In a Foreign Policy magazine article, “More than 1 billion people are hungry in the world“, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo ask what if its really true. It is an extract from their book, “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.” The article is long and well worth reading to get an idea of how some people think how some other people behave. Much of that thinking of even superficially wrong but there is a significant part where the thinking is plausible at first glance but wrong nonetheless.
Banerjee and Duflo, going by the article, are talking to the poor and the hungry. That’s always a good thing — at least it is better than only sitting in an ivory tower and making up theories — because this matter of poverty is a human condition. The study of poverty is as complex as say meteorology but there’s an essential difference. You can understand and predict weather patterns without actually having to get wet because instruments tell you more than you can find out with your bare senses.
Not so with poverty because poverty is a human condition; human feelings and human motivations come into play. To fully understand those, one has to be poor and hungry. Or be extraordinarily skilled to be
abel able to imagine how it must feel to be poor. How you think and behave when you are chronically hungry has to be qualitatively different from how you think and behave when you are comfortable and well fed. I think that most policymakers get their prescription for poverty elimination wrong because they don’t understand poverty — and that is because they have never been poor.
Speaking personally, I never had any illusions about my understanding of poverty. I started studying economics when I realized that it was a discipline that studied human behavior. More often than not when I tell people that economics is the study of how humans behave, I get puzzled looks. They think that economics is about GDP and money and worse, the stock market.
Anyhow, I think that the people who are best equipped to address poverty are those who are not just good academically but have tons of empathy — the ability to imagine how it must feel to be very poor. They have to be able to think like how poor people think. I have concluded that many of the policy prescriptions from the experts fail because they either have never been hungry and poor, or they lack imagination and empathy, or both.
I have often thought to myself that many of India’s problems may be easier to solve if those who make policy aimed at reducing poverty were required to experience poverty first hand for say a year or so. What if the prime minister was required to live and eat like a person below the poverty line for a couple of months? What if he were forced to subsist for a week on 1000 calories a day from food that is nearly inedible? Would he still help his colleagues steal from the poor to the tune of billions of dollars?
In any event, I think it is a shame that poverty of the kind that means chronic hunger still exists in the world today. The productive capacity of the world exceeds what is needed to provide everyone with food, clothing, shelter and education. The misallocation of resources into weapons of mass destruction (the US is the biggest criminal in this regard) is the greatest avoidable tragedy and it is brought on by the greed of a relatively few people. I am convinced that the war machine will continue to expand as the global economy increases and thus continue to suck the life blood out of humanity.