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Culture of poverty

Published Aug 06, 2012 11:06am


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– File photo by AP
– File photo by AP

I have come across several well-educated, well-off people lately who seem to believe that the poor somehow “want to be poor” or are simply “too stupid” to escape poverty. Members of my own family, friends from school, colleagues at office, the so-called “development workers” and professionals who think the beggars they are surrounded by at the traffic signals and those lining up at charity handouts this Ramzan are outright lazy. The arguments forwarded seem to suggest as if there is a “culture of poverty” and the poor suffer from this culture.

As silly as it may seem to argue against this line of reasoning, I invariably get embroiled in exchanges, stressing that failed economic and social policies followed by successive governments in this country are creating poverty and act as barriers to poverty reduction. The result is persistently the same: these folks tend to switch off and find something better to do than listening to me. Perhaps it is not a “culture of poverty” which perpetuates poverty but instead this “culture of apathy.”

The rising poverty is a result of deepening societal apathy towards poverty and poor. It is indeed, a spectacular failure on part of so many people therein – voters, politicians and development experts and workers – that poverty exists and persists. However, those who are really responsible, would not even want to talk about it.

My middle-class compatriots have yet to come to grips with the reality that poverty in Pakistan is caused by myriad factors important amongst them a lack of real discourse on poverty. What we need to understand is: What constitutes poverty? How is it measured by the successive regimes whereby poverty figures always successfully make those primarily responsible for it looking good? What really are the causes of poverty? And the likes.

Counting poor The government's poverty figures do not count the poor living in katchi abadis (slums) and on the street. What figures are being missed out? There are over 3,000 katchi abadis in the country with a population approximating seven million. More than half of them - four million - live in Karachi. What are their living conditions? Between 10 to 15 persons live in one tin shed covering on an average three marlas (one marla is equal to 272.00 sft) plots having one to two rooms and no sanitation facility.
It amazes me how our poverty calculators, and indeed people like you and I who buy these figures without a wince, are isolated from reality and how little an idea do they have about poor, poverty or even how to count them. Whatever poverty figures the government economists may tell, I know when poverty is on the rise. There is more poverty when there is increased beggary, deprivation, suicides and lawlessness in the society

While economists describe poverty incidence as the percentage of poor compared to the total population, poverty cannot be described – it can only be felt. One knows about poverty when he is hungry and cannot purchase food, he and his children want new clothes but they can’t purchase them, he’s sick and doesn’t have money to have medicine, he wants to send his children to school but can’t bear educational expenditures.

We also need to focus on the nexus of poverty and human well being. As a health professional I am keen to look at the vicious cycle of poverty and ill-health which one would argue should necessitate health services to be addressed to the poor and needy. However, even a cursory look into health care system indicates that only one third of all those who need or seek care utilise public health services. The remaining two-thirds end up seeking care from private sector by paying from their own pocket.


Ayyaz Kiani is a public health specialist. He heads Devnet – a network of development consultants. Based in Islamabad, he has travelled around the world and continues to do so to meet fellow travelers.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

nimesh Aug 17, 2012 01:53pm
In India where an estimated 50% of the world's chronic poor, there are numerous governmental initiatives and a myriad of NGOs working to alleviate poverty. While there has been some progress is lowering the numbers, I seriously doubt if they have been adjusted for inflation which over the past 10 years has been a runaway horse. Also, everybody is competing in the same space and there is no cohesive strategy (goverment & private) to tackle poverty. Reading this piece it seems India-Pak as in so many other areas are facing the same problem.
Rafique Wassan Aug 06, 2012 05:50pm
Very relevant and objective analysis of poverty and finally linking poverty with healthcare system and services. This kind of discourse on poverty provides broader perspective which is usually not on the agenda of government policies, development work and academic social science research. Social scientists esp Anthropologists and Sociologists must be engaged to promote this discourse.
aaa Aug 06, 2012 05:43pm
Young boy age 16 comes in with coma gets treated takes about one month but now they have lost their salary for one month as father and son both have been in hospital and have been using money as well. One doctor in the ward was keeping a cancer patient on the grounds of mercy as this patient was dying and did not have food to eat at home. Beggars , gypsies all of them coming in really bad states. The list was endless and every patient made you speechless.
aaa Aug 06, 2012 05:37pm
poverty cannot be described – it can only be felt. Wonderfully said this was the exact comment i wrote a few days ago on an article. Though my comment was not published but im happy someone wrote this article. Working in a govt. hospital for 1 year i became aware of the intensity to an extent. You know people are poor but dont know the intensity. One is not able to describe it. 1/3rd of the patients in the male ward were unattended they had no relative. This was one big shock do such people exist in pakistan. One was an old blind widower imam from a mosque childless full with bruises because of falls died one day after admission. The stories and sufferings were endless. Child with kidney failure dying slowly in front of you due to breathing difficulties as parents are not able to have dialysis.
DB123 Aug 06, 2012 07:55pm
Poverty does indeed impact the health of those who put off proper care because they lack the money and transportation required for the help they need. This also occurs here in America, where the poor also lack access to proper health care, especially dental care. The Appalachian communities in the US are particularly hard hit, and suffer from the shortest life spans in the nation. Some are able to get help from volunteer organizations that conduct annual open air clinics and bring the health care into the communities that need help. These open air clinics are sponsored by private donations and are staffed by Dr.'s that volunteer their time. All services are free.
Saeed alam Aug 07, 2012 01:28pm
We can only reduce/erdicate poverty in Pakistan by: A: Redirecting national resources to education from defence. B- strict and enforcecd family planning at all cost. C- By Let the democrcy go beyond primary school.
GhulamNabi Aug 07, 2012 04:12am
I agree with the author with comments that we need to think over, although this is the governments responsibility to bring such reforms by which poverty can be reduces. We are living in a country where HRD is discouraged and Cash transfers is encouraged. just think two institutions at federal level. As an educationist I do feel that only its the education and technical skills through which we can bring real changes.
saira saleem Aug 07, 2012 05:25am
Thank you for writing about this, it seems discussion about poverty is largely missing from everyday discourse in Pakistan, its is so true that poverty remains so ubiquitous because of a culture of apathy
truth speaker Aug 07, 2012 05:25am
Poverty, terror, load shedding, inflation, jobless ness is growing exponentially in Pakistan day by day. 4 easy steps to fix this 1. hang 26/11 terrorits. 2. dismantle all terror cells. 3. Improve relations with India. Without doing above 3, poverty, starvation, hunger will continue to increase in Pakistan.
Asif Aug 07, 2012 08:30pm
Commendable article. I would like to add my observation that most daily wage earners and monthly wage labourers in Pakistani particularly those who are not skilled get only marginal / bare minimum wages. This is true for women and men. They can barely survive on that money but to support children also becomes very difficult or impossible. Therefore most of their children do not go to school and instead start to work at a very young age. People should really pay more to labourers such as household help. There should be more vocational training given to people at low cost or for free. There should be more soft loans and grants given to people so that they can establish small businesses. There are some organizations like Aga Khan Foundation along with other NGO that provide health care insurance for poor people at very nominal (cheap) rate as low as Rs 500 per year that covers medical emergencies. More people should be made aware and use it. If not for many good people in Pakistan who contribute to charities and run good charities, many poor people would be even worse off.
Slim Aug 07, 2012 09:58pm
I agree with the writer and his analysis. To feel poverty you have to show empathy for the poor.
Dr. Taha Nazir Aug 14, 2012 02:50pm
Dear Kiani; You did a good job. The topic selected really needed to be addressed by society and authority together. Specially the people of third world countries are looking for such support because they don't have establish Food Banks, NGO's, or charitable food chains. I appreciate and acknowledge your this strive. Dr. Taha Nazir; Saskatoon SK Canada.
Babar Jamil Rajput Aug 16, 2012 08:33am
I am agreed