Poverty and Social Justice: An Introduction to the ‘Poverty Problem’


“And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
~Band Aid1984

 Inequality.  Resource Conflicts.  Poverty.  These are global problems facing all of us today!  In every community, there are ‘invisible’ people – people who have no access to the things they need. Things need to improve, and they need to happen NOW!

In 2014, the United Nations (UN) made a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Number one on the list is, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”.  This SDG calls for an elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Is this a realistic goal?  How can we make this goal a reality?


Source: www.sustainabledevelopment.un.org

Last week, I watched the documentary Poverty Inc with my family (www.povertyinc.org). It was an eye-opening expose´ of how many efforts to address global poverty have failed.

The film introduced the concept of the “poverty industry”.  The poverty industry is a form of capitalism which makes it possible to make money by ‘helping’ the poor. Social entrepreneur-ship and celebrity-led aid programs are examples of this. These programs often cause more problems for the poor than they fix!  Band Aid 1984 was one of these programs.  Celebrity musicians collectively produced a hit single which raised money for Africans.  The music and lyrics tugged at our collective heart-strings, and encouraged privileged North Americans to open their wallets and give freely to poverty-stricken people in Africa.


The lyrics of “Do they know it’s Christmas” paint a picture of helpless Africans, who live “Where nothing ever grows; no rain nor rivers flow”.  Does this actually mean there is no food or water in Africa?! The song evokes an image of people who will never experience beauty and celebration in their lives.  Life must be so sad and desperate for people such as this!


This is “poverty porn”!  Wikipedia defines poverty porn as:

“Any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

Poverty porn is the foundation of the poverty industry. It keeps the poor, poor.  Celebrities are an integral part of the poverty industry.  They are unwitting marketers and sales people for development agendas which sell the idea of the poor as helpless, needy, and incapable.

We need to understand that the poor are not an ‘agenda’ – they are people who need to be engaged through story, dialogue and reflexive listening! A greater focus on partnerships with the poor is needed.  They need to be thought of as equals, partners, and colleagues. Current development practices often treat poverty as an issue which is addressed through institutions.


Source: www.pixabay.com

 Poverty Inc argues that the poor are “Bonsai People”.  This implies that they are poor because they often lack adequate space, land, access to jobs and resources, and legal power.  However, current development policies are based on the idea of the poor as lazy and uneducated.  These understandings of poor people have resulted in charity and humanitarian aid programs which can do far more harm than good.

The system is clearly not working!  Humanitarian aid keeps the poor in poverty.  As a result, the gaps between ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’ are widening.  Marginalised groups are finding themselves increasingly excluded from land and resources. Conflicts are increasing globally. #IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter are examples of the desperation Indigenous groups, black communities, and people of colour are feeling. Social justice programs initiated by well-meaning privileged white European organisations are feeding increased injustices across the world.


Source: www.columbia.edu

 Things need to change, and they need to change NOW!  The elimination of poverty, as called out by the UN SDGs, will never occur by 2030 if we stay on the same track we are travelling.

We need to better understand where our policies have come from, in order to plan for a better future for everyone.  Because of this, I am starting an 8-part blog series on poverty and social justice.  Beginning next week, I will examine the history of social programs in Europe and North America.  This history has created many of the ways we view the poor, and how we have decided to eliminate poverty. This blog series will conclude with discussions of how we can address poverty for the future.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s