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Poverty

Precarious balance

by Martin Kämpchen

In depth

Children on a garbage dump in Kolkata

Children on a garbage dump in Kolkata

Poverty is more than just material deprivation, it is a state of mind – says writer Martin Kämpchen, who has lived for many years in a disadvantaged part of rural India. Poor people do not have the imagination to help them find ways out of destitution – that is another part of poverty, he says. By Martin Kämpchen

The gaunt face of poverty reveals itself only slowly. As long as people have work and are young and healthy and as long as there are no disasters in the family, they can keep their life in balance. But if one of those factors spins out of control, pain and suffering are suddenly a real threat. Those with little or no land of their own have to work as day labourers for large scale farmers nearby. And if there is no work to be had, they have no resources to fall back on. Their stores of food dwindle. They buy rice and vegetables, oil and sugar, spices and ­kerosine at the shop in the next village – on credit. The shopkeeper knows he needs to grant that credit – his business depends on it. Most villagers buy “on tick” and settle their debts monthly.

But what if the unemployed cannot settle their debts at the beginning of the month? The shopkeeper insists: “Pay your debts. Then you can have rice again!” The debtor will ask, even beg, a neighbour or uncle for money. Or he may be too proud for that. Does he own anything he could sell? His wife’s wedding jewellery? The silver-plated ring he received as a wedding present from his father-in-law? His watch? Or should he look for work elsewhere? Move to the city, to Kolkata? They say there is always work there …

The life he knew – the only life he can imagine – is thrown into disarray. His world collapses. He faces an existential crisis. People in poverty do not have the imagination to help them find – or take advantage of – ways out of destitution. That lack of mental flexibility is part of their poverty; they are literally paralysed by ­despair. Without their normal daily routine, they feel thrown off course. Work is their life – much more than it is for the well-off. A prosperous person works to enjoy free time during weekends. For the poor, free time usually means the satisfied exhaustion ­after the day’s work is done, the time spent waiting for more work and the time spent celebrating special occasions.

People in poverty are only briefly supported by a close family circle and village community. An able-bodied man with a wife and children cannot rely on the extended family indefinitely. The poor are prepared to make astonishing sacrifices for family members, but their scope of generosity is limited.

Unstructured environment

The poor are totally exposed to the vicissitudes of life. They have no defences against family disasters. If a father or mother starts to drink or gamble or if a couple falls into the clutches of money lenders, an entire family can rapidly become destitute. A wife who is beaten by her husband or forced into one pregnancy after another is at the mercy of her spouse. Children who are physically abused or exploited for labour have nowhere to hide.

The poor live in an unstructured environment. There is no clearly defined social order binding them together and provi­ding a certain security for everyone. The fickle, reactive opinion of the majority prevails. The police station is a long way off, the nearest court is even farther, so the common good is preserved by traditional and ad hoc institutions.

If a wife is tyrannised, for example, the family reveals nothing to avoid losing face. If the wife seeks refuge – with neighbours or with members of her caste, tribe or village community – her plight becomes public and people around her will spontaneously take sides, espousing views that can lead to violence. The brutal husband may be beaten or the suffering wife harassed for not allowing the man to drink. A majority is quickly formed but it does not hear both sides and does not consider all the facts before reaching a conclusion. Such arbitrary justice is rarely a recipe for fair and lasting conflict resolution. The poor are at the mercy of their social environment.

The situation is made worse by the strict, often harsh sense of honour of the poor. Women must not bring shame and must never put themselves in ambiguous situations. One wrong step can brand them for life. The rumour of a liaison, a mere suspicion, is enough to make a girl unmarriageable. Weaknesses must certainly not be made public. Violence in the family, discrimination, alcohol problems or illnesses such as leprosy or TB need to be kept secret. Woe betide a member of the family who washes dirty linen in public – even if the intention is to help the family. No doctor should be consulted, no mediator approached. The code applies particularly in Hindu and Moslem villages. Tribal society is more liberal and morally tolerant and does not punish faux pas with such harshness.

Why do the poor, of all groups, have this inflexible sense of honour? They do not actually have much to lose; work, food and clothing are surely more important, but the poor themselves take a contrary view: precisely because they have few possessions, they want at least to preserve their integrity, so they defend it with excessive severity.

Poverty as a state of mind

There is a myth about poverty, especially in Western countries. We see poverty as a lack of food, clothes, shelter and medicine – in short, material deprivation. And poverty is that, of course. But poverty is also a state of mind. If it was just material deprivation, it could be relieved by donations. But it is not as simple as that.

Even so, the simplistic materialist view remains current in the West. Donations need to be maintained to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and restore the sick to health. The appeal of the Sermon on the Mount rings in our ears. He who donates feels free of guilt because he has done “all he can” to help. But poverty is a complex state and can be relieved only by complex remedies.

It is disquieting to see poor people idealised to motivate donors. They are shown in photos as smiling, pure, modest and noble human beings. On the surface, poverty is indeed often harmonious, colourful, even jolly – especially in villages. The poor are often startlingly photogenic. But pictures do not tell the whole story. Only words can put the supposed charm in perspective. How often have we read of the “wealth of the poor”? It is an intriguing play on words. Unfortunately, the paradox it presents is neither explained nor resolved. The suggestion is that poor people retain a “wholeness” and genuineness as a result of their poverty – an emotional and spiritual wealth. A dangerous game is played here with the depressing plight of the poor and the feelings of potential donors.

Existential insecurity

So, poverty is a state of mind interlocked with a state of deprivation, and the deprivation is both, the cause and consequence of the state of mind. Material poverty creates an emotional and mental environment of poverty marked by inflexible, conservative values, lack of imagination and individual dynamism. Poor people can certainly lead a full, even fulfilling life – as long as they have work, health and a good diet and as long as no disasters occur within their intimate circle. Their life hangs in a precarious balance that can swing out of control overnight. One of the defining features of poverty is that the poor cannot stabilise this sensitive balance. If an emergency occurs, there are no buffers to cushion the impact.

The mental horizon of the poor is marked by existential uncertainty and constant fear of change in the precarious balance of their life. They want stability, but most of them lack the intellectual, practical and technological skills needed to find a way to achieve it. They see no alternative to continuing down the road that fate set before them. Instead of structural change, they seek security in the group. Instead of striving individually for education and material progress, they seek refuge in the social network of the extended family, village community, caste and occupational group.