I grew up in a rural village in Uganda and most of these experiences mentioned in Economic Lives of the Poor resonate with me. For the better part of the year, the question on my thoughts is how best do we end the cycle of poverty for more people as quickly as possible?
I and a few million others were lucky to break out of the poverty cycle because our parents somehow got an extra income to take us through better schools. When I left my village elementary school, Primary 3 was my next class but I failed the entry interviews for primary 3, 2 and 1 at my new urban school.
I was allowed into Primary 1 anyway, perhaps because I was too old for kindergarten — luckily because of the village hard-work culture, my first position was 11th out of 150 pupils and I would go on to be a top student till Primary 7 where I was 2nd in the National Examinations.
While they celebrated my success with me, my village playmates like 2 billion others elsewhere weren’t as lucky — they still live below $5 a day so they can’t afford a better education for their children let alone food, Medicare, and shelter. Their cycle will run infinitely until they are able to get that extra beyond subsistence.
The lives of the poor can be summarized as subsistent. You only get access to one, two or at most three basics of life. If you get water (miles away) you don’t go to school, if you get food you don’t deserve healthcare, if you get the food and healthcare you won’t afford education or decent shelter, clothing, energy nor other basics.
I know women using mosquito nets provided free by The Global Fund not to protect themselves against malaria but to make passion fruit juice, mushroom growing, and other small income-generating activities.
How much ‘extra’ you have determines which, what standard, how, and when you can access life’s basics. The more extra you have the more and better access you get.
You have to ask what made my and a few others’ parents get that extra to afford a better education for their children? It wasn’t hard work because I know neighbors who worked harder, it wasn’t saving because every school term, I was sent back home 2–4 times for non-payment — my dad paid fees last, it wasn’t smartness because you know smarter people with less than you have, it wasn’t anything you’ve been told leads to success. It’s just the design of the system — push up a few today and pick another few a decade later and another a decade later while throwing back a few, and so on.
Hard work, intellect, connections, working smart, personal initiative and all the good things we are told lead to success only prepare us for the next time the system opens its doors — no guarantees. The system will always open up next level doors to a few and close them for the majority. The higher the wealth level, the tighter the opening, and the less it takes through.
It lifts up too few people, and far less often that many die of old age before leaving poverty but even far more people (+18 million — 6 million of whom are children- UNICEF ) die every year because of poverty-related issues.
Sometimes it even unfairly lifts a few people at the expense of the many. For example, middle-men who get super-rich off of the hard work of millions. This is in most sectors but mostly the financial sector. But the worst injustice is by self-interested social middle-men who latch onto wealth meant for a flourishing planet and society.
I haven’t gone back to my village for some 5 years now but I know they still go to the same brown-water well I fetched water from at 4 years. In the dry season as the well dried up, the water became thicker with more clay, and I remember the braised banana/beans mix my grandma cooked also became thicker and browner. :)
They still go to the same poor schools, one-room health center, even when the government has recently extended electricity, they still use unhealthy kerosene lamps — they can’t afford electricity, little has changed.
But the point here is the other bad design of the system — that when it lifts you up, it dims the torch so you don’t see or ignore the fact that society and planet invest in your success.
It is easy to ignore the plight of those with a less or negative ‘extra’ if you live in a community where everyone’s extra is for long borderline luxury.
For a few billionaires and millionaires, extra has become an excess.
“What we know is that there can’t be an excess in one place if there’s not a need in another place.” Elizabeth Alexander
The system fools us — consumers to support a few people a billion times up the pyramid while damning the many (and our shared planet) down under the pyramid.
But we can redesign the system to;
- To remind us that our continued wellbeing depends on a flourishing planet and society. That giving more people a hand-up means we also move a level higher since more people can now afford to buy our products/services.
- Prepare more people for the next time the system opens its doors, and open the doors longer to lift more people to the next level. To enable more people to get more of that extra. To enable more people access to more of life’s basics. To save more lives.
I’m talking about a more inclusive and distributive but less exclusive and extractive Capitalism.
I have a rough amateur r/evolution plan that needs;
- philosophers to refine the arguments,
- economists to do regression on the model,
- AI junkies to implement the first social robot spending $95M daily on the most urgent, neglected but solvable social and environmental issues,
- data scientists to wow the masses with visual data,
- software engineers, product managers to hook consumers to the apps,
- protest or r/evolution strategists to refine the attack strategy to rally the masses to join the first smart-protest,
- digital marketers, influencers to spread it virally,
- payments experts to divert planet and society’s wealth right at counter,
- blockchain engineers to decentralize wealth and bypass social middlemen,
- storytellers and animators to awaken the masses from a millennium-long slumber and popularise a new planet/society-focused normal around the world, but most importantly
- you to join and spread the building of a new world that defines success as “contribution and not always competition “— Adam Grant .
But the best thing is we don’t have to wait for all the above, we can start right in just a month with a simple web/mobile app connecting consumers to planet/society issues they care about.
It’s ambitious but not impossible — remember;
“All things are impossible until they happen, and then they become inevitable. “ Maxims for a Modern Man” Paul Eldridge
“It always seems impossible until it is done.” Nelson Mandela
If you are on the internet you probably already know it’s awash with cries and calls to action against an ailing society and environment. Inequality, poverty, hunger, disease, climate change, immigration, violent extremism, etc. It’s a lot of talk and it’s fair to say ‘now let’s act’.
The suggested solutions are thinking within the box. CSR, more philanthropy, 3PL, stakeholder Capitalism, impact investing, green new deal, increase taxes, all fail to address capitalism’s distribution problem.
At its core, the inequality problem is a capitalist ownership problem. Market failure is an ownership failure. Capitalism treats planet and society as externalities because they aren’t persons under the law, yet businesses — ‘also not persons’ are accorded corporate personhood.
That the system scams consumers to give businesses wealth incentives to innovate and deny planet wealth incentives to sustain us and society to cooperate is the mother of all injustices.
This is echoed by the father of capitalism Adam Smith; “It is unjust that the whole of society should contribute towards an expence of which the benefit is confined to a part of the society.” A quick hack against this injustice is for planet and society to attain personhood as well.
They also ignore the power of people (consumers) in effecting change quicker.
We no longer have the luxury to wait for decade long policies and management treatises, we can launch, test and improve a new capitalism tomorrow.
“If we invented economics today from scratch, it would look nothing like what you see in textbooks.” ~ Eric Beinhocker — Executive Director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford University
You have to wonder why we are still using 15th-century ideologies of ‘capitalistic ownership’ when we are no longer in the Agricultural revolution??