Published On  Jan 29,  2012






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No one would chose to be born and raised amid poverty and hopelessness, but fate has the final say in natural selection. Living a life surrounded with illiteracy, disability, disease, and destitution is indeed as agonising as standing unarmed on enemy lines.

It is easy to lose dreams with the realisation that the mountain of difficulties ahead is too steep to surrender to individual efforts. Such is the case for many Ethiopians, especially for the 38.9pc people living under absolute poverty.

Even the superrich cannot escape the face of poverty, as they experience it on the streets, around cathedrals, at the gates of recreation centres, and around their skyscraper office buildings. They cannot flee from it, even if they want to. It is everywhere, as it is part of the national reality.

Yet, little has changed in the approach to eliminate destitution. The focus has solely been on reinventing the superstructure.

Poverty is as cultural as it is economic. Much of its persistence is solidified with cultural strands that either denounce riches or praise the peacefulness of penury. They function at both societal and individual levels.

Much of the traditional talk of the neighbourhood takes poverty for granted. Living in it is considered fate. So deeply ingrained is the culture that marginal improvements are not rightly recognised. Hence, individuals see no light at the end of the tunnel, living in the darkness of the established lines of thought.

At the heart of this culture lies the little credit given to competition. Unlike the world of the rich, the realm of poverty is short of the essential elements of competition. What could competition bring, after all, if the endgame is collective failure?

Dreams are short-lived on this side of the world. Survival is heavily defined by collective attitudes, while success is measured by relative wellness. It is all good, as long as it does not break the law of collective failure.

Such a life is cyclical and its structure too efficient to produce idleness. There exists no commendable incentive to fight against the established culture of failure and only a little information exists on how to do so. Even then, individual efforts happen in vain.

Popular interventions against poverty in the neighbourhood focus on the provision of goods and services without proper analysis of cultural elements. Engaging the poor in small and micro enterprises (SMEs) remains the major strategy. Availing access to finance and educating the poor about doing business are the supportive approaches. Yet, none of them address the issue of competitiveness.

For many poor people, the system cannot provide money or opportunity. They very well know that both exist in the world they live in and that they could create both of them. What is lacking is a sense of relevance, usefulness, and competitiveness.

Indeed, this is the scarcest component in the world of poverty. It is heavily monopolised by the wealthy. They control all of the relevant value chains, such that a child in their world feels more important than a poor adult.

Ironically, development strategies focus on curing the symptom rather than the ailment. As if to prove that they are designed by the rich, they are ignorant of the cultural hindrances that breed hopelessness. They rather provide structural answers as magic pills for poverty.

It is even more painful to see that the rich get richer as the poor get poorer. The equation is by far lopsided towards the rich. They capitalise both on their own hope and on the spiralling hopelessness of the poor.

If, at all, distributive measures such as development strategies are meant to redress the problem, they have to detour. They have to embrace the poor themselves in the design and implementation of their strategies. No one knows the pain of poverty better than the poor themselves.

It is puzzling how rich bureaucrats who have no clue about the misery of destitution could come up with the right strategies to eradicate it. It is also mystifying how a world of brainiacs fails to investigate the root cause of such a systemic, malignant problem.

For the poor in the neighbourhoods, however, nothing matters more than collective survival. Everything is seen within the prism of relativity. Even failure is normal as far as it is collective.

After all, that is the tradition. If anyone does not bother to see the poverty around them, though, better to start from understanding its intricate cultures. It might not be easy, but it is by far worth.

Ends are all dead for the traditional approaches of poverty reduction. They cannot help much, for their proponents are complete strangers to cultures of survival. As the popular saying goes, culture hatches survival.


By Getachew T. Alemu
Getachew T. Alemu is the Op-ed Editor for Fortune. He can be contacted at



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