Africa / Civilization / Ecology / Economy / Education / Ethics / Philosophy / Politics


On my recent trip to Cameroon, I noticed that the poorest and the richest people seem to live in the big cities, like Duala. In the smaller towns and villages, the extremes seem to be missing. The very rich people are not there. The poorer people tend to have some land where they can grow their own food, they are networked and they help each other. Even the poorest, who tend to be mentally impaired or mentally ill people, seem to be somehow supported by their neighbors.

In the big cities, on the other hand, the rich live in a different world, staying in air conditions houses and using air conditioned cars to go to air conditioned offices and shops. In Duala, you can see a rich area that is almost like Europe. Only a few hundred meters away, there is a really poor area. I saw a man passing there who was only wearing underpants and even those seem to have been only a piece of cloth he had tied around himself. It looks like that was all he owned.

In right wing economics, there seem to be theories that poor people are responsible themselves for their poverty and that in principle, everybody can make it to the top. There is also an ideology of “trickle down”: the world economy will grow and grow and some of the riches will come down to the poor. So the theory goes, but in fact, economic growth cannot go on unlimited because our planet is limited, and the structures of world trade tend to make the rich richer. In a world where growth is limited, that necessarily means the poor will become poorer and that is what is actually happening.

Every day, thousands of people die from hunger, preventable diseases that cost a few dollars to cure, or poverty-related violence. These go largely unnoticed. To put things into perspective, more than 10 times as many people die from such causes, each and every single day, than died in the September 11th incident. It is like having several plane crashes every day. Strangely, while deaths by spectacular accidents or crimes, especially in the rich countries, get a lot of media attention, the poor die largely unnoticed.

This is happening not just by accident; it is a systematic part of our world-economic system. As such, it requires a systematic – that is an institutionalized – solution.

In 2009, in some blog, I wrote on this issue:

Every year, millions of people, many of them children, die from preventable diseases and starvation or in conflicts related to poverty. While deaths by spectacular accidents or crimes, especially in the rich countries, get a lot of media attention, the poor die largely unnoticed.

Why do we let it happen? Why do we not help these people? It is a shame for the rich world!

The world economy has doubled in size several times, but the poor stay poor although there would be enough money and resources to help them. The trickle-down theory has not worked. It stated that if the rich get richer the poor will get a share. Instead the poor are getting poorer.

Clearly, a new approach is necessary. Let us collectively think about the possibility of a global social system that would guarantee everybody that their basic needs (food, water, shelter, clothes, medical supplies etc.) are met and that every child can get a school education.

How could such a system work, how could it be financed?

What attempts and suggestions for such systems exist already, if any?”

Please leave your comments.

The only comment I received was from somebody who clearly exhibits the way of right wing thinking that I think is at the very root of the problem. He wrote:

How is it a “shame for the rich world” that the poor fail to thrive? Are you of the opinion that we owe them anything? Are you of the opinion that they have some right to the fruits of my or your efforts?

If you create “a global social system that would guarantee everybody that their basic needs (food, water, shelter, clothes, medical supplies etc.) are met and that every child can get a school education,” what have you done but take responsibility for these people away from themselves and onto our shoulders?

I think that the last thing this world needs is more people living as parasites and existing without the need for personal responsibility.”

Well, I think he just projected some things into what I wrote that I never said. What a brutal way of thinking where somebody talks of parasites when I was talking about helping people who are dying. Here is what I was answering to him:

Hi …, thanks for commenting. An interesting view, but I think you got my intentions a bit wrong.

I am not thinking or talking about taking responsibility away from those people. Most of them could help themselves if given a chance. I am not suggesting a system in which just social welfare is paid to them, financed by rich countries’ taxpayers. I indeed believe poor children should be given enough to survive and go to school. That will not take responsibility away from them but empower them to take their lives into their hand and even help others. Even if the parents are poor by their own mistake, why should the children suffer from that?

– For many other people, problems could be solved in many instances with things like (micro-)credit and insurances and these can finance themselves. However, an initial investment would be necessary. That initial investment could be raised by loans, for example. What I want to discuss about is exactly how such things could be organized (on a mostly private basis, since I don’t expect much from states and governments in this respect).

– However, there are also people (disabled and elderly) who can’t help themselves. I don’t find it acceptable to let such people just perish. Here indeed, I think there should be something like social welfare. This could be provided by solidarity groups of the now poor people themselves, who can be enabled by a social system (I deliberately did not call it a welfare system) to do so. The group of people needing welfare could become smaller when more people get access to insurances or are enabled to save money for their old age.

– There are also catastrophic events in which people need help. I think there should be an insurance based system to cover this. Today, it is mostly a charity system.

– Poverty creates risks, e.g. of wars, unrest, terrorism, pandemics, mass migration, environmental disasters etc. These risks may cost a lot of money, also in the richer part of the world. So reducing poverty by investing some tax payers’ money, or giving guarantees or back insurance, may indeed be a money saving option for rich governments.

Being poor means having little options. Helping people to get out of poverty means to enable them to have more options. Only then can they take responsibility for their lives.

About ethics, we seem to disagree. I find it is indeed a shame to let hundreds of thousands of people die when it can be prevented. This does not mean that these people are parasites. I can’t stop you from being egoistic but I don’t agree with you.

I don’t think we have a right to get arbitrarily rich as long as some others don’t have a chance and just die. If you think a world economic system in which death from poverty of some is a normal event, I can’t stop you from thinking so, but I don’t agree with you.

If you don’t help somebody who had a car accident although you could have helped him, and the person dies as a result, it is considered a crime, at least where I live. If the other person lives and dies in another country I consider it still a crime of all of us, if we could have helped them. So I am asking the question if there is a way to help these people.

You also seem to believe that poor people are responsible for their poverty themselves. That is not always the case (even if they are, why should we not still offer them help). Poor children are never responsible for their situation. Also, the world economy is not fair. There are instances of exploitation. For example, European Union agricultural subsidies are destroying farmer’s prices in Africa. E.g. Italian canned tomato paste is cheaper in Ghana than tomato paste produced there, due to EU subsidies. As a result, a factory and some farmers in Ghana have become broke. Second example: the EU bought fishery rights in West Africa. The fish from those areas now comes to Europe while the people who gained their living from that fish in those countries went broke. The fishermen did not get any of the money paid by Europe. So who are the parasites here, the West African fishermen who where responsible, hard working people able to feed themselves until the European trawlers came along, or the fish eaters in Europe?

So to some extent, the rich are indeed responsible for the poverty of the poor. The slave traders of the 18th century, the colonialists of the 19th and 20th centuries and to some extend also some of today’s neo colonial trade systems (like the ones in the examples just given) are parasites of the world’s poor.

That is what I wrote in 2009. I am still asking if there is a way to organize such a system on the large scale actually required? I still find a world economic system absolutely unacceptable in which starvation of thousands of people every day is a normal event. People pretend as if everything is fine, but it isn’t.

The right wing people seem to have some kind of karma theory: if you are not prospering, it is your own fault, so why should anybody help you? But for the reasons explained above, I think this way of thinking is deeply flawed.

3 thoughts on “Poverty

  1. hello Nannus
    Do you know about the new Economics Foundation in the UK?
    Also here in North East Valley we are working on a community which will potentially get a new relationship towards money and skills and sharing labour with time banks etc. I guess that will get back more to the model you were describing in the smaller towns in Cameroon…
    I did read your first entry today but not the comments because I should be doing other things than reading really. However, I think we need to get a new idea towards resources in our lives. I have recently been made redundant from a job in higher education. and we do loose skills and substance to the system. However I am living with just a little money at the moment but am trying to create a good life, working with low technology means.
    Greetings to you up in the north. Mindmade from the sunny south!

  2. Oh the slogan of the New Economics Foundation is Economics as if the planet and the people mattered. that sais it all doesn’t it?

  3. The person who responded by calling the victims of capitalist exploitation parasites is a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black.

    “They who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness.”
    John Milton

    Such creatures, who take unearned wealth and become rich by the labour of others, whilst never contributing anything of worth to society themselves, are far more deserving of being labeled parasites.

    “I am still asking if there is a way to organize such a system on the large scale actually required?”

    Yes, there are ways this can be done. But, as long as “profit” is the motive for everything, as long as monetary systems are based upon usury and privately controlled for profit and as long as capitalism and the attendant consumerism remain dominant, nothing will be.

    Just my opinion.

    Consummatum est

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