Below is an extract from Martin Burt’s Who Owns Poverty?, a memoir about his work to eradicate multidimensional poverty through his Poverty Stoplight initiative. The book will be published by Red Press on September 3 2019.

What if nearly everything we thought we knew about poverty was wrong? What if the legions of policymakers, social scientists, economists, aid workers, charities and NGOs marching across the globe have been using the wrong strategy, and the wrong tactics, to wage the wrong war against poverty?

With the very best of intentions, we’ve been trying to help poor people ascend the ladder out of poverty in the name of social and economic justice. But what if we have been, as it were, leaning the wrong ladder on the wrong wall? And what if being wrong about the problem of poverty was the only thing standing in the way of finding the solution?

Of course, this would not be the first time that society laboured under assumptions later proved to be misguided. Recall a time when educators believed that corporal punishment would ‘cure’ left-handed students, long before we understood that handedness is determined in utero. Doctors in ages past believed tuberculosis to be transmitted by vampires (and that dry air in caves, deserts or mountains was a potent cure) before scientists determined it is caused by bacteria and therefore best treated with antibiotics. Before Copernicus and Galileo, scientists believed the sun revolved around the earth.

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“Surely if we’re going to get serious about the business of reducing global poverty, then we’ve got to start by agreeing what we mean by the term, right?”

Nor have our views on poverty itself been immune to similar debate and revision. Seeking to justify the persistent gap between rich countries and poor countries, theorists over the ages have proffered explanations ranging from the cultural to the geographical — and most everything in between.

Marxists view poverty as the inevitable result of the uneven distribution of the means of producing wealth in a society. Capitalism was created to organize production in the belief that enlightened self-interest and the logic of the market create wealth for all; it depended on a certain measure of wealth inequality to promote the entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking behavior needed to create more jobs and more wealth (and on the view that government programs to reduce inequality only got in the way). Indeed, it’s only in recent years that we’ve started to challenge the orthodoxy of inequality as a necessary precondition for growth.

Elsewhere, the Bible assures us that the poor will always be with us, and the Protestant work ethic reminds us the poor only have themselves to blame — as wealth (the outward sign of God’s blessing) is achieved by overcoming personal, moral, intellectual or spiritual deficits. And if our hard work means we deserve our wealth, the converse must also be true: we deserve our poverty when it happens.

While these world views proffer competing narratives on why there is poverty, they are strangely silent on the question of what poverty actually is — as if, perhaps, we are meant to infer the definition from context. But surely if we’re going to get serious about the business of reducing global poverty, then we’ve got to start by agreeing what we mean by the term, right? Here, too, we witness the evolution of human understanding over time.

“In short: the way we define poverty makes it too complex to solve.”

In our earliest attempts to define poverty, we alighted on the most straightforward of answers. Poverty must be a lack of money: a lack of money coming in (income) and a lack of money going out (consumption). Poverty is the opposite of profit, wealth and accumulation—all of the things society values as inherently good. Armed with this understanding, our solution was to throw money at the problem—in the form of alms, conditional cash transfers and (more circuitously) trickle-down economics.

When our progress in global poverty reduction hit a plateau, we went back to first principles. Some converted poverty from a problem into an opportunity; witness poor Bangladeshi and Mexican women rebranded as ‘microentrepreneurs’ and offered microloans to grow their cottage industries and thereby increase their income. For those tinkering with the engine of economic growth, this was a thrilling retrofit designed to harness the potential energy of poor individuals, to unleash the power of small business and to empower women as economic agents—by giving them the skills, incentives and motivation they lacked to make enough money to live well.

Still others looked beyond the question of cash to reimagine poverty as a many-faced beast. We started talking about ‘multidimensional poverty’, which encompassed a lack of voice, access, equality, security, health, sanitation, education, infrastructure, political representation and so much more. Yet while this new multidimensional framework accounted for a broad range of societal, structural and political factors that created and maintained poverty, income was still at the top of the list. Income was, quite simply, seen as a key that automatically unlocked well-being improvements across the board.

Our current definition of multidimensional poverty, however, comes preloaded with two unsettling consequences. These consequences shape our understanding of what causes poverty and, as a result, what we can do about it.

To understand the first of these, let’s consider the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), elaborated by the United Nations (UN). The primary goal is ‘No Poverty’ (largely defined in terms of income and access to resources), and a further 16 goals consider hunger; health; education; gender inequality; water and sanitation; clean and affordable energy; work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities; responsible consumption and production; climate change and environmental degradation; and peace and justice.

“There’s little room within the current paradigm for a poor person to have any agency over most of the factors that create their poverty.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with getting everyone in the development sector working from the same definition and toward the same goals. It’s the manner in which the SDGs are formulated that creates the problem. That’s because when one person’s poverty is partly, or even wholly, subject to forces beyond their control, we negate the efficacy of any individual effort in overcoming that poverty. I might, if I were living in poverty, be able to increase my income, but I have zero influence over structural factors that mitigate my ability to improve my life and livelihood, such as trade distortions in global agricultural markets, my country’s resilience to climatic events and respect for the rule of law, or whether the Ministry of Health provides adequate funding for my local hospital.

In short: the way we define poverty makes it too complex to solve. While we’ve long since abandoned the idea that a person’s poverty is their fault (because they are too uneducated, lazy or apathetic to provide for themselves), there’s little room within the current paradigm for a poor person to have any agency over most of the factors that create their poverty. It’s too big. Too difficult to influence. Out of their hands. Reliance on external solution-providers is baked in, by design.

The second unsettling consequence of the current definition of multidimensional poverty is that it renders development organizations’ current, unidimensional solutions obsolete. Development organizations, by nature, typically focus on one or two issues; despite recognizing that there are many interlocking pieces to the puzzle, we only work on one of them, leaving the rest to someone else. We dig wells and build bridges. We hand out shoes. We train journalists. We administer vaccines. We help farmers grow bigger harvests without worrying about whether they can get their crops to market. We empower the women without bringing the men along for the journey toward a more gender-equal society. We work on decreasing child mortality but leave building schools to someone else. We might win the battle, but we’ll never win the war.

“ Poverty isn’t just a problem ‘over there’ anymore — wealth gaps are on the rise in the united States of America, Canada, France, Sweden and Germany (among others), and we’ve been forced to coin new terms such as ‘working poor’.”

A campsite at a homeless tent city in Sacramento California March 15, 2009. Sacramento's tent city has seen an increase in population as unemployment numbers grow in the US. REUTERS/ Max Whittaker  (UNITED STATES SOCIETY BUSINESS) - GF2E53H1GHI01
Image: REUTERS/ Max Whittaker

At the same time, no one can doubt that poverty — however we define, measure and tackle it — is a growing threat to existing institutions and the cause of much unnecessary suffering in the world. Poverty, abject and otherwise, also manifests as increasing levels of broad-scale voter discontent and civil unrest when the state can’t be relied upon to provide basic services and/or deliver broad economic growth. And poverty isn’t just a problem ‘over there’ anymore — wealth gaps are on the rise in the united States of America, Canada, France, Sweden and Germany (among others), and we’ve been forced to coin new terms (such as ‘working poor’) to cope with the stark reality that, for ever-growing numbers of people, having a job isn’t always enough to put food on the table. Likewise, people from poorer countries are increasingly packing up the few belongings they have and ‘voting with their feet’, journeying to richer countries to seek a better life (whether by choice or necessity).

Cheap internet access makes it easier than ever for poor migrants to peer into the lives of those more fortunate than they are and to glimpse the promise of a higher standard of living. What’s more, cheap global travel means that they don’t need to spend their whole lives on the outside, looking in. The end of the rainbow, with its promised pot of gold, has never been more within reach. Increasingly, too, poor migrants are tech-savvy travelers, armed with potent tools such as smartphones and Facebook. In fact, many organizations aiding refugees often report that the first question that migrants ask when crossing a border is: “What is the Wi-Fi password?”

Against this backdrop, I offer a deceptively simple question: who owns poverty? It’s certainly not an idea we’ve ever articulated before — although, if you re-examine development thinking and practice through the lens of this startling question, you might conclude we had quite strong feelings on the subject all along.

Global poverty discourse has, to date, concerned itself with the question: what is poverty? This seems reasonable, given that good poverty solutions depend on good poverty definitions. Yet there’s also something subtler at work here, when you consider that owning a thing starts with naming it.

Adam named the beasts in the field and the fowl in the air. Conquistadors (re)named the lands they ‘discovered’ on behalf of their sovereigns. We name stars, diseases and social trends in order to bring them into our sphere of influence. We name, we claim.

When it comes to who has naming power over global poverty, it is almost too obvious (to the point of embarrassment) to point out that poor people have traditionally been relegated to a non-speaking part in someone else’s narrative about their lives. They are passive recipients of someone else’s poverty definition, someone else’s poverty measurement. As a consequence of this, poor people are also locked out of the room where decisions get made about what our poverty solutions look like, unable to articulate their perspectives and priorities.

“Rarely, if ever, do poverty experts consider poor people as equally important decision-makers, despite the fact that every day they solve problems related to their family’s well-being.”

The question ‘who owns poverty?’ isn’t one I pulled out of thin air. There was no ‘eureka moment’. Rather, it emerged slowly, over the course of years, as a reaction to a number of things about the global poverty agenda that I found very puzzling indeed.

The initial seed of doubt was sewn with the realization that the definition of ‘poor person’ used by poverty experts rarely seemed to line up with what we were seeing in our work as a Foundation supporting microentrepreneurs in Paraguay (Fundación Paraguaya). Or rather, it didn’t describe everything about them. The joy, generosity, creativity, problem-solving and entrepreneurial spirit we saw led us to conclude that the people we worked with were so much more than simply a binary classification of poor versus non-poor. Their lives were bigger than whether they lived on $1 per day or $2 per day. Those labels seemed all the more inapt and reductionist when applied to two people whose individual experiences of poverty differed completely from each other.

The next seed was one of discontent with the absurdity of there being so much poverty data in the world — but none that served the needs of poor people themselves. We take it for granted that the government departments and development organizations working to reduce poverty need poverty data to make good strategic and operational decisions. But rarely, if ever, do poverty experts consider poor people as equally important decision-makers, despite the fact that every day they solve problems related to their family’s well-being.

“What would happen if we gave poverty back to poor people?”

As a result (in addition to having no input on what’s being measured, how and when) poor people have no access to information collected about their lives and no control over what gets done with it, or by whom.

There are exceptions; I can point to a few promising initiatives that are ‘listening to the voices of the poor’ through participatory data collection and qualitative research. I wonder, however, whether we’re only listening to what we want to hear (feedback on our own indicators, using our own process). I also wonder what happens to the insights generated through this listening. Are they used as a foundation to co-create and co-implement community-led development projects? Or are they simply used to tweak around the edges of our own standardized package of programs and services?

More typically, however, the anti-poverty program-design cycle starts with poverty experts descending on a village with clipboards, extracting pre-defined data points about the lives and livelihoods of poor people and returning to head office to aggregate the data into a spreadsheet. In the worst cases, it starts with consulting governments and civil servants rather than communities — as absurd a scenario as a doctor who takes the temperature of a hospital administrator, instead of the patient, before prescribing the medicine (in the words of my colleague, Andy Carrizosa).

The questions that the Foundation began asking were: What would happen if we gave poverty back to poor people? What would happen if we could find a way for poor people to ask their own questions and create their own poverty indicators? What if we could collect poverty information in a way that put relevant data into the hands of families, so they could be the ones planning and implementing their own family poverty-elimination program? And what if we allowed poor people to define what success looks like?

Over the past decade, the Foundation has been on a journey to do just that. While this journey is still underway, it is already signposted with a number of interesting landmarks and discoveries.

“When people have the power to name their own poverty, to call out their problems for themselves, they also have the power to do something about those problems.”

The first of these is that the richness of poverty can be found in its nuance. Thanks to the work of social scientists and economists in the Global North, we have a huge range of poverty indicators at our disposal. However, we have found that no single constellation of deprivations can be used to describe everyone’s poverty. No single index can adequately capture the diverse ways in which a single family experiences poverty and non-poverty. If you believed Tolstoy when he said happy families are all alike, believe me when I say poor families are all poor in their own ways.

The second discovery relates to efficacy. When people have the power to name their own poverty, to call out their problems for themselves, they also have the power to do something about those problems. To define the solution; to own the solution. Time and again, we have seen poor families devising solutions to problems we previously considered intractable. And I’m not talking about solutions to reduce their poverty, or to alleviate its effects so as to make it a little more bearable, but solutions to eliminate their poverty once and for all.

What’s more, we have seen poor families connecting to each other to share poverty solutions and ideas, rather than sourcing them from external aid workers. After all, not every individual in a community suffers from malnutrition. Not every individual in a community suffers from domestic violence. Where a poor person can identify someone else beating the odds in one particular aspect of poverty, they can create horizontal learning networks that tap into locally held knowledge and solutions. The poor can help not only them- selves but also each other to overcome their deprivations.

We might have started with a small question, but what we’ve ended up with is nothing short of a revolution. My book Who Owns Poverty? is a first attempt to tell the story of that revolution.