Conversations About Poverty in Africa

By George Werner

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted July 25, 2002

In Africa the poor are not only those with a lack of money, but also people in a condition, which involves the experience of shame, powerlessness, social, religious and political exclusion. The poor are people of overdue rights. They are people who are landless, homeless, starving and exploited. They are cursed, shunned by others and condemned to live on the periphery of mainstream society. They are either unable to gain access to the good things offered by society or take part in public decisions.

The poor in Africa are those who have inadequate access to income, resources and services; are unable to do certain tasks that are essential for fulfilling one’s human potential and carrying out one’s social responsibilities; are shunned, denigrated, blamed, patronized and ostracized by others; have little, or no opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their life; are uprooted as refugees or displaced persons; are treated as non-persons-powerless, excluded, marginalized, in effect living ‘in exile’ in their own society.

They are in all parts of Africa. For some, being poor means lacking what is necessary for basic physical survival. Often this is termed absolute poverty. For others, their survival is not threatened, but they are placed in a position of significant disadvantage in relation to the rest of the population. Their poverty is relative. In both cases, the poor in Africa demand consideration and action. All nations should be required to put into place practical, measurable policies that reduce abject poverty on the Continent.

Poverty is as much about powerlessness and exclusion as about low levels of wealth and income. It is as much a social, cultural, political, and religious reality as it is an economic one. Personal failures, accident or natural factors do not principally cause poverty. Rather, it is entrenched in the social structures of a society that creates inequalities. Pope John Paul II speaks of unjust social structures as “the structures of sin” for they are the products of human actions and make change of a poor person’s situation difficult. These sinful structures, which are the ultimate causes of poverty, are largely produced from the desire for excessive wealth, control, and status. We do not need to look beyond our national borders to realize that while the majority of Africa’s population moves deeper into poverty, a small minority is accumulating even more wealth.

The statistics on the incidents of poverty are simply an estimate of the percentage of people below the so-called poverty line. Statistics do not indicate anything about the conditions of Africans who are absolutely poor. People working with and listening to the poor lead us to draw some inference about how they see their world. For many of Africa’s poor, each day is filled with insecurities. At the most basic level, for many the question is, what will my family have to eat today and how will we buy or produce this? Such insecurity leads the poor people to believe that society is structured unfairly. There is little room for the weak, the needy, the illiterate, and the dependent. Pushed to the edges of mainstream society, the poor can become alienated from other people - living in a world of their own. Their poverty is symbolized very profoundly in their marginalization.

Moreover, many of the poor see their reality as something they want to change, especially for the sake of their children. Yet, other poor Africans accept with fatalistic resignation the hardships of their world. Some simply despair. They are people who see life pitched against them and without any hope of change of their situation. Their reality is a struggle through one day at a time. Hope rarely appears on their horizon. Poverty grinds some to a lessening of their humanity. Some even turn to the blind alley of violence and terrorism. Some warlords and politicians exploit the poor for their own ends. This is a reality all Africans must realize if we are to help children grow up in a peaceful Africa. There will be many different points of entry to this way of seeing and they will not be the same for each of us.

Often we do no recognize our blindness towards the poor and marginalized. We fail to see that they are not agents of their own marginalization. We can forget that this stems from an unjust share of the goods of Africa and from exclusion in decision-making. Ultimately it is one’s personal contact with the poor that helps to confront one’s prejudices about them. Maybe, too, we can move to identify some of the sources of these prejudices in our personal history or in the influence of the media.

History teaches that poverty breeds violence. Each of us is challenged to reflect on the question of how the poor of Africa experience life on a daily basis and, from this circumstance, how they interpret reality. Moreover, we might ask how we can come to a deeper understanding of the contribution of the poor and marginalized to the building of a just Africa and how they are becoming architects of authentic solutions to their plight.

It makes for peace, therefore, by beginning to let go some of our familiar ways of thinking and our conventional categories. This is fundamental for entering the world of another person in a profound way. While poverty is the result of so many factors, most often it stems form economic processes created and directed by humans especially in this era of globalization. Viewed in this way, poverty and the harsh life of the marginalized, appear a phenomenon that we can influence to curb violence. We can hope to change such processes by attempting to change society’s choices by helping decision makers and warlords see other possibilities. One of the consequences of our being, speaking, and acting from the perspective of the poor will be a vigorous commitment to advocacy for them and their just causes and avoidance of being accomplices in oppressive structures and rebel movements. We must seek particularly to be advocates to responsible authorities on behalf of children at risk.

Awareness of the possibilities for peaceful action for social change ought to stem from our perspective shift, from our attention to injustice and the sufferings of our day, and from an active and informed critique of the values, which generate inequalities and violence.

Note about author: Mr. George Werner is a Liberian educator. He has taught in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and, most recently, in Liberia with the National Catholic Education Secretariat. Presently, he is in the US visiting with family and friends

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