Poverty is a Spectator Sport
Extreme poverty and many other shades of poverty are omnipresent in the society we live in today. There is no exception. It is the same everywhere, worldwide. Much has been written and said about poverty, much work has been implemented in poverty alleviation, books have been published, careers have been made, all because poverty exists and makes itself available to be felt, seen, experienced.
This also means that poverty is a necessary requirement for all of us who work towards its alleviation, including me. And since we are in power (which will always be) and poor are not, and since we need poverty as a raw material for the sustenance of many individuals, institutions, governments and corporations (otherwise how can corporate social responsibility be implemented), we tacitly, subconsciously and knowingly, it so seems, allow poverty to continue. I use the term “poverty” also to mean various social and environmental issues we are plagued with and would add to it - war, strife, terrorism, victimisation, oppression, among others, as manifestations of poverty, either in thought, action or both.
I have always been intrigued by how much things stay the same despite all that we do in the name of poverty alleviation. The end-game is pretty simple, actually: if we can’t find solutions to poverty in realtime (without a fancy event at a luxurious resort to massage us into thinking we can!), we can never find them through schemes, social welfare programs, workshops or global covenants (climate change included). Since those who benefit from a better quality of life will always be few in number and since inwardly none of us are constituted to be thoroughly altruistic in a sharing economy mode, we will continue to reinforce the status quo.
Many years ago, I worked with indigenous communities in Bastar, a predominantly tribal district in central India, trying to understand how best to help create livelhihood opporuntiies that are inclusive and not subsumed to exploitative local and global markets. Many years hence, the indigenous communities of Bastar are where they were when I first met them — between a rock and a hard place: trying best to desperately clutch to their fast slipping cultural straws, at the same time not knowing how to intergrate with the force of capitalist markets, where everything is, put very simply, input, output and profit margins. And since NGOs are makings of market forces, there fate is no different.
Of course, many years down the line, I am better off, more erudite, I could talk to you for hours on indigenous cultures, but then again, we did not start this discussion trying to figure out how I shaped my life, right? The point remains, and this is a poignant example, my own example - that the present system we live in does not allow us to do real, enduring good. It just helps us become more knowlegdable of the “others” (poor) without having the means or thougths to do anything. (Secret: I am not pessimistic)
We see cricket, football, tennis, among other spectator sports and get thrilled with the adrenalin rush as we go about supporting our teams. Nothing wrong with that. We continue to cheer and leer as we lend our support to dangerous sports with animals and fast cars — we continue to spectate. Let’s assume, this is also fine. I agree that we can’t live in this world negating everything, right? But when we merely spectate poverty, we really do make it an ugly sport.
And the worrisome part is — and this is pandemic — we continue to be involved and enthralled and adrenalin-rushed in our spectation in two scenarios: even when we are doing something about it (poverty, sustainability, CSR, environment, take your pick!) or not doing anything about it. As we build institutional forces to counter poverty, we actually build more bureaucracy than make real change to the lives of people. Otherwise what can explain the slums of Mumbai that continue to grow or the hidden under the carpet urban poverty in Indonesia, Brazil (just to give some examples) or the rural poverty across a dreary, parched landsape in India, with cracking agricultural fields, heightening political oppression and helpless poor communites)?
Seriously, how difficult can it be to provide food, water, shelter, gainful occupation, meaningful livelhoods to those who don’t have it? I think the answer is within. We don’t want poverty to go away. We draw our power and sustenance from the inequalities and cracks that exist in society and our purpose compass is somehow totally clueless on what is right and wrong. We are a bandaging tribe, where we revel in applying medicines and feeling good about it. Take the case of employee volunteering — what is it really about? We feeling good, us changing us for better for our own sake, or we making a collective impact in the lives of people that we spectate on our poverty tourism?
If poverty can’t be a spectator sport, its players should not exist! I dont think there is any other alternative.