Microfinance II: How do we define Poverty – and Who says?

Another clarification that is of utmost importance concerning any work of development or microfinance concerns the starting point, the direction and end goal of the transformative work. This isn’t near as easy as it might seem.poverty_pa_416

The problem with identifying poverty in general is that its collective definitions are as wide ranging in scope and analysis as are those who put forth the definitions.

If the poor are to be liberated – we must ask, liberated from what? And even more importantly, liberated for or towards what? And furthermore, who gets to decide what the shape of liberation looks like and what exactly is defined as a ‘flourishing life’ in any given community?

Do we go to the textbooks? Or do those living within the community have more say than those outside? Do those with an education have more say than those without? Are all definitions of what a flourishing life looks like equally valid or are each in some way culturally or socioeconomically or religiously or ethnically biased?

For microfinance, if we are after those who are considered to be in financial poverty – or oppressed in some way by the financial systems that exclude such individuals – how then do we define the reasons for that poverty and who fits the mold of that definition?

Furthermore, do these ‘poor’ peoples define their oppression or poverty in the same terms as outsiders? Better yet, do these ‘poor’ folk define themselves as being poor or oppressed at all? If yes, with what definition of ‘poverty’ do they view themselves, and if no, surely the outsiders are using a certain lens by which they place their terms onto others. Worse yet, if the poor see themselves as poor, is it because they have adopted the narrative that the Western world/or others have placed upon them?

In my mind, these questions are in need of definitions in order to understand the beginning point of any development work. Only then should the mode of transformation and the end of that transformation be discussed. But a further question remains: are there any organizations who sit down with locals long enough to discern what the problem really is and why – and what the local people see as the solution?

Surely short term teams and aid and development groups don’t arrive at some place with a preconceived notion of what the problem is and how to fix it – do they?

Published by Ryan Hayes

Ryan Hayes is a development practitioner, teacher and co-author of his first book of poems, Paralipomenon. Being born in Nairobi, Kenya and living most of his life in Africa, he has a wealth of experience and understanding into the cultural and linguistic factors of South-East Africa. Ryan is happily married to Justine with whom they have begotten three beautiful girls – Amelie, Lily and Rylee. He is a lifelong learner and devoted student of Jesus, mysticism, quantum physics and the human psyche.

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