analysis of the current situation of 'poverty' in Samoa, he leaves out some fundamental points about the nature of poverty which leaves room for misinterpretation.

“Everyone cannot be rich, so we need the poor in society to continue to drive social policy of our country, we need that.
“When there is no poverty we suffer because that part of us that requires giving to the poor is missing. “Giving and feeding the poor is absolutely necessary for our psyche.”

What the Professor should have pointed out is that under capitalist neoliberalism this assertion that societies need people to remain as the underclass is true. Capitalism is predisposed to function successfully where there is an underclass to support and buttress the wealth of the rich. That is fundamentally how it works. This would probably be a somewhat accurate depiction of Samoa given the current economic modus operandi..... however I think it is somewhat misleading to then say traditional models of kinship and subsistence farming are the answers to addressing poverty; these are after all the traditional social institutions which have been compromised thanks to the hand of the free market and ongoing globalization.

Indeed, in responding to claims of poverty most Pacific people will tell you that our cultures and societies had never heard of such a thing, and that poverty is the antithesis of how our societies and social relationships were traditionally structured and organised. This well rehearsed notion which figures in many a study about Poverty in the Pacific is at times over romanticized, and is still being used to justify our social stances against people who we consider to be lazy, and as a consequence of that laziness, poor. "Giving and feeding" are core aspects of the reciprocal  nature our culture, but I disagree with the assertion that people need to be poor so we can feel better about ourselves. This I believe to be the remnants of our colonial past, indoctrinated by the church and then adopted uncritically within our cultures.

Professor Viali does make a couple of claims that most people will agree with; the problematic nature in which development projects/assistance are structured and that of the prevalence of relative poverty vs absolute poverty in Samoa (great to read that the Ombudsman's office is currently working on collecting extensive data on all forms of poverty in Samoa).

However, the article also fails to elaborate on this concept of 'relative poverty' - the discussion should of then moved on to consider the implications of 'income inequality' in Samoa as the instigator of relative poverty, highlighting that the trickle down effects of neoliberal economics and development have failed; to trickle down that is with wealth largely concentrated  within the hands of a select few. But this is the problematic nature of this concept of 'relative poverty' being assessed within the context of the economic reality and the social and cultural perceptions of poverty on Samoa. Those who 'have' lament the plight of the 'have-nots' with little understanding (and perhaps little care) about the impact of structural (economic, cultural,  historical) forces and how these shape the unequal playing field we all must operate within and negotiate.

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently said in an interview that he had a hard time growing up when his father gave him a small loan of US $1 Million to begin his business. In his small world (and mind) of the ridiculously wealthy, that amount of money is probably considered small, but it just goes to show how we as humans can manipulate words and their meanings to suit our individual purposes.

Edwin Tamasese recently highlighted the costs of cash crop farming and agriculture in Samoa is beyond the reach of most local farmers, who are further  disadvantaged by their lack of access to capital. Lazy we say? Parents whose children are on the streets as vendors who wish to forgo rural lifestyles to pursue urban opportunities against a system which says "you do not have a place here, where is your land and why are you not working it? "- Again we say Lazy. At the end of the day we all have an agenda. It is unfortunate however that the agenda of this rhetoric is to maintain the status quo so that 'we' can revel in our 'wealth' and ensuing powers of access, opportunity and choice, and then use this advantage to look distastefully at those who lack and are working their hardest to address this, effectively keeping people in poverty. (Downward envy much).

What gains do we make from constantly belittling and labeling people as lazy? How are we within the comfort of our own relative wealth justified to then pass judgement on others who do not enjoy the same freedoms and accessibilities in life?

We all know that communities of people who are constantly told negative things about themselves tend to internalise and adopt these identities, which then shapes wider social perceptions and thus our responses. We can achieve so much more with a positive and more understanding approach and realising our roles are not as judges upon this earth but as fellow citizens committed to a fair realization of social justice for all!!

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