Monday, 20 April 2015

What is Poverty?

For this blog entry we thought it would be interesting to explore what poverty means for different people, in particular, for Ghanaians and British people. Al Hassan and I asked the question “in your opinion, what is poverty?” Here are some of the responses as well as our own interpretations:

“I think poverty is an unmet need where you don’t have the power or means to redress that situation. Poverty can be financial, physical, emotional, environmental - whatever, but I think it is fundamentally about not having power over your situation. As such it is bad for the soul, the individual and society.” Neil, London
“I think poverty is a state of mind of being poor and evident in a deficiency of resources needed or desired by a person.”  J issa, Tamale 
“Well, I thought initially -  it is not being able to access basic essentials like food, clothing and shelter.  But, it could also be: not having a job, not being able to access a doctor when you are ill, being too cold or too hot and not being able to do anything about it, not having access to basic education, not being able to read or write.  I think it's also relative to the country or region someone lives in e.g. an English person's definition of poverty could be very different to that of someone living in a developing country.” Louise, Cambridge
“Poverty to me is a person’s inability to pay his childrens school fees, feed well and a lack of a job.” Abdulai, Tamale
 “I think it’s when a person or population does not have their basic human needs met. But, these needs would exclude emotional needs.” Judith, Oxford
“To me poverty has a lot of definitions and comes in different forms, comprising ones inability to feed oneself well or have three square meals, not able to get a job, and not able to get shelter.” Fatima, Tamale

A normal working day in Tamale Market

Al Hassan:

In my view, poverty has always been like a state of deprivation to many basic necessities of life. These necessities range from poor roads, poor infrastructure, unavailability of potable water, poor nutrition, low level of education and many others. In Tamale, where I live, though things are improving, the plights of many people especially in the rural places are continually worsening. This I think is as a result of low output in agriculture observed for the past number of years. This results to food insecurity of many homes in the rural places making them experience abject poverty. The research conducted further revealed to me that lack of jobs for the growing youth actually is a symptom of poverty, and most fascinating is that a lot of diseases that we have in northern region is caused by poverty.


For me, the word poverty immediately sparked images, mostly viewed on televised charity campaigns, of malnourished, ill and homeless people struggling to survive in some of the world’s harshest climates. However, after a little research I soon learnt that poverty is very much a multifaceted concept that includes social, economic and political elements which are often exacerbated by inequality. There are a vast range of indicators for poverty, from life expectancy to gender inequality, literacy and even a lack of information/technology. The issue is complex, dynamic and very difficult to define.

Severe deprivation, or absolute poverty, better defines my initial understanding of poverty, where a person lacks the most basic of human needs such as food, water and sanitation. However, the United Nations views poverty from a broader and more social perspective; “fundamentally, poverty is the inability of getting choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society.”

(UN Statement, June 1998 – signed by the heads of all UN agencies)

Comparing Perspectives

It is clear that British and Ghanaian people have many similar views of what poverty is- in particular, they both refer to poverty as not meeting your basic human needs. However, the opinions do differ; the British put forward a broader description of poverty to include incapacity, such as “not being able to do anything about (your situation)” and that it is “fundamentally not having power over your situation”. However, the Ghanaian perspective suggests that “poverty is a state of mind of being poor” and therefore, to some extent, a matter of choice.

It is interesting to consider this difference in opinion from a developed and non-developed perspective.  In the developed world, we have been educated sufficiently to know and understand our human rights, whereas in the developing world many people may not fully understand what they are entitled to or what human rights even are. Such people may see poverty purely as a lack of resources to sustain life. The Western viewpoint, however, appreciates poverty in a more social context of choice and opportunity. It is the economic and social development of an entire country that causes the lack of resources, rather than the individual’s situation or their “state of mind of being poor”.  (This again draws on how poverty is relative.)

A person lacking choice and opportunity may become immobile within society, which often leads to exclusion and the downward spiral into poverty. 

The exclusion of people from society is something that we are tackling here at the International Service Northern Regional Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities, in Tamale. Discrimination against people with disabilities is a principal cause of extreme poverty and especially relevant considering 1 in 10 people in Ghana are disabled.

At the Resource Centre we work to ensure persons with disabilities live in dignity, with equal access to rights and opportunities as full members of society. Overall we aim to promote that disability is not inability.

Defining Poverty with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Humans must be fulfilled on a number of different levels to avoid poverty. The responses above suggest that poverty is relative to location but that it also encompasses many human needs. Some of the needs mentioned are physical requirements, such as having “three square meals a day”, however some are psychological, for example “not having power over your situation… it is bad for the soul”. Any deficiency in such needs can result in a state of human impoverishment.


This idea of poverty operating on different levels is best represented by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Fundamental needs such as food, water and shelter form the base of the pyramid, while the need for self-actualisation sits at the top, which is the need to fulfil one’s potential.
 The pyramid shows that poverty can be found in many different aspects of life, where needs are not satisfied.

It also highlights why our work to support disabled people at the Resource Centre is so important, as widespread stigmatisation, discrimination and exclusion create daily challenges for disabled people. Disabled people are limited from not only attaining their very basic physiological needs but also their needs for security, belongingness and self-esteem. 

Thank you for reading this blog entry. Next week Chris and Patience will be discussing disability and the Millennium Development Goals. See you soon! 

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