Inheriting Extreme Poverty

By Owasim Akram

After working for more than ten years as a development practitioner in Bangladesh with a tremendous opportunity to observe the lives of the extreme poor while living very closely to them, one simple question kept  chasing me all the time: why do millions of them remain still poor despite huge progress in the economy, policy changes and many development interventions both from the Government and other development partners? Is it because such efforts fail to bring the intended benefits across to their lives, or is there something that we are missing and therefore never considered while planning, designing, programming or making our decisions?

Let’s start with an imaginary calculation or estimation: If the current lower poverty line (11.3%) estimates around 20 million extreme poor living in the country, may I assume that the majority of their parents or foreparents had already been extremely poor during the 70s when the country had just got its independence? May I also assume that the others who have successfully escaped  from extreme poverty  had different conditions that enabled them to find a way out somehow? Who are the 20 million then? How can we  understand them better?

Who are the 20 Million extreme poor?

Having raised those questions, let’s move to a brief life story following a composite narrative approach where a single story is narrated building on information from several interviews/cases: Sitara Begum, a 38 years old widow, lives with her 15 years old son and 13 years old daughter. Sitara was born in a large extremely poor family of eight members. (Parents, two brothers and three other sisters of whom two were disabled). Her father was a day labourer and owned around 20 decimal cultivable land, a couple of livestock and a few coconut trees. He always struggled  to provide for the family. None of her siblings went to school. Her father had suffered tuberculosis for  long and one of her brothers had been diagnosed with it as well. This made the social life of the family more difficult, being stigmatised in the community.

He died when Sitara was only 10 years old. To avoid the cost of dowry, her brothers married her off with an old disabled man when she was only 13 years old. She was denied ownership of the land and other assets she was entitled to. Her husband was a local barber with hand-to-mouth income and virtually owned nothing. Life became harder when the family got four children to feed. Two of them died at early age for unknown reasons. Although her daughter attended primary school, her son was never sent to school because “a barber’s son needs no education”. Instead, he was being trained to learn his father’s profession since he was only 10 years old. This was believed to be the norm and more beneficial for the family. Soon after, Sitara’s husband died in a road accident.

The transport owner’s association granted a compensation of BDT 30,000 (approximately USD 350) for the family. Her inlaws took control over the money, arguing that her husband had overdue loans, which Sitara was not aware of. Since then, she had no support and had to endure abuse from her in-laws, making her children suffer a childhood of extreme poverty and destitution. And the story goes on . . .

Here we have sensed  the living condition and the dynamics of an extremely poor family. For most of those families, the story is pretty much similar, where the next generation is left with nothing to own except liabilities in different forms. While there are many issues that can be debated from this representative story, I first want to pick the aspect of Sitara’s son not being enrolled in school. Clearly parents’ perception about education defines the prospect of their children’s school enrollment more than their financial capacity. While education is generally expected to bring good jobs and good prospect for the family, for learners from extreme poor family this is often not the case. Thus the visible wellbeing and wealth outcomes of educated people in their immediate kinship group highly influence parental decision to keep their children enrolled in school. So in a sense,the  benefit of education is either overestimated or underestimated in those families. This is why many of these families fail to vision that even some level of education helps a person to have access to supportive social networks and better cope with shocks and also contribute to their overall security and status.

The second issue that I want to highlight is the gendered aspect of this transfer process. In most of the life stories of the extreme poor – as we have seen in Sitara’s case as well – the intensity or the depth of the transfer of extreme poverty to the next generation depends highly on the position of the mothers or women in the families. Also we have to keep in mind that female managed or female headed households generally outnumber among the total number of extreme poor households.

Poverty is not only material, but also relational

A primary conclusion which can be drawn from such a story is that extreme poverty is not only material but also largely relational. In an extremely poor family, both inter- and intra-generational bargains often get intensed through various trade-offs towards an individual search for security. Often the children, women, older persons, disabled or ill-bodied members of the extremlye poor families are imposed with unfavourable arrangements (e.g. child labour, care work, embezzlement of land or asset ownership, poor marriage etc.). This limits opportunities to escape from poverty, creating a long-lasting counterproductive cycle of disadvantages.

Inter-generational influences in extreme poor families are so strong that they produce an ‘inter-generational cycle of growth failure’, also referred to as consistent growth failure  as termed by some scholars. Escape from extreme poverty is thus to be conceived as strongly political, building on the understanding of household-level intergenerational dynamics and social structure. It implies that poverty reduction policies and interventions must be designed in a way that considers how targeted people are relationally embedded and how this significantly determines their ability and respond to an initiative. If extreme poverty has to be uprooted, the transfer process needs to be considered and blocked through reshaping the policies and programmes with intergenerational twists in them.

Further analysis is available in the article  Generational Bargain, Transfer of Disadvantages and Extreme Poverty: A Qualitative Enquiry from Bangladesh published recently in The European Journal of Development Research.

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Owasim Akram is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Doctoral Researcher (Newbreed) at the Örebro University, Sweden. He can be reached via