The honest poor can sometimes forget poverty. The honest rich can never forget it.
Gilbert K. Chesterton
Growing up in 1980s and 90s Russia was not easy. For the first few years of my life three generations of my family lived in a tiny two bedroom flat on the fifth floor of a ten story grey Communist monolith. Living in such close proximity, my grandparents on my mum’s side, my parents, and my sister and I shared a lot, except perhaps privacy. With regular state salary payments being rarer than all the world’s blue moons, my mum forwent many meals to keep my sister and I fed. On the flip side, every year, for the best part of the three months that a typical Russian school summer break lasts, my father’s parents inherited the responsibility of taking care of us, the kids. Their apartment, located in a rural town called Gorodovikovsk in the southern Russian Republic of Kalmykia, where my grandmother still lives, was a little roomier, but it lacked many of the amenities that most people living in developed countries take for granted. We used the communal outdoor, hole-in-the-ground latrine, using only old news pages for toilet paper. Meanwhile, on the count of, at best, an unreliable water supply, we filled up every pot and pan in the kitchen with fresh water from the local well, heating just enough every other day to have a quick “bucket wash” (perhaps this explains why I am still unable to take a shower that lasts longer than a minute).
For many people, this scene undoubtedly describes poverty. And, objectively speaking, we were most definitely not wealthy. But we certainly didn’t feel that poor as our lives were rich in so many other ways. Our family life was close and connected, nurturing a deep love and respect between grandparents and grandkids that lasts to today. My grandma worked at the local Polytechnic College and my grandfather taught music and, to supplement their meager earnings, they also kept chickens and the odd duck whose eggs would make it to the dinner table every day and whose flesh we’d eat on special occasions. During the warmer months, a herb garden kept us supplied with dill, parsley and chervil, whilst the local reservoir enabled much loved overnight net fishing trips with my granddad that, in turn, provided regular
feasts for the local mosquito population. And, of course, as with most Russians even today, we grew vegetables, fruits and berries on our own plot of land called a dacha, tilling the soil with spades and manually pulling weeds in the smoldering heat of Russian summers. The farming work should have felt like hard manual toil, but, perhaps through the prism of childhood innocence, it was more like fun and games that brought the family together. It also allowed for winter supplies of pickled vegetables and jarred jams to be swapped and shared across the extended family, friends, and neighbors and even used as part-payment, part-nicety to laborers coming to fix a leaky balcony. We may not have had a proper toilet or a regular water supply, but, with close family and community ties, excellent agricultural knowledge, and a relative lack of hunger, very poor is not how we felt.
Beyond personal anecdotes, evidence all over the globe points to the fact that ‘poor’ people’s own conceptions of what it means to be poor often differ from those of the people trying to “do development” or “tackle poverty”. Bolivians, for example, feel poor, but not that poor; Whereas official estimates class 38 percent of Bolivians as extremely poor, only 11 percent report feeling so. Meanwhile, many Britons actually don’t feel rich at all, despite their situations being far better than many of their developing country counterparts. And, as in my own family’s case, cross-cultural anthropological evidence suggests that many misconceptions arise because we, the people in rich countries,
not only fail to notice that so-called ‘poor’ people lead very rich material lives, but also that we often completely fail to appreciate how they value the things and people that surround them.
Anthropologist Erin B Taylor.
This is not to deny that abject destitution is unacceptable, but to recognize that the relative nature of poverty and cultural differences in what is sought to give richness to people’s lives can be problematic when trying to identify, measure and reduce poverty. It can also be fascinating when long-held assumptions about poverty are blown out of the water under closer scrutiny.
To look into the more ‘subjective’ side of international development, January is dedicated to Poverty and Psychology at INESAD. Stick with us throughout the first month of 2013 as Development Roast explores not only the psychology of the ‘poor’, but also the psychology of the more wealthy, and the aid industry’s general psychological attitude towards developing nations and the people who inhabit them.
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Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.
For your reference:
Andersen L. (2007) “Bolivians feel poor, but not that poor,” Development Roast, 5th August 2007. [http://www.inesad.edu.bo/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=649%3Abolivians-feel-poor-but-not-that-poor&catid=172%3Amorning-monday-news&Itemid=649&lang=es]
Gordon O. (2012) “Do Britons feel rich or poor?” The Guardian, 7th September 2012. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/sep/14/do-britons-feel-rich-poor]
Taylor, E. B. (2012) “Stuff that poor people like: Cross-cultural evidence from EASA,” Erin B. Taylor blog, 18th July 2012. [http://erinbtaylor.com/stuff-that-poor-people-like-cross-cultural-evidence-from-easa/]