Defining Poverty

The other day, my colleague and I were arguing about the definition of poverty. He claimed that:

“poverty alleviation is an oxymoron. One cannot alleviate poverty simply due to its very nature; poverty is a relativistic concept, thus someone always exists who is going to be comparatively less well-off or impoverished due to the way our economy and society are structured. For example a millionaire could be considered wealthy today, but what about in a hundred years? Will his million dollars still hold the same worth due to factors such as inflation and changes in social values?”

At first, this claim struck and resonated with me. He seemed to be correct. If we take poverty as a relative term, then sure, there will always be a group of people who are perpetually “impoverished”it all depends on context. However, after much thought and observation, I came to the conclusion that “poverty” is a static and concrete idea, rather than a relative and forever shifting definition. Yes, there can be those who are “poorer” or “less better off,” but poverty strictly describes “those who don’t have the means to attain the most basic human necessities.” Though this definition may seem vague and too far-reaching, that’s precisely what poverty itself is.

Poverty is like a virus or a plague, as it exists, multiplies, and destroys. Furthering the similarities, it is preventable and can be uprooted indefinitely; it’s not something that has to exist.

Throughout my travels in Indonesia, my conception of poverty, the poor, and who embodies these ideas has changed drastically. On Thursday, June 28, 2012, I embarked on several field surveys within Jakarta Greater Metro Area. These surveys were paramount to my changes in poverty perception. Below, are my notes and observations from the field.

My colleagues invited me on a series of field surveys today. My eyes and heart were opened to the lives of these extremely simple and impoverished people who, despite having no material or financial assets, are still rich. They are rich in life, love, happiness—and all other aspects that truly matter in composing a wholesome and fulfilled life. Though only a couple of hours away from the smog-choked metropolis of Jakarta, these villagers were worlds apart from any city rat.

Several small boys in Cikangkung entertaining themselves with none other than… a live bat.

9:30 AM Cikangkung – Several homes and seven public water facilities were built by Habitat. In January, the area was ravaged by a flood with waters as high as 1.5 meters (5 feet). Homes and public water facilities were built as disaster relief products and thus donated pro bono. There were about 100 families living in the village, several of which had leprosy as a result of bad sanitation and irrigation. Prior to Habitat building these water facilities, villagers had to walk an absurd distance to use a brown, garbage-filled stream for all purposes (washing clothes, bathing, toilet, washing dishes, brushing teeth, etc.). Upon leaving the area we saw mostly naked village boys playing with what at first we thought was a squeaky doll, but upon closer observation, it turned out to be a live fruit bat, screeching and flailing while the village boys laughed hysterically.

A wooden shack in Mauk

2:00 PM Mauk – Current home partners projected to be 60 in total. We met the head of the village and self-help group representative. They gave us a tour of eight houses currently under construction. PGTI started several over the weekend for their CSR activity. Funds were allocated as “grants” as the family partners’ financial capacities classify them as “vulnerable poor,” with regards to the poverty pyramid. This means that they are unable to afford even basic micro credit and are given houses pro-bono, similar to disaster relief product grants. The Mauk village is relatively large, with approximately 5,000 families (25,000-30,000 inhabitants). Roughly 30% of these families are living under the poverty line, of which, Habitat only has the funding for about 60. So, with the help of the village head, they will prioritize to ascertain that villagers with the greatest needs are met first (much like emergency room doctors’ use a triage system). The population is largely Muslim and support themselves financially as rice paddy laborers, though they make only half of what they should make. Much like their counterparts in Cikangkung, all their bathroom needs are satisfied in an inconveniently located stream. Thanks to the combined efforts of both Habitat and local self-help groups, the government recently built new road infrastructure where a bumpy and pothole-filled dirt road once was.

An immaculate Buddhist pagoda in the middle of the impoverished Cina Benteng

4:00 PM Cina Benteng – This village was just across Mauk and filled with Buddhist Chinese. It’s quite unusual to see poor Chinese Indonesians as they are typically the most financially adept demographic group, so this was rather shocking. Pigs and boars ran around freely, quite a unique sight in the majority Muslim Indonesia. Though the villagers lived in the most horrendous conditions, their temple was extremely well-kept together and paralleled one that I had visited in the middle of the city. Each shack that the villagers dwelled in was built with materials mostly scavenged from nearby. Many of the villagers were quite elderly, including the caretaker of the Buddhist Temple, who was in his 90s. Sicknesses and diseases were all treated by the local shaman, using herbs and superstition, rather than modern medicine, to cure their diseases. Though many Westerners would sneer at such a notion, the relatively healthy near-centenarians is a testament to its effectiveness.

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One response to “Defining Poverty

  1. Pingback: What is poverty, really? | Endangered Eden·

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