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To what extent do you agree with Rahnemas (p.

161) assertion that global poverty is an


entirely new and modern construct? Discuss using examples

Rahnemas assertion that global poverty is an entirely new and modern construct 1
is taken from his argument that modernized global poverty as understood through
economic terms is a western social construct that does not reflect historical
understandings and uses of the word poor. He argues that our current
understanding of poverty looks at the poor as a substantive, describing people
characterised by an increasing gap between their socially induced needs and their
inability to find the resources necessary to meet those needs2. This understanding
of global poverty not only oversimplifies and neglects the infinitude of meanings of
poor but also has harmful effects of producing scarcity and further isolating the
poor. This essay will first look at how this modern understanding of poverty has
been socially constructed as a norm, it will then look at how it can create scarcity
and exacerbate inequalities of resource distribution. This essay will look also look at
the evolution of definitions and measurements of poverty in recent decades. This
will demonstrate how the representation of poverty is reflective of the discourse
and agenda of development actors and highlight the malleable nature of the concept,
which allows the global poverty to be new and different constantly.
Rahnema argues that the current World Bank poverty line measure of $1[.25] US
dollars a day is arbitrarily labelling people as poor and simplifying poverty to a lack
of money earnings. He argues that historically there have been 2 categories of
poverty that has now been replaced by modernised poverty or global poverty.
Previously, there was convivial poverty of sharing and reciprocity and voluntary
poverty, which is a conscious choice to be liberated from dependency creating
needs3. Modernised poverty developed with the urbanisation and industrialisation
of economies that monetised society and socialised individuals to view those with
lower money earnings as lacking in power and wealth. Rahnema argues that when
people did not have enough to meet what was culturally defined as necessary to
their livelihood, they learned how to live with higher self-constraints; it was merely
a particular human predicament as opposed to a label describing a lack and
unsatisfied needs4. This imposition of the concept of the poor lacking material
necessities in life as defined by those who do not identify as such has reduced
individuals to an income and stigmatised poverty as an issue to be solved for the
poor, as they need assistance to.

Rahnema, M. "Poverty." The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as


Power. By Wolfgang Sachs. London: Zed, 1992. N. pag. Print.
2 Rahnema, M. "Poverty." The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as
Power. By Wolfgang Sachs. London: Zed, 1992. N. pag. Print.
3 Rahnema, M. "Eradicating Poverty or the Poor?" IUCN Policy Matters 14 (2006):
36-45. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
4 Rahnema, M. "Eradicating Poverty or the Poor?" IUCN Policy Matters 14 (2006):
36-45. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
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Understanding of poverty as an economic problem, one where it is caused by


material deprivation leads to an obvious solution: to create more products, more
jobs and more income. Thus the solution to poverty is economic development. The
world has seen mass development; between 1980 and 2010, developing countries
have seen their share in world output rise from 33% to 45% 5. And yet the number
of hungry people is still high, with 870 million people in the world, or one in eight,
suffering from chronic undernourishment6. In fact, the UNFAO found that developed
regions saw the number of hungry rise from 13 million in 2004-2006 to 16 million
in 2010-2012. Yapa contends that development efforts have been socialised to place
too heavy an emphasis on raising income and economic growth7. This in turn
creates needs where none existed, portrays the poor as a problem and socialises us
into economic logic that prevents us from looking for other strategies8. Economic
activities and growth often conflict with the needs of the poor, for example he cites a
project in Sri Lanka during the 1970s that was funded by the World Bank to build a
fertiliser factory. To produce the nitrogen-based fertilisers, a need was created to
import naphtha into the country. A scarcity was created even though there were
nitrogen rich resources available in animal and human waste, thus the poor become
dependent on imports of naphtha and their resources go to waste. Yapa and
Rahnema both argue from a post developmental stance, they argue that
development practices serve to benefit the pockets of the rich and protect them
from the poor under the guise of protection of the poor.
Rahnema argues that the poverty eradication practices of the World Bank and IMF,
which stem from an economic understanding of poverty, have systematically
destroyed the endogenous capacity of the poorest population in the world9. The
imposition of modern institutions on peoples mode of living and production reflects
their refusal to acknowledge that the poor are in a position to reverse the effects of
socially created scarcity of globalisation and economy growth. Rahnema prescribes
grassroots movements working alongside the victims of global poverty as opposed
to working for them to save themselves from destitution10. He argues that through
creativity, individuals can find alternative ways of sustenance away from
destitution. This, to him, marks a shift back towards living a voluntary simple life,
UN Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report 2013 - The Rise
of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, 19 March 2013, ISBN 978-92-1126340-4
6 "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012." The State of Food Insecurity in the
World 2012. Food and Culture Organisation of the United Nations, 2012. Web. 06
Nov. 2014.
7 Yapa, Lakshman. "The Poverty Discourse and the Poor in Sri Lanka." Transactions
of the Institute of British Geographers 23.1 (1998): 95-115. Web.
8 Yapa, Lakshman. "The Poverty Discourse and the Poor in Sri Lanka
9 Rahnema, M. "Poverty." The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as
Power. By Wolfgang Sachs. London: Zed, 1992. N. pag. Print.
10 Rahnema, M. "Poverty." The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as
Power. By Wolfgang Sachs. London: Zed, 1992. N. pag. Print.
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an understanding of poor prior to the current economic understanding of global


poverty.
Misturelli and Heffernan analysed the changes in the understanding and
measurement of poverty from the 1970s to 2000s through public discourse. They
found that from the 1970s, concepts of poverty were initially descriptive but
became more and more focused on causality throughout the 80s and 90s where in
2000 descriptive definitions prevailed again. They argued that this may have been
due to the Millennium Development Goals that created demand that development
practitioners demonstrate impacts, thus by deproblematising and changing the
discourse for poverty to be easily measurable better enabled practitioners to meet
their demands11. The notion of poverty is closely linked with the evolution of
different development discourses, and of the negotiations of development actors. It
reflects the tension between development understood as economic growth and as a
discourse on the human condition. The ever changing and susceptible definition of
poverty is viewed as reflecting the perspective of the development actors, rather
than the realities in which the poor live, thus supporting Rahnemas post
developmental claims. On the other hand, Maxwell has highlighted the increasing
complexity of poverty measures since Rowntrees study in 1901 to Amartya Sens
work on capabilities in the 1980s to debates about poverty lines and development
indicators12. He discusses the growth in debate surrounding different fault lines in
understanding poverty, with actual versus potential poverty and absolute versus
relative poverty. These developments indicate that acknowledgement for the
subjectivity of poverty is rising, thus global poverty is constantly changing and
reinventing itself as a new and modern construct. Current measures of poverty have
yet to capture the subjective aspects of poverty. Whether it is poverty lines or
human development indices that incorporate numerous factors and adjust for
gender, objective measures will always constrain the parameters that poverty is
viewed in. In order to establish the index, someone has to choose what measures
and factors to include, which in itself imposes the persons views on what it means
to be poor on others.
Rahnemas assertion on global poverty highlights many issues with the modern
socially constructed understanding of poverty. The way we understand and define
poverty shapes the solutions we implement to solve the issue. Rahnemas main
argument that our adoption of a universal, economic understanding of what it
means to be poor has precipitated socially constructed scarcities and isolated those
who are placed in this category is important and relevant to current development
agendas. Global poverty as a universal definition and measure must therefore be
adapted so as not to obscure intra-group differences and perceptions of poverty.
Misturelli, Federica, and Claire Heffernan. "What Is Poverty? A Diachronic
Exploration of the Discourse on Poverty from the 1970s to the 2000s." The European
Journal of Development Research 20.4 (2008): 666-84. Web.
12 Maxwell, S. (1999) The Meaning and Measurement of Poverty, ODI Poverty
Briefing No.3. Available at: http://www.odi.org.uk/publications/briefing/pov3.htm
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Acknowledging such differences can help bring to light specific problems that were
previously overlooked and thus create awareness for solutions. We cannot be overly
critical of the concept of global poverty as it tackles a vast and complex issue. Our
definition and understanding is continually developing and acknowledgement of its
faults and issues are key to its improvement. Our changing understanding of global
poverty suggests that the definition of global poverty is not a static new construct
but one that constantly reinvents itself. However, it is also important to be wary of
the forces that change our understanding of global poverty and for whose purpose
they serve.
Bibliography
Misturelli, Federica, and Claire Heffernan. "What Is Poverty? A Diachronic
Exploration of the Discourse on Poverty from the 1970s to the 2000s." The European
Journal of Development Research 20.4 (2008): 666-84. Web.
Maxwell, S. (1999) The Meaning and Measurement of Poverty, ODI Poverty Briefing
No.3. Available at: http://www.odi.org.uk/publications/briefing/pov3.htm
"Poverty." Poverty Overview. World Bank, 08 Oct. 2014. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.
Rahnema, M. "Eradicating Poverty or the Poor?" IUCN Policy Matters 14 (2006): 3645. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
Rahnema, M. "Poverty." The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power.
By Wolfgang Sachs. London: Zed, 1992. N. pag. Print.
"The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012." The State of Food Insecurity in the
World 2012. Food and Culture Organisation of the United Nations, 2012. Web. 06
Nov. 2014.
UN Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report 2013 - The Rise of
the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, 19 March 2013, ISBN 978-92-1126340-4
Yapa, Lakshman. "The Poverty Discourse and the Poor in Sri Lanka." Transactions of
the Institute of British Geographers 23.1 (1998): 95-115. Web.