Wednesday, 13 January 2010

On Charity And Poverty

It's funny what seeing one homeless man sleeping at a void deck can do to me on the way home. I'm going to draw in lots of possible correlations on this one, so bear with me.

Poverty grows as social inequality increases. I think a great deal of why poverty exists is because the people it may concern - the upper and middle class ones who have the capacity to do something about poverty - are in fact apathetic, unaware or tolerant of poverty, especially if it can be visually avoided or is perceived to be 'too distant for one to make an impact by helping'.

GDP rarely decreases (poor regions tend to have stagnant GDPs as opposed to declining ones). Globalization and modernization is to a large extent facilitated by economic growth. Economic growth is borne out of liberalization along with all its other social collaterals - greater individualism, increased profiteering, decreased social interaction, perhaps greater alienation between persons. Technology makes us communicate far more over cyberspace than among persons, and transactions are increasingly made through machines, eliminating the need for cashiers to serve patrons. The lonely crowd phenomenon appears quite real to me, as population size grows but traditional and genuine social interaction - heartfelt conversations over coffee - becomes obsolete.

There's no surprise then if sympathy for the disadvantaged and poor is on the decline. It is precisely what economic growth, development and progress needs - an upper class exploitation of the poor, so that we can have more capital to fund market innovations. Social inequality leads to a middle class - the fence-sitting culprits who pragmatically go with the flow and often do not make a principled stand. All one needs to do is to buy the vote of the middle class, and you get political power. Once more, no surprises on whose side - the rich or the poor - the middle class is going to be on. This is also evident when government policy is scrutinized. Some policies, even in 'humane' developed societies, are clearly depriving the poor of welfare often in the pursuit of other nationalistic (and often economic) goals. But after the shock factor of the atrocious policy wears off, the resultant lack of social revolt against these policies pretty much demonstrates that most of society does not want change in favour of the poor enough to do much about it.

But that is not to say that social inequality is more serious now or that there has never been such a terribly blind eye turned towards destitution of the poor in the course of history. I think that we are innately geared towards such apathy as long as we are not the lot getting all the hard luck, and neither am I 'blaming' this on our 'nature'. If this is our nature then to some extent it is instinctive - maybe comparable to when an animal ignores a dying member of its species and moves along. I would highly believe that our 'uncaring' nature towards the poor is a significant causal factor for our species to have the capacity for social hierarchy, political systems and resultant class differences and inequalities.

But then again, it is vital that we - the vast majority that is well off enough - do not determine 'ought' from 'is'. The possibility that it is in our nature does not justify the slippery slope that poverty is normal (and therefore acceptable). Social hierarchies and political systems may have resulted from our lack of concern for the disadvantaged, but it definitely does not follow that an uncaring nature existed for the purpose of creating social hierarchies.

What then to make of charity and poverty? My guess is as good as anybody's. But if I were to think of an answer I'd pick from a potential lot, I would consider two possible and straightforward solutions.

One: Make people care. This is somewhat crazy I suppose because history has shown that going against the grain of human nature has always resulted in externalities whose costs have exceeded that of the benefits gained from going against human nature. One instance is communism where the self-interested need of the individual is violated; it just doesn't work and ends in disaster. But at this juncture, knowing that a major stumbling block towards poverty reduction is that people just do not care enough especially when the atrocity is invisible or too distant, it appears possible to encourage greater sympathy because we know what to target. Consider education avenues where moral values of human rights and compassion can be inculcated, make the plight of the poor more salient and meaningful, and (this last point appears necessary to me) keep the 'corporation' out of this. Yeah, perhaps we'll need their funding and commitment, but if any corporation is willing to help, do it without your company logo in sight. This is wishful thinking, but it would make sense not to commit the 'Corporate America' errors of the past, where branding and marketing led to the commercialization of once-sacred emotions and values. Profit-driven money simply cheapens any venture to me, and this is ingrained in the psychology of our species: when an avid reader is paid to read books, he/she actually loses the interest to read in the absence of monetary rewards.

Two: The prevalent form of aid we tend to see in the world today. Create avenues of charity and gear them towards the capacities of 'uncaring' individuals, such that the poor get help even if the helpers do not mean it. One instance is compulsory community service programmes in colleges, veiled as 'good to have's for resume-building. I don't particularly like this option for its obvious weakness of not attacking the root of the issue and its blatant use of poverty reduction as a means to some other self-serving end, but it avoids the 'clash with human nature' problem. As the scientific and historical wisdom goes, short of regressing back to a completely egalitarian hunter-gatherer society, we will always face the issue of poverty.


Honestly though, as a fuddy-duddy (and perhaps preachy to some) deontological digression from my clinically neutral take on the issue, I believe option one, and perhaps its 'people SHOULD care' variant, is the only option worth bothering to take if one wishes to meaningfully embark on the eradication of poverty.

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