Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A dollar a day
keeps the doctor away

The arbitrary measure of poverty that the World Bank concocted out of thin air several decades ago, and the language that surrounds that famous "dollar a day", is unfortunately stuck in our discourse on poverty.

Widespread efforts have been made to redefine poverty, focusing on access to basic amenities such as health care, habitation and education. A broader view, as encouraged by Aramrtya Sen among others, would analyze poverty in terms of an "individuals potential to function", which is to focus on what can be achieved with a certain level of income and the barriers to opportunity. This highlights constraints beyond access to basic necessities, such as broader monetary conditions and power relations.

These ideas, although pushing the concept in the right direction, often miss the blaring problem that the language of the World bank has created. 

"A dollar a day": doesn't it sound like a magic dollar arrives at the doorstep every day? Ok, perhaps you don't explicitly think like that, but the phrase certainly misses the biggest problem with income for the poor; the risks associated with uncertainty and inconsistency. 

As Eleni G. Medhin, the director of the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange, once suggested, the risks that a poor farmer must bear are greater than any speculator, investor or human being on earth. If the rains fail, people will die. (For those relying on income from medium sized firms, unpredictable policy changes seem to be most crucial.)

Buzzing around the Kenyan countryside with my friend Teddy, I came upon this cow carcass.  Prior to my visit the rains did not come, and then they did not come again. As Teddy put it, "This Maasai was a millionaire, now look at what he has got."

Where is the next dollar coming from? Who is it owed to? These are critical questions for those living with no social safety net.

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