Poverty is more than merely an absence of material conditions, such as money, water, food, education, and housing. The unspoken assumption is that when the missing conditions are provided, the poor will no longer be poor. However, despite spending billions of dollars in development assistance, progress in raising living standards around the world remains very slow. Over 2.5 billion people in the world, or nearly half of the world’s population, still live below the internationally defined poverty line of less than $2 per day.
Poverty is complicated, and includes social and psychological dimensions as well as material ones. According to the World Bank, poverty is about not having a job, fearing the future, and living one day at a time. It is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom. It is a lack of access to services, exposure to unsafe environments, being a victim of social discrimination and exclusion. Poverty occurs in all countries and economic conditions: mass poverty in many developing countries and pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries. Economic recession, disaster and conflict result in losses of livelihood. Destitution and lack of economic future await low-wage workers and people who fall outside support systems and social safety nets.
John Friedmann, widely regarded as among the most authoritative living planning writers on sustainable international development, argues that poverty should be seen not merely in material terms, but as social, political and psychological powerlessness. He presents the case for an alternative development strategy committed to empowering the poor in their own communities, and to mobilizing them for political and economic participation on a wider scale. In contrast to centralized development policies devised and implemented at the national and international level, alternative development restores the initiative to those in need, on the grounds that unless people have an active role in directing their own destinies long-term progress will not be achieved. “The poor must take part in meeting their own needs. To do so, they must acquire the means to do this”.
Poverty has social, psychological, as well as economic dimensions
The poor are wrapped in a series of restrictions and limitations in three areas:
The economic dimension of poverty is well understood. Tangible assets such as capital, material, food, energy, roads and other infrastructure, and the skills to utilize them, are needed to solve many problems. For example, it would be difficult to educate children without teachers, books, a school building, and electricity, as well as financial resources to pay the teachers and maintain the building.
Social dimensions of poverty are more ambiguous than material dimensions. The unequal social status of the poor inevitably results in unequal access to power, equity and resources. Dominant groups wishing to maintain their privilege subordinate (both intentionally and unintentionally) those who have no power. The community, whose purpose is to maintain the status quo, acts as an organ which processes and reinforces this unequal social structure. It creates processes, systems, and structures that perpetuate the system of inequality.
Social aspects of poverty also include lack of political representation and environmental inequality – for instance, allowing those with power to have a meaningful say in government, or powerful companies wreaking environmental havoc on the local environment without being fined or forced to remediate their damage.
Psychological aspects are often underappreciated because they are less tangible than financial or social inequality. But without the proper mindset, it is impossible for impoverished individuals to take control over their lives.
The poor often believe that they are destined to live out the rest of their lives in the same pattern. Because they live hand-to-mouth, they learn behaviors that are not conducive to creating a better life – for instance, they cannot plan for the future with resources they don't have, so they don't know how to set goals and create plans to reach them. They have a poor self-image, believing themselves incapable of breaking out of poverty.
In short, they are victims of learned helplessness and fatalistic attitudes. The impoverished must learn the mental skills, behaviors, and mindset with which they can break out of poverty. They must learn how to identify their own strengths and capitalize on them. Otherwise, they will accept financial and social aid when it is offered but do not believe themselves capable of perpetuating any positive change. They will be stuck in a cycle of poverty, dependent on aid and unable to gain control over their own lives.
The problem of sustainability
Several years ago, a highly respected community organizer in the Amazon region where we work confided to our Director, Bob Bortner, that, in the over 25 years she had worked with the communities in the Amazon, she could only think of a few individuals who embraced acceptance that they didn’t to rely upon others to solve the challenges they faced in leading productive lives and realizing their goals.
This is representative of a widespread failure of development. Unfortunately, much of the aid given to those stuck in the cycle of poverty doesn’t meet all three prerequisites of empowerment, and often further perpetuates the dependence of the intended beneficiaries. Many projects attempt to address economic dimensions of poverty - by providing needed infrastructure, such as building wells, or providing energy and telecommunications, or teaching residents new livelihoods. Others focus on the social dimensions by redistributing land, improving governance and building leadership institutions.
Few also address embedded psycho-social dimensions of poverty by helping the residents develop the mindsets, critical thinking, and problem solving skills they need to overcome inevitable obstacles they will face – and to realize they are able to overcome the obstacles. As result, after the project is over and they are left on their own, many of these projects cannot be sustained and they fail.
The solution to poverty: empowerment
The empowerment of individuals and their communities is key to sustainably overcoming poverty and addressing economic development. The term empowerment has become a buzzword that means many different things to different people. For many, an empowered individual is one who simply has the opportunities to accomplish goals.
However, all three aspects of poverty must be addressed before the impoverished have control over their lives. No amount of resources alone will sustain positive change until individuals and their communities are empowered to identify their own strengths, assets, skills and attributes that can then be channeled into activities that result in a self-sustaining livelihood. Even before being able to take advantage of material opportunities, you must:
- Realize that you can better your life through your own problem solving skills
- Have the skills, resources and opportunities to accomplish your goals, and
- Have freedom from obstacles, which would prevent you from accomplishing your goals. Examples of obstacles include war, epidemics, adequate transportation, access to energy, limited access to capital, and many others.
Thus, the problem of disempowerment is a complex one with few easy answers. CEN's work is only one piece of the solution, but it is a crucial one. By empowering communities, we can help ensure that positive change will be self-sustaining.
 Messiah College, 2007. Web. 8 Mar 2012. <http://www.thecollaboratoryonline.org/wiki/Chapter_One-_Charting_the_Course>.
 Friedman, John. Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development. Wiley-Blackwell, 1992. 102. Print.