Duty: whose duty is it to alleviate poverty?

Ananya – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Year 12 student Ananya elected to write this carefully researched and well written essay on the chosen word ‘duty’ in response to The Dukes Essay Prize organised by Dukes Education. This competition is inspired by the famous entrance test for All Souls College, Oxford, where students write an essay in response to a single word, from the perspective of a specific academic subject. The Prize rewards creativity, lateral approaches, and engagement with a subject beyond the curriculumIt is a fantastic opportunity to practice university-style assignments, and a prize is a great achievement to discuss on a personal statement. The words for this year’s competition were: Environment – Value – Citizen – Movement – Sequence – Vision – Duty. CPD

In 2019 it was reported that around 650 million people suffered in the hands of poverty (World Data Lab, 2019). What is even more astonishing is that 10% of the population is living on less than $2 a day (Lifewater, 2020). While society as a whole is aware of poverty figures, few actually acknowledge how poverty can display itself in many dimensions. Economic poverty refers to a deficiency of asset and wealth such that a household cannot purchase the basic needs of life i.e. food, shelter, water, clothes. This is different to human poverty which focusses on how poverty can result from having a poor quality of life, by taking into account life expectancy, education, health etc. (Mowafi & Khawaja, 2004). Human poverty is more than just the baseline of living; it holds a more sociological perspective on this economic issue and is measured worldwide through means such as the HDI and the Legatum Prosperity Index. Developed economies normally experience relative poverty (where resources are just above the poverty line) and absolute poverty normally prevails in developing economies. It is important to note the different measures taken by different groups in societies to tackle poverty, raising the question of whose duty it really is to solve this crisis.

When we think of solving the poverty crisis, many of us think of fiscal policies used to reduce the impact of poverty and prevent members of society from falling into poverty traps. Governments have implemented ways to help keep poverty at a minimum and raise citizen’s standard of living. An example is through the government’s creation of a welfare state, which provides benefits to the poorest in society such as unemployment benefits, food stamps and income support (Pettinger, 2019). The welfare state can be seen as a combination of a piggy bank and Robin Hood economics which aims to redistribute income to reduce wealth inequality (Wolf, 2016); In this way, the economy is protected against social risks as well as improving issues regarding poverty. Despite this, it is important to note that the welfare state more often than not specifically targets the impact of economic poverty; by providing low-income households with access to money and other assets, households will be able to purchase necessities such as food. This will certainly alleviate the impact of poverty in the short term; low-income households have a steady source of financial support to carry on living safe lives. However, households need to be careful that they do not become reliant on the government’s financial support; they need to keep looking for alternative, more stable sources of financial support rather than using the government. While their economic poverty might be solved, they may still be experiencing a low quality of life with poor education and limited access to sanitation. The welfare state often does not account for human poverty. Of course, it is the government’s duty to provide their citizens with the right to a financial support however to what extent can the government ensure that the quality of life is improved? People may argue that governments should implement more and more policies to ensure a high standard of living is maintained; this in turn runs the fear of the government becoming a nanny state which may infringe upon people’s personal liberty.  While it is certainly imperative of the government to ensure that their citizens are well cared for and have some form of financial support, poverty is a psychological issue as well as an economic issue and cannot just be solved by fiscal policies from the state.

On a microeconomic perspective, poverty attacks individuals’ lives so some argue that it is the individuals’ duty to rid themselves of poverty. There are many resources available in economies to permit them to do so. An example of this is microfinance which is where loans are given to low-income households in order for them to establish a small-medium enterprise. Microfinance is often seen as effective because households can establish a stable source of income as well as lifting themselves out of poverty and it is estimated that there are 67.5 million clients who are being served by 1000-2500 major microfinance institutions globally (Sengupta & Aubuchon, 2008). Despite being hailed as development economics’ ‘silver-bullet’, in reality, microfinance may deepen the poverty traps. This is as a result of borrowers often using the loan to buy basic necessities rather than starting an enterprise in the hope that they can alleviate some of their economic poverty. In this way, after using up their loan, they will need to borrow more to repay the previous debt and this then develops into a cycle of dependency which detriments both the microfinance institution as well as the household. As Jason Hickel puts it, ‘small loans add to poverty and undermine people by saddling them with unsustainable debt’ (Hickel, 2015). As a result, individuals may be further entrenched in their poverty traps, raising the question of whether it really is an individual’s duty to alleviate poverty themselves. As well as microfinance, other resources could be used to alleviate poverty. Governments themselves call upon employment for households to reduce their dependency on the state. Employment will also mean that the economy as a whole is closer to productive efficiency and therefore closer to achieving economic growth. While we must recognise that employment is an important step to financial stability amongst households, in-work poverty is still a key issue amongst economies. While the labour sector may be growing, working conditions may worsen and a ‘gig economy’ may arise which will reduce an individual’s standard of living and prevent them from alleviating poverty themselves (Shildrick & Rucell, 2015). By claiming that individual households themselves can solve poverty, we run the risk of portraying poverty as a condition created by those who face it however this is unlikely to be true. It is not individuals’ duty to rid themselves of poverty although they can be proactive in the process.

Sustainable Development Goals, adopted on 25 September 2015 as a part of the 2030 Agenda. [Public Domain: UNDP]

It is therefore the duty of the international community – rather than individual governments and households – to tackle the poverty crisis. Since poverty is a global issue, it is the duty of the global society to alleviate this. We can already see this in action through the work of United Nations who came up with the Sustainable Development Goals (one of which is to solve poverty) and, since then, extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than a half showing the effectiveness of international organisations (United Nations, 2015). The SDGs not only target economic poverty: many of their goals consist of social growth e.g. health and literacy; as a result, they target human poverty as well unlike the work of households and governments. Other ways the international community can help alleviate global poverty is through the work of charities and NGOs such as ActionAid and Oxfam. These organisations help to make the public aware of poverty, helping to generate funding through campaigns which can directly alleviate poverty across communities rather than on an individual basis. Additionally, globalisation can also lead to heightened standards of living and help reduce poverty across the global economy. As countries become open to trade, economic growth accelerates and the quality of life increases. As a result, the benefits of higher growth trickle down to the poor, alleviating poverty. An example of this is Vietnam, which liberalized its trade in the mid-1990s. Vietnam would previously implement quotas on the amount of rice that farmers exported (Pavcnik, 2009). Once eliminated, demand for Vietnamese rice increased, leading to higher standards of living amongst the farmers, showing that globalisation helped many of them out of poverty. While this may raise the issue of wealth inequality and poor living conditions, the benefits of globalisation are felt throughout the whole economy and helps to alleviate some of the poverty – it seems the best way to help the poor is for them to have employment opportunities generated by demand in rich countries. This interconnectedness throughout the global economy means that the majority win, from governments down to the grass-root level. Therefore, the international community provides a medium in which poverty can be alleviated.   

In conclusion, the global economy is imperative in poverty alleviation and ultimately holds duty to solve the problem; through globalisation, millions can be lifted out of poverty e.g. seen in China. Governments can assist the international community through policies and households can ensure that they contribute to supply and demand, ensuring that they can benefit from globalisation. Aid provided from organisations and countries can be used to target human poverty, through ameliorating sanitation, education etc. rather than lifting the poor out of poverty through purely financial means. Organisations such as the UN and countries themselves can come together for a co-ordinated fight against poverty and achieving the SDGs. Together, we can ensure everyone has access to resources to lead good quality lives with financial support so the duty to solve poverty ultimately lies with the international community.



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Available at: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/sociological-perspectives-poverty
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Wolf, M., 2016. The welfare state is a piggy bank for life. Financial Times.

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