Rethinking Poverty (and Getting Nowhere)

Living abroad teaches you how little you know, and forces you to re-examine long-held assumptions.

One of these assumptions is about poverty. My general assumption about poverty used to go like this:

Most people in the West are rich. Most people in the developing world are the suffering poor.

Broadly speaking, I perceived people as dirt poor, middle class or rich.

A few experiences have made me question these assumptions:

  • Reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, which postulates that our thinking about rich and poor changed with the rise of democracy and the Industrial Revolution.
  • Listening to some BBC radio documentaries about people surviving (or not surviving) on a dollar a day.
  • Living in Malta and Morocco, and seeing how the average person lives in these countries.

In rural Morocco or Malta, people don’t have much. They own their own small house. They might have some sheep or cows. In Morocco, they probably have a bike, and in Malta they have an old car. They almost definitely have a cell phone. They probably have a television, or know somebody who does. If they’re farmers, they have fields to tend. If they live in town, they might own a tiny shop.

New and Old Kasbah

Their basic needs are usually met, but they’re not driving a 2008 Mini Cooper and their kids aren’t playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl on their Wii.

I’ve been back in Vancouver for a few days now, and had fresh eyes for Vancouver’s homeless problem. I’ve seen the occasional person sleeping rough in a doorway, and addicts, dressed in filthy old clothes, wandering around like zombies. How much do these people have? The contents of their shopping cart?

We were walking around the old, nearly abandoned kasbah in Agdz. A few people still live there in crumbling adobe buildings, and they’re seriously poor. I gave this girl two dirhams–25 Canadian cents. That would buy two loaves of bread, or about a dozen oranges.

Model for Two Dirhams

A young guy asked for me change on Granville Street the other day. I didn’t give him anything. I never do, because we give to the Union Gospel Mission every year instead (that’s an unexpected search result).

On Gozo, there were no beggars or homeless people. In Morocco, the only beggars were the very old (here’s one) and a couple of young kids. In Vancouver, they’re young men and women.

Who’s More Impoverished?

Who’s more impoverished? Before my year away, I’d have definitely picked the rural Moroccan. Now I’m not so sure.

The Moroccan lives among his peers who, more or less with the same level of wealth. The homeless Canadian lives among veritable towers of gold and conspicuous consumption, but can’t have any of it.

Who would I rather be? Again, I’m not sure.

I think the question I’m orbiting here is: who is happier? I’ve got not grounds to speculate, but I’m guessing it’s not the homeless Vancouverite. That leads to a bigger question: is it better to live simply and be happy?

At the moment, that’s all I’ve got. I’d like this to be a cohesive little essay featuring a parable and carefully-craft conclusion, but I haven’t worked it out yet. I clearly don’t know enough, or understand enough about the hands that these Moroccans, Maltese and Vancouverites have been dealt. As such, it’s just food for thought (that anybody can afford).


  1. Thoughts and revelations like these are the number one reason why I think more Westerners need to visit the developing world.

    Oh- I’ve heard recommendations of a book you might want to pick up

    -The paradox of choice (why less is more) by Barry Schwartz (Haven’t read it yet, but a friend recommended it)

  2. 2 thoughts:
    1-I don’t know if you can get very deep into the questions of poverty without talking to the poor. Then you have specific stories of individuals. I know it’s not exactly alluring (it’s time consuming and more than a little scary), but I don’t see any other way to think well about the topic. Secondary experience, doesn’t really cut it. I think you have to get close to it.

    That said, I haven’t gotten very close to poverty myself. So I’m in the proverbial glass house. I’ve served soup a few times and delivered hampers, but that’s always a little like a theme park — you always know you’re going home at the end of the day.

    2-Maybe happiness has only a little to do with wealth. Once basic needs are fulfilled people seem to be mostly responsible for their own happiness. They allow themselves whatever level of happiness they’re comfortable with. Wealth happens or doesn’t happen independently.

  3. I think it’s interesting how we regard another culture because we tend to apply our lifestyles and standards of living upon others. When we see something different, we do not understand it immediately so we’ll associate it with what we do understand. When we associate children in developing countries with very few consumer goods, we automatically seem to assume that they are not well off.

    Unfortunately for the homeless people in Canada, that isn’t the case.

    As per your question concerning happiness… I think everyone is searching for some form of happiness or as Chris Gardner put it in some sense, everyone is continually in pursuit of happiness yet at the same time everyone has their own defined version. This is overall a fascinating discussion and I look forward to reading your little essay when it’s done 🙂

  4. Interesting post. I muddled around similar territory after living two years in Mexico (which has huge extremes of wealth, but many of your observations here had me seeing parallels).

    The thing I noticed when I moved back to Canada was how hard it was to engage in mainstream life without steadily spending money. Yes, there are people here who don’t spend that money — but those people are excluded from a wide swath of everyday experiences. And are at a huge disadvantage keeping up the level of appearance which is necessary for most professional jobs.

  5. I concur with Brian (having lived in Mexico for more than 16 years, and having moved back for two years in between stints in parts of the developed world which included France, England and Canada).

    There are a lot of misconceptions about poverty in Mexico, and even worse: those conceptions are held by many middle-class Mexicans! Then they move to Canada and find that their lives back in Mexico weren’t as bad, and that their current lifestyles in Canada would pretty match those of an impoverished person in Mexico (note that I don’t say a poor person – I meant to say that these are people who used to be somewhat middle-class and now have a much more reduced income).

    It’s strange how much people seem to hold misconceptions about poverty, and I give you kudos for trying to articulate these ideas in your head. I have tried to do it myself, and have never come up with a really good answer.

    I also agree that you’d need to talk to lots of people to hear their stories, and it’d be a great study.

  6. I have travelled to Colombia on and off my whole life. I owe alot to my mother, who was sure to let me see the spectrum there, and spend time at several levels.

    Perhaps my conclusion is too simplistic.. I think wealth can bring happiness, but wealth is not the financial/goods thing that we in North America tend to look upon it as. Just as cost is not neccessarily financial, wealth is not neccessarily financial. Home, food, social bonds, and a strong local community are all part of a healthy community. I don’t want to make marketing out as a big bad wolf but something has artifically inflated what we strive for, establish a constantly want to “have”. We worship aquiring things. In a weird way it is almost parallel to how we look at physical beauty. Artifically inflated goals compared to normalacy.

    My second conclusion is that our culture is very condescending to impose the label “poor” on others based on our narrow values.

    I recall once, years ago now, reading online about a campaign that called for a program to be established, one that sent each grade 11 student overseas for 6 months to live with an average family in an underdeveloped region of a developing country.

    I can’t think of a potentially more powerful way to change the world for the better.

  7. This post reminds me of a conversation we had in my (only) international development class about the difference between absolute and relative poverty. The social disenfranchisement, as you’ve pointed out, can make things seem that much bleaker.

    I had a (fairly disturbing, for me) conversation last week with a family member. She had worked in a crisis centre, but somehow espoused the belief that if you’re homeless or in hard times in Canada, you “get enough,” whereas people in developing countries are, in her view, working harder to get all they can out of what they have (and sometimes failing tragically). I may be remembering her position worse than it actually was, but the gist I got was that she thought people in developing countries are more deserving of our charity than people in Canada, because they already get so much.

    The discussion made me very uncomfortable. I’m not in the position of deciding one way or another – not making the budget for social programs vs. CIDA, for instance – but who can possibly judge one person’s pain as being more deserving of assistance than someone else? That it’s more “noble” to go through one set of experiences than another?

    I more or less completely give up on the above argument – it’s entirely the wrong question for me, and I just focus on continuing what I can with what I have for whoever I can affect. Perhaps this is a youthful, action-oriented sophist phase. The idea of having to decide, to make that judgment, is just too depressing.

  8. Just as the concept of poverty/wealth is both fuzzy and society-dependent, I would posit that the concept of happiness is too. I think other societies can have a radically different view of happiness. For a trite example, perhaps one of those Moroccan peasants knows that he works hard everyday to put food on the table and deal with family issues, but maybe he will say he is happy because he performed the Hajj.

  9. Sorry but have you ever even visited Malta? Because from the way you write about the country it sure doesnt seem like it! I’m Maltese, I would clasify myself as lower middle class, an I have a house, a wii and 2009 smart, and I don’t own any cows or sheep! I’m sorry but this article is hillarious! As a country we may be backwards in some aspects, but we’re definately not an impoverished country, and the only people here whose “basic needs are usually met” but not much else, are people who are living off social benfits. The rest of us can well afford to live beyond our basic needs. You may need to re-visit the country because you have a pretty disrupted impression of it!

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