IN 2015, the nations of the world, under the auspices of the United Nations pledged themselves to achieve 17 goals for Sustainable Development which would transform the world by 2030. These 17 goals have now become part of the developmental policies and aspirations of all modern and progressive nations as well as most of the less developed. The first of these Sustainable Goals is the elimination of poverty. This recognition of the scourge of poverty and the desire to eliminate it has been part of mankind’s heritage for thousands of years.
All ancient religious faiths uncompromisingly taught that the poor must be taken care of either by charity or by compassion, whereby one fully empathises with the lot of the poor and feels the pain of poverty and as such is willing to give one’s all. Today, efforts by the State and secular organisations to eliminate poverty are not regarded as charity but as justice. Today, the entire corpus of human knowledge is being brought to bear on this goal of the elimination of poverty, and a detailed analysis of the social, political and economic action which could be taken in achieving this transformation is constantly being worked out, and most world leaders and economists are confident that extreme poverty worldwide could be ended by 2030.
In this quest, the main causes of poverty have been identified and these include unemployment, social exclusion, a high vulnerability of certain populations to natural disasters and diseases, as well as other phenomena which prevent people from being productive. Having identified the causes of poverty, action could be systematically taken to engage or confront these causes and eventually minimise or eliminate them. The action of religious people, however, to deal with poverty by charity and compassion should never be discounted, since for thousands of years they have supplied first-aid to the poor and those in poverty by offering food, medical help, shelter and protection against harassment by stronger members of society and still do so today. Very often, large segments of society tend to feel that since they are socially and economically comfortable, the plight of the poor does not impinge on them and that they should not be bothered with other people’s economic woes. Such an attitude is short-sighted and dangerous.
The first reason why such an attitude is short-sighted is that it fails to take into account that the wellbeing of all humans is linked. This idea is part of the core teaching of religion and is succinctly described by the 16th century English metaphysical poet, John Donne, who warned that when one hears the church bells tolling at a funeral, one should not ask “For whom the bells toll since it tolls for thee since no man is an island”. Donne underlines that all men are connected to each other.
The very practical economic and political reason why all should be concerned about the elimination of poverty is that growing inequality is detrimental to economic growth and undermines social cohesion. This increases social and political tensions which inevitably results in instability and conflicts, such as crime and violence in political and other spheres. The practical action which must be taken to address poverty rests on the tripod of Government, the Private Sector and the education and scientific community: Government could provide the environment where productive employment could be generated and jobs are provided for the poor and marginalised. This would include the formulation of fiscal policies which could stimulate pro-poor growth and reduce poverty. The Private Sector is often called “the engine of growth” and if this idea is fully assimilated by governmental authorities and the public, timely support and help would be accorded the Private Sector so that it could contribute to poverty reduction. Economic opportunities could be promoted for the poor by focusing on those segments of the economy where the poor are most active, such as micro and small enterprises and those operating in the informal sector. Some of these are already in place by this government, and initiatives like the small business financing and economic livelihood programmes in the hinterland have been expanded and given fresh impetus. The education and scientific community could increase the awareness of the negative impacts of poverty on life and society. Such awareness would provide a platform on which successful social, economic and political action could operate. Scientific action could lead to the provision of safe drinking water for poorer communities and the elimination of water-borne diseases. It could also reduce the health risks by promotion of improved hygiene and sanitation. So far we have been dealing with poverty elimination as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The action which has been prescribed, as expected, would be mainly the responsibility of the State but ordinary folk have also taken traditional action in dealing with their poverty. In Guyana, after Emancipation and during the Indentureship, Guyanese folk had evolved their own ways of addressing poverty and these half-forgotten ways are worthy of resuscitation. For example, such would include the sensible and economic way they dealt with a necessity such as food.
People concentrated on consuming good nutritious locally-produced food which was not expensive. Kitchen gardens were common and almost every family reared chickens and ducks which provided them with their fried or curried chicken and eggs. People did not buy junk food which is both unhealthy and expensive and they avoided imported, canned or boxed food since they always used the far less expensive local equivalents. For example, they would use the far less expensive corn flour porridge or conkey or corn-on-the-cob instead of corn flakes. And the same pattern was employed in the use of clothes, home healthcare, the celebrations of rites of passage and so on. These folk ways of dealing with poverty could well supplement the macro programmes of the Sustainable Development Goal of poverty elimination.