Re-thinking “Poverty”

Jordan Ricker - Senegal


February 11, 2013

I have now spent over one hundred and fifty straight days in Senegal, a country that the World Bank defines as “developing.”* That’s quite a change from spending the last eighteen years of my life having only lived in or visited “developed countries.”  Passing this hundred and fifty days mark, I have also passed the 2/3rds  point of my Global Citizen Year – that is, my solid seven and a half month stay in Senegal, the majority of which (six months) is spent in a small city called Mboro.

Mboro is located on the northern coast of Senegal, West Africa, and is famous in the region for being a town that helps to provide workers for the nearby phosphate factory run by ICS – Industries Chimiques du Sénégal. In these last four months that I have spent in Mobro, I have lived with a Senegalese family, spoken almost entirely in French and Wolof (an ethnic language of Senegal), and met people and seen things that I could have never possibly imagined before my trip.

Before I left the United States, I thought that the definition of “poverty” was pretty clear-cut. Yes, I knew that it was definitely not a good thing, and it was severely detrimental to many people, but simply how you defined poverty was pretty unambiguous.

But that was before I came to Senegal.

After now having lived, even for less than a year, in what is labeled as a “developing country,” I now realize how much I need to re-think my definition of what “poverty” is and what it means.

The biggest realization that I have come to is how multi-faceted poverty is. The dimensions are vast. There is economic poverty: not having enough money or resources to be able to eat three or even two meals a day. There is educational poverty: not being able to attend school because you need to get a job to make sure you and your family have enough to eat. There is social poverty, which is probably one of the hardest “poverties” to measure, the hardest for people who have never spent time in a developing country to understand, and the most severe in terms of happiness in life. Social poverty, as I have seen it, is when your country is not developed enough, when you don’t have the money, or when you don’t have the time to go out and enjoy social activities. Social poverty is when you are blocked from doing the things that make your life enjoyable. Social poverty is when you are blocked from the things that make your life worth living, that give it meaning.

Poverty, I realize now, is a barrier that stops you from being able to achieve something. It is a limiting factor and a blockade. But it is not all-encompassing. Throughout my time spent here, I have seen a remarkable resilience to the Senegalese people. Certainly not all of them are experiencing all of the various kinds of poverty, all at the same time. Some are even lucky enough to not experience any of them. But the vast majority of people I have met are people who are prevented from doing something that they would like to do due to poverty, whether it is economic, educational, social, or a different type of poverty altogether.

Poverty, as I initially understood it, and as I think it has been traditionally taught in school, has been simple. It is undoubtedly horrible, but it was simple. There are facts and figures and statistics that explain what poverty “is” and “is not.” If a country is below enough international indexes then it will be labeled as “developing” or “impoverished.”

What I suggest is a radical change to this thinking. Don’t be so lazy and narrow-minded to think that poverty is simple or that there is an easy, golden bullet-type remedy. This is a difficult problem. It’s one that calls for action, initiative, and a desire to actually care about someone other than just you. It’s not easy. That’s what makes it worthwhile.

*This definition of “developing” was taken from the website of The International Statistical Institute, in referencing the World Bank’s Atlas method for classifying countries based on GNI (gross national income) per capita.

This list of developing countries can be found at the following site (accessed February 5th, 2013): http://www.isi-web.org/component/content/article/5-root/root/81-developing

Jordan Ricker