Thursday, August 19, 2010

Poverty and the Information Highway

Taylor Corbett is a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, pursuing a double major in Economics and Diplomacy and World Affairs. This post is part of a series he wrote as part of an internship with BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra-poor program in Bangladesh.

Within 30 seconds of reading this you can get a seven-day weather forecast for Rio de Janeiro, Delhi, or Tokyo. You can learn how vaccinations work, get instructions on how to construct a pig pen, and even learn the definition of poverty… in Japanese. The point being, we live in an information rich world. With 1.7 billion internet users, some of us clearly have access to limitless amounts of information that the remaining 5.3 billion do not. However, when one goes further and looks at the billions who do not even have access a public library, the world’s 72 million children who are not enrolled in school, or 774 million that are illiterate, this information gap becomes almost unimaginable, but its consequences are very real.

When I first heard I was going to be working with the “ultra-poor” of Bangladesh, admittedly I was thinking in purely economic terms. Poverty to me was defined by a lack of financial resources (money) or productive assets (capital such as land, livestock, or a business). Thus, I thought the “cycle of poverty” was driven by economic disparities in which the poor, lacking any means to make money simply became poorer. However, after talking to a few hundred of Bangladesh’s ultra-poor I found this isn’t exactly the case.

Many of the individuals I have worked with live in isolated villages miles from the nearest paved road or electrical socket, are illiterate, have never been to school, and have never seen a computer, world map, or library (yet alone know how to utilize one). As a result ultra-poor individuals are severely handicapped when it comes to obtaining knowledge beyond what they already know or are experienced in. Thus, problems and opportunities that require additional knowledge beyond what an ultra-poor individual already possess poses great difficulty for them, such as a new business venture, or an illness within the family. This lack of access to information is undeniably linked to the ultra-poor’s financial condition. However, the distinction must be made that these are in fact two different types of poverty—one financial, one informational. In doing so, it becomes clear that the “cycle of poverty” cannot only be attributed to a lack of financial resources, but knowledge resources as well. But why is such a distinction important?

The answer is perhaps best explained through an analogy given to me by a villager in Islampur, in the northwestern corner of the country. The man told me, “If I am sick, and I have all the medicine in the world, but I don’t have the knowledge or advice on which medicine to take, what good does it do me?” His point is simple yet significant and has wider implications for development organizations. In order to truly tackle poverty, development organizations must willing and able to address the both types of poverty simultaneously. Not only must they present individuals with opportunities and resources, but they must also give individuals the knowledge to utilize those opportunities or resources. The implications of not doing so can be disastrous and render organizational efforts and donor dollars useless. As one women told me, “If I am given a cow it is just a cow, only once I am given training and advice does that cow become an asset.” BRAC has done a wonderful job to identify and address both types of poverty that entrap so many ultra-poor by giving them not only material support, but social and educational support as well. However, some other organizations have yet to embody this reality in their programming, greatly reducing their potential impact.

If wealth is equal to power, and power is equal to knowledge is it therefore safe to say that knowledge is equal to wealth? While the dynamics of poverty are much more complex than this, my experiences in Bangladesh seem to say so. In recognizing that the world’s poor are not only financially poor, but knowledge poor, development organizations can tailor their program approaches to have a greater impact on the individuals that they serve.

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