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From the House of a Church Mouse

Across the globe, interventions have been essential for reducing poverty but those should be led by humane considerations rather than self-interest motives like it always has been—a reflection with reference to Manipur 



In this century of innovation and technological breakthroughs, it is hard to imagine not having access to a bank account, credit source, health insurance or a safe place to keep our hard-earned money. But that is a daily reality for the majority of people living in developing countries like India. Forty-two per cent of India’s population does not have a bank account; in rural areas, it is 61 per cent. — Compassion International


The US-based Compassion International is one of the leading donors pouring in funds in India, according to FCRA reports. It is a non-profit Christian organisation which holds the view that: ‘Poverty, illiteracy, lack of awareness about banking and financial services and the government’s welfare programs continue to keep India’s rural population off the country’s economic map. This is not because banks aren’t available in rural areas, but because banks are unable to process these people’s applications due to insufficient documentation.’

If on one hand a bank account or its missing can explain the phenomenon of poverty in today’s world, then on the other we can presume that there are other factors responsible for this crisis and that more than understanding those factors, the solutions are extra significant.

Organisations like the World Bank and United Nations would state that across the globe in 2015, there were 702.1 million people living in extreme poverty but that it had been reduced from 1.75 billion, thanks to their efforts that they started 25 years ago. Still the world is not a fair place. For instance, the Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that in 2014–2016 there will be 194.6 million undernourished people in India while altogether in the world the number was 795 million in 2014. These facts and figures would mean nothing to the people who are in need of basic necessities of life but it does provide an insight that can be a source of motivation to look into the issue discerningly and take up essential steps for poverty reduction.

According to Oxfam, the world needs $60 billion annually to get rid of global poverty. The amount might look too high but comparatively it is less than 25% of the income of the top 100 wealthiest billionaires in the world. Others, like the Compassion International, speculate that the cost of eradicating world poverty is just 1% of today’s global income. In another word, solutions do exist but the stumbling block arises from the lack of will and initiative. If we consider ourselves to be powerless then this fact might not also make sense: 22,000 children die every day and due to poverty, they ‘die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death’.

To repeat, they die ‘far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world’. All’s not gloom and doom, though, if we go by studies of the Borgen Project. In 1994—according to this non-profit organisation fighting against poverty and hunger—‘the average family in Cambodia had nearly six children; by 2015, extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 per day) in Cambodia had fallen more than 40% and average family size had decreased by more than half’.

Now why is there a huge gap between the so-called 99% and 1%; or some of the richest people are buying private jets and islands while the poorest are dying for a reason as simple as non-availability of drinking water?

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When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist. — Dom Hélder Câmara

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It is essential to note that several causes of poverty are man-made. Experts have found that wars, conflicts and political instability have a direct impact on poverty. On the same scale, another artificial problem, overpopulation is also responsible as much as unfavourable political landscapes aggravate the condition. Many people in India, where a population of 179.6 million live below poverty line, still blame the British for exploiting their resources and leaving underdeveloped. Howsoever there are reasons to justify the rebuke, in reality, what is more acute today and responsible for poverty in the country is the rampant discrimination on the basis of caste, colour, creed and sex.

The Indian government has made regulations like the National Food Security Act, 2013 though it is an entirely different issue that critics have reduced the Act as a demonstration of mere vote-bank politics rather than as a means to foment food security and get rid of inequalities. Meanwhile, for an agrarian economy like India, modernisation of agriculture will pay off ideally but its farmers are more suicidal than innovative.

National Food Security Act to Benefit 87% of State’s Entire Population: Okendro
Consumer, Affairs, Food and Public Distribution (CAF&PD) Minister M Okendro today informed the House that 2,484,438 individuals of the state’s total population of 2,855,794 will avail provisions under the National Food Security Act in the state. The minister was responding to queries raised by MLAs from the opposition benches during the discussion and voting for demands on grants for the fiscal year (in Manipur). — 3 March 2016 Imphal Free Press

Besides political causes and demographic issues, the latter which have been affected greatly by rapid rise of population and lack of awareness about family planning, discrimination and social inequality make the condition even worse. Way back in 1975, the Indian government initiated the Integrated Childhood Development Service (ICDS) but still today this country has the largest number of chronically malnourished children under the age of five in the world. The World Bank contends that the ICDS had made an error by overlooking the implication of providing food, education and basic healthcare to children below the age of three. This is also despite the fact that that India is ‘shining’ and ‘incredible’, growing at 10% much to the delight of the chest-thumping nationalists. Alternatively, policy formulation and implementation can be responsible for breaking the whole plan instead of making it for realising urgent ends.

The most common elements of climate and natural calamities can also add to the artificial crisis. Sometimes along with these elements, the economic causes fuelled by low productivity in agriculture and lopsided distribution of land and property could intensify the level of poverty and it could appear to be inevitable. We can do little about climate and calamities in a sense, but we can make measures as in building reliable institutions to make up for the vulnerabilities. However, as things stand today, it is taking us nowhere but only further deeper into the vicious cycle of underdevelopment and poverty.

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There are wide-ranging causes, amongst others, corruption, colonialism, neo-colonialism, foundation-less political institutions and geographical constraints. Experts are also of the view that most of the countries that descended into modern history as a colonised state make up the chunk of the most impoverished countries that are as well infested with inequalities and injustice today. Let us see some brief notes from a few global organisations which are working on poverty reduction:

The extraordinary economic expansion of recent years has made the eradication of income poverty a possibility by 2020. This will require continued work to sustain the current high rates of GDP growth per capita, as well as additional effort to ensure that the poor are able to participate in, benefit from, and contribute to the growth process. Reducing poverty also requires that more people become economically productive citizens and share in a society’s well-being. The ability to achieve and to sustain poverty reduction depends on economic growth alongside a well-managed natural environment. Further, the process of ending poverty in the (Asian) region can be accelerated when neighbouring economies work within larger and freer markets and when governments achieve common interests through common efforts. — Asian Development Bank

ꕢ  Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS) are central to IMF-supported economic and financial programs in low-income countries. PRS documents assess poverty challenges, describe how macroeconomic, structural, and social policies and programmes can promote growth and reduce poverty, and outline external financing needs and the associated sources of financing. They are prepared by governments in low-income countries generally through a participatory process involving domestic stakeholders and external development partners. — International Monetary Fund (IMF)

ꕢ Economic growth will not reduce poverty, improve equality and produce jobs unless it is inclusive. Inclusive growth is also essential for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)*. The globalisation process, when properly managed, becomes an important ingredient for inclusive growth. In this context, UNDP works to make real improvements in people’s lives, opening up their choices and opportunities. — United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (* Out of the eight goals, the first MDG is the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger)

ꕢ  There has been marked progress on reducing poverty over the past decades. The world attained the first Millennium Development Goal target—to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015—five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. Despite this progress, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally remains unacceptably high. — World Bank       

If we go by these organisations it is confusing whether the rate of poverty is increasing or decreasing. The UNDP says the number has halved in the period between 2000 and 2015 while the World Bank points out the ‘the number of people living in extreme poverty globally remains unacceptably high’. And if we refer to news reports, the World Bank had made an embarrassing U-turn about the crisis after having remarked the exact opposite using the error-filled International Poverty Line (IPL) threshold one decade and half ago. One of the defects of the IPL was in its tendency to overstate and understate poverty simultaneously.

Critics who have analysed the reports cite these are just a strategy for the rich Western countries to show that their free-market capitalism and development aids are working. For that matter, the Asian Development Bank has not one or two, but five different types of ‘special multi-donor poverty’ funds. So, the consequence has less to do with poverty reduction; instead the gap between the rich and the poor are increasing rapidly, ironically with the growth of economies of the donor countries. In other instances, these organisations are optimistically benefitting from ‘national debt’—a curse and a cause of poverty for the underdeveloped countries. One observer maintained that in the existing system ‘profit is privatised and loss is socialised’. Capitalism is also responsible for traditional economies’ downfall which is another cause of poverty.

According to the Bretton Woods Project:

Critics of the World Bank and the IMF are concerned about the ‘conditionalities’ imposed on borrower countries. The World Bank and the IMF often attach loan conditionalities based on what is termed the ‘Washington Consensus’, focusing on liberalisation—of trade, investment and the financial sector—deregulation and privatisation of nationalised industries. Often the conditionalities are attached without due regard for the borrower countries’ individual circumstances and the prescriptive recommendations by the World Bank and IMF fail to resolve the economic problems within the countries.

This kind of system is best explained by the dependency theory of development, which states that poor nations provide resource and labour, which allow the rich countries to maintain their status quo and that the latter will go to all the extent to maintain such a correlation. Underdeveloped and developing countries, according to the dependency theorists, is poor not because of anything but the integration of these countries into such an unreasonable ‘market’ that is monopolised by the rich capitalist countries.

The real solution perhaps lies in the idea of Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, the author of What If Latin America Ruled the World?: How the South Will Take the North into the 22nd Century. The professor mentions elsewhere that, ‘Poverty is the consequence of plunder. Behind every single form of modern poverty, you find the use of force.’ He adds: ‘Poverty and inequality are political issues that can only be solved when the poor organise and come up with a solution to liberate themselves,’ and concludes that ‘Each cause is rooted in a radically different phenomenon and each needs a specific solution.’

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The Curious Case of Manipur

We can see that, again, a similar curse of national debt exists within a country as well. This is most evident from the case of trouble-torn and backward Manipur, which relies entirely on funds and grants from the union, in whose eyes the province is merely a land of geostrategic significance and the people mere subjects as they are subjugated under numerous martial laws and heavy militarisation in the name of security. Fortunately the debt is interest free in terms of money. The province also has all the hallmarks of an impoverished land, ranging from ethnic rivalries to the institutionalisation of corruption and violence.

This prelude might seem to follow the dogged view of the union that insurgency is a result of economical backwardness; however it is open secret how the arrogant and haphazard process of Indian nation-building has resulted in the oldest and multiple armed struggles for the right to self-determination, which are still raging today in the region. The Asian Foundation refers to this kind of insurgency as a ‘subnational’ conflict in the continent; India labels it a domestic issue or a separatist movement, when it is not in a good mood; and the natives consider that it is a fight for regaining lost sovereignty and that there is no question for separation.

In subnational conflict areas, much of the conventional wisdom on how aid contributes to peace does not reflect reality. Some of the core objectives of development assistance—increasing economic growth, strengthening government capacity and improving service delivery—do not seem to help reduce violence or resolve subnational conflicts. In some cases, they tend to exacerbate conflict. Indeed, many of the lessons that the aid community has learned from its engagement in fragile states—most notably the need to strengthen and extend the reach of state institutions—are actively counterproductive in subnational conflict areas. Without close attention to the dynamics of the conflict, development programs can reinforce conditions that prolong conflict. — The Contested Corners of Asia, The Asia Foundation

It is true that underdevelopment breeds conflicts but India refuses to admit the problem is political, while the existing conflict is in turn breeding further underdevelopment, which is a synonym of impoverishment. All along, the ceaseless attacks between the state and non-state actors, plus the recurring ethnic clashes, are displacing people who are losing lives and livelihoods while the state is literally leaving no stone unturned to accommodate the legally sanctioned gunmen, who are arriving in droves from all over mainland India as army and paramilitary forces. As if these were not enough, the union has been declaring war against the people by imposing laws like the Armed Forced (Special Powers) Act.  

As an agrarian economy the policy makers do provide financial and technological interventions in related areas of agriculture and farming in Manipur. The province also boasts of a substantial number of cooperative societies as well, adopting several employment schemes that have been playing a crucial role in the allied fields; albeit reality tells a different tale.Meanwhile, we have ‘appropriated’ all the signs of impoverishment: a donor economy, a pathetic dependency syndrome, lack of institutional and structural reforms and the likes. The failing of intervention can create such a sense of bewilderment.

An outcome of such confusion is visible in two primary areas: the exponential rise of unemployed youth (Unemployment: Numbers and Nightmares) and the growth of elites in each ethnic group, who is also responsible for the power struggle as obvious from the amplifying voices from the three main groups, the Kukis, the Meiteis and the Nagas; while the common people are as helpless as ever. Above all, when there is no right to life and dignity, the right to economic well-being is no different from plain hokum.

Add to the existing predicament the fact that people are involved in fighting on two levels: one group against another and each group against the establishment. Paradoxically, in spite of the ‘closeness’ of the fights the people are suffering from a lack of physical connectivity—there is no connection but only contestation. Then it is no surprise that the level of poverty is increasing in this part of the world. How are the financial aids as keys going to unlock the traps of poverty in this kind of situation?

Unfortunately, even the much-hyped Millennium Development Goals do not have any provision for poverty reduction in conflict zones like Manipur, where security is one of the main issues. Actually poverty is not only economical but profoundly political but the existing approach of providing aids, not only those of the MDGs, does not regard this perspective and even if the aid-givers do, they give more emphasis to the government’s interest as in India’s dry monotonous claim that its ‘subnational’ conflicts are a domestic issue that others should not poke their noses into.

The government has shown as well what minding one’s business means. In the last few years, it has been cracking down on foreign funding of NGOs on the ground that they are working against the national interest regardless of the latter’s assertion that the incumbent right-wing government is restraining the right to dissent. And closer home, the debate on whether peace has to precede development or vice versa has always confined within the four walls of seminar and conference centres.

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In this scenario, we can expect little from such World Bank’s findings four years ago that one in four persons on this planet live in a chronically conflict zone and that these people are three times more likely to skip school or two times more likely to have no clean drinking water than in other developing countries—except maybe in allocating projects at its best and making tables and presentations for more seminars and conferences or writing this kind of essays at its worst. This only makes Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s idea of fighting poverty more relevant than the existing approaches that are West-centric and mostly fall in the modernisation system of development.      

The inevitability for a collective effort and participation is clear in our case. Poverty demands that food is more important than politics but sometimes that is merely an excuse for our indifference. What we eat and what we don’t; why we eat and why we don’t—all of these are a part of politics that has been imposed on us and we need to tackle them with certain political will. We cannot simply wish it away. It costs nothing to be a church mouse but it compels us to pay heavily. Many of the solutions are already available: research and statistical reports, project implementation, allocation of funds and humanitarian aids and so on. Easier said than done but for now all it takes is a creative manner of sorting out the issues, so to say, by one rupee at a time.
   
Concluded.


References
(in an alphabetical order)

Asia Foundation asiafoundation.org
Asian Development Bank www.adb.org
Borgen Project borgenproject.org
Bretton Woods Project www.brettonwoodsproject.org
Compassion International blog.compassion.com
FCRA, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India fcraonline.nic.in
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) www.fao.org/home/en
Imphal Free Press ifp.co.in
International Monetary Fund (IMF) www.imf.org/external/index.htm
Oxfam www.oxfamindia.org
Poverties www.poverties.org
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) www.unicef.org
United Nations www.un.org/en/index.html
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) www.in.undp.org
World Bank data.worldbank.org




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