In a hyper visible world, increasingly defined by transparency and raw information reaching the farthest parts of the world, it´s difficult to ignore social problems that unevenly affect populations. The reality of poverty is far from being ignored – on the contrary, it often receives so much attention, that confusion occurs paradoxically from these efforts to illuminate the cause of poverty, and imagine solutions for its eradication.

From the series The Face of Poverty, 2005 by Jan Banning.

From the series The Face of Poverty, 2005 by Jan Banning.

From the series The Face of Poverty, 2005 by Jan Banning.

From the series The Face of Poverty, 2005 by Jan Banning.

At a large scale, we witness uneven development across the globe; at a smaller, perhaps more significant scale, we find these disparities within the same social frame, where the physical closeness clashes with difference in status and income, leading to turmoil and uprisings. A re-evaluation of dominant concepts of value is necessary, to reduce the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest of a society: acceleration, profit, gain, worth, expansion, wealth – these are all concepts that lack common referents for older and younger generations, especially in countries without a strong democratic apparatus or welfare tradition. The young, educated, but heavily unemployed and disenchanted generations are able to see prosperity, but are stuck in experiences of austerity, stagnant in societies that block their mobility.

Poverty plays a strange and central role in a vicious circle of its own: if privilege is what might reduce poverty, it is poverty itself that blocks privilege. Deep inequality arises from lack of access to education and resources, which is what further paralyses efforts to overcome injustice and inequality. Of course, romanticised stories of people who make it out of acute poverty are constantly fed by the media, to masses told to “believe,” “go and get it,” “never give up.” We cannot dismiss the value of personal journeys, but they are not endemic to a realistic form of fighting poverty. Systemic change comes for the many, not the exceptional few, it emerges against the damaging existing system, not despite it.

Three-time champion chess player Phiona Mutesi from Ugandan's slum Katwe.

Three-time champion chess player Phiona Mutesi from Ugandan's slum Katwe.

Actress Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair

Actress Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair

We witness a current wave of acting against poverty and conceiving a new relationship between individuals and the financial apparatus, which proposes an alternative to the predatory type of loans that led to the 2008 crash in the West. Central to this anti-poverty movement is “micro-finance,” a type of loan aimed at the poorest of the poor, with proven success in countries of the Global South. However, micro-finance is what analysts call “poverty band-aids,” a form of financial relief which, alone, is insufficient in providing a desirable future, the kind of social and personal thriving that comes from structural political and social revolution, from an overhaul of power structures, and a critical reduction of inequality.

Compassion, humanitarianism, and philanthropy are also at risk of sacrificing the poor in their fight against poverty. They do this by reproducing and circulating a type of discourse that reduces individual and collective agency of those identified as poor, while operating definitions of the poor as objectified victims, disempowered individuals, or mere opportunities for profit and social capital for the helping organisation.

The word “poverty” has long become one of those concepts whose semantic breadth exceeds its referents, and, alone or together with other terms, ends up on a slippery slope of meaning used and abused to various ends. One example is the discourse around indigenous experience; as Virginius Xaxa puts it, of indigeneity in India: “The use of the category ‘tribe’ has greatly shaped discourse on tribes in India. It places the onus of locating poverty and other related issues squarely on the tribes and the social, cultural and economic characteristics of their societies. In contrast, the ‘indigenous peoples’ category focuses the poverty discourse not on the distinctive features of the tribal society but on the larger issue of colonisation and expropriation of tribal lands, forests and other resources.”

Once again, language proves to be a critical element in organising reality, in clouding or revealing meaning, in liberating or further oppressing millions of individuals. The test to a genuine desire to overcome oppression is the correct understanding of its many forms, and a thorough investigation of the categories we use to make sense of it.

Words: Elena Stanciu

Cover Image: At Dusk, 1993 by Boris Mikhailov