The Human Journey

Creating a Sustainable Future

Aid – The World of the Poor

“The rule of law enables citizens to invest in their own futures and exercise their rights. It enables governments to govern better, respond to emerging challenges, and advance human development”
Helen Clark
United Nations Development Program
General Assembly, 24 September 2012

According to the UN most poor people don’t live under the shelter of the law, but far from the law’s protection. In their book The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence, the International Justice Mission’s Gary Haugen and co-author Victor Boutros state correctly that “When we think of global poverty we readily think of hunger, disease, homelessness, illiteracy, dirty water, and a lack of education, but very few of us immediately think of the global poor’s chronic vulnerability to violence – the massive epidemic of sexual violence, forced labor, illegal detention, land theft, assault, police abuse, and oppression that lies hidden underneath the more visible deprivations of the poor.”

Murder victim in Rio de Janeiro
Murder victim in Rio de Janeiro

Everyday violence in rural areas and inner cities of the developing world rarely makes the headlines. According to Haugen lawlessness has unleashed gender-based violence which now represents a greater risk of death and physical harm than cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria combined. If you sexually assault a child in Bolivia, he says, you are at greater risk of slipping in the shower than of going to jail, and in India a rapist has a greater chance of being struck by lightening that being charged for his crime. By hiring private security services, people in power have figured out how to stay safe and succeed without a public justice system, so they have little interest in changing the status quo.

When trying to imagine the life of the poor, we need to remember that the vast majority, particularly of women and children, live in relentless, unremitting fear of extortion and violence every single day of their lives.

Rape Statistics
How rape statistics are formulated and how they correspond to the extent of the problem.
Child carying bricks
Children are often forced to live lives of slavery, having been lured away from their homes to work in urban centres.

There are an estimated 27 million men, women and children, held in slavery in the world today, and more in India than in any other country in the world. They toil in factories, farms, plantations and private homes. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are some 8.4 million children in slavery or practices similar to slavery. They are deprived of an education, forced to work day and night, and frequently subjected to violent abuse and sexual assault. “By every conceivable measure, the victims of modern-day slavery tend to be the poorest people – and low-income countries tend to have the highest levels of slavery.”

As Jacquelline Fuller, Director of Google Giving says, “unchecked violent crime against the poorest, especially girls and women, isn’t just a human rights problem. It is a drag on development that no amount of foreign aid can fix if functioning public justice systems aren’t part of the solution.”

Health and Nutrition

The usual definition of a poor person is someone who doesn’t have enough to eat.

Nutritious Food

However, thanks to increased food production, reduced physical labor and improvements in water and sanitation, most people in poor communities do eat enough and only the very poor would benefit greatly from increased food consumption. The problem is not the quantity but the quality of the food. The poor suffer from a lack of micronutrients in their diet, which can make a person weak and unable to work. Indeed, anemia is a major health problem in many parts of Africa and Asia. Of course, supplements can easily change this: in rural Indonesia men who were given iron-fortified fish sauce were able to work harder and earned more money as a consequence.

beer ad in India

The poor lack information, so they may not understand the value of eating better. Families could spend more on food if they stopped spending money on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals; but even when they do spend more on food, they prefer to buy better tasting food, rather than food that is more nutritious, like coarse grains and leafy vegetables. Since they’re often suspicious of advice from outsiders, local people must be trained to educate their communities’ members about good nutrition and its advantages. On one occasion, people protested when the chief minister of West Bengal suggested they eat more vegetables and less rice to save money and improve their health.


Height is a measure of good nutrition during childhood and poor people in South Asia are quite small. In 2005, roughly one third of the population in India was undernourished. Malnutrition in childhood can impair a person's developmental capacity and his subsequent ability to earn money as an adult. A small investment in childhood nutrition can have a big payoff in future health and earning potential: simple steps like providing children and pregnant mothers with fortified foods that are rich in vital nutrients. For example, in Colombia nutritional packets are sprinkled on children’s meals, and in Tanzania mothers are given iodine during pregnancy.

Poor people care about health and spend a considerable amount of money on health care, but the quality of health care available to the poor is generally low. The majority of doctors tend to under-diagnose and over-medicate. The misuse of antibiotics along with poor patient compliance is causing a rise in antibiotic resistance. Government health providers make it difficult for people to receive care, since clinics are often closed and health workers are frequently absent from work. Doctors spend very little time with their patients who are then forced to rely on self-diagnosis.

Child receiving an oral polio vaccine
Child receiving
an oral polio vaccine

People can only make decisions about healthcare based on their beliefs and understanding, but many poor people don’t have a basic understanding of biology and little reason to trust doctors. Many believe that injections are more effective than taking pills, and that doing something is better than doing nothing. Although many ailments go away on their own, too frequently doctors gladly give their patients injections of antibiotics, because the patient feels better and assumes the treatment has worked. If the doctor did nothing people might think he or she was a quack and never go back.

In many instances immunization rates are less than 5 percent, not only because, it’s hard for people to understand the link between the treatment and the absence of disease, but also because mothers get tired of walking all the way to the clinic with their child, only to find the nurse is not there.

Woman at sewing machine
A woman makes clothes for SOKO, a Kenyan textiles supplier that combines fashion manufacturing with bettering local livelihoods. Photo: Joanna Maiden, SOKO

As women are becoming more educated, international health inequalities are beginning to narrow and child mortality is falling. Additionally, many women today are working outside the home, and having fewer, healthier children. But enormous problems still remain. Life expectancy in poor countries has increased more slowly than in rich countries, and too many children still die from preventable diseases. Many poor people lack clean water and sanitation, suffer from poor diets, and lack access to quality health care. There are over 30 countries where 10 percent of children die before their 5th birthday. Too often countries spend very little on health care: Sub-Saharan Africa spends about $100 per person, compared to $3,470 in Britain and $8,362 in the United States.

Child Brides
Child marriages are common in many parts of the world
Child Bride India

According to a 2014 report by UNICEF, one in 12 girls globally was married by age 15, some as young as 8 or 9. One in four girls alive today was married by age 18, and about 15 million girls are married every year before they reach that age. While these unions are recognized as traditional, there is a correlation between the violence and threat of sexual abuse that surrounds the poor and childhood marriage. Parents believe that marriage “protects” girls from sexual assault and harassment and often there seems to be no option but to marry off a girl that one cannot afford to feed.

According to Human Rights Watch, in Bangladesh an estimated 29 percent of girls will marry before the age of 15 and 65 percent before the age of 18. Larger dowries are not required for young girls, and economically, women’s earnings are insignificant as compared to men’s. The detrimental effects of early marriage on a girl cannot be overstated. Most young brides drop out of school. Pregnant girls from 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than those 20 or older, while girls under 15 are at five times the risk. Research cites spousal age difference as a significant risk factor for violence and sexual abuse.


Girl Reading in the classroom Afghanistan
Girl students from a school run by the NGO Ibn Sina in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

In many developing countries, school enrollment has gone up because governments have built more schools and primary education is free. Even secondary school enrollment has gone up, despite the fact that it is more expensive and teenagers could be out earning money for their family. However the quality of education is low. Teachers on average miss one day of work per week, and even when they do show up they are found drinking tea, reading the newspaper, or talking with colleagues when they should be in the classroom teaching. As a result, many older children cannot read a simple paragraph or solve math problems beyond simple arithmetic.

Classroom in Kenya
Government schools in Kenya and other developing countries tend to be overcrowded.

Parents see education as a way for their children to earn more money, so they tend to invest in the education of the child with the most promise, instead of investing equally in all of their children. They also seem to value secondary school more than primary school, even though each year of schooling increases earnings. Poor children are not encouraged to stay in school unless they are gifted, and teachers only prepare the best students for graduation exams, and ignore those they see as less capable. Many very talented children are not given a chance. But they blame themselves when they fall behind, and eventually drop out and become day laborers or shopkeepers.

Sources of Income

A person with a steady job can hope and plan for the future, so most poor people around the world seek financial stability and look to regular employment to provide that. With regular employment, it is easier and cheaper to borrow money, children can get into better schools, and hospitals are more willing to perform expensive treatments should these become necessary.

Worker assembling rebar for a water treatment plant in Sinaloa, Mexico
Worker assembling rebar for a water
treatment plant in Sinaloa, Mexico

But the majority of poor people don’t have regular employment; instead they work as casual laborers or perhaps run small farms or businesses. Risk is a central part of their everyday lives: one bad decision or unfortunate event can be devastating. Because the land they farm isn’t irrigated, they are extremely vulnerable to drought or delay in the rains, which too often means the loss of all or most of their crops. Causal laborers, unlike regular workers, are usually hired only for a few days or weeks; whether they work or not depends on fluctuations in food prices and on whether the harvest was good or bad.

When the poor have a drop in income, they have to cut back on essentials, even food. In hard times, those who farm or are business owners are obliged to use their savings, if they have any, or have to borrow money to keep going. But often that’s not enough to make their business profitable, so over time they become poorer and poorer. Some are forced to take drastic steps; others must rely on the charity of relatives. Constant worry leads to stress and depression and an inability to focus, so people become less productive, less able to make rational decisions and more likely to make impulsive ones. With no easy way out, many lose hope and cannot find the strength to start over.

The poor manage risk in many different ways, with most having more than one occupation. Couples often decide to have many children to increase their chances of being provided for in their old age; and some members of a household might have to go to the city to find work that is more lucrative, while others remain in the village. Farmers rely on traditional methods, even though they may be less profitable, because they don’t want to take what they perceive as unnecessary chances. They might choose to replant seeds from last year’s crop because it’s less expensive than buying new seed, which is likely to be more productive.

A family from Basankusu, Democratic Republic of the Congo
A family from Basankusu Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Forming larger family liaisons through marriage is a traditional way to insure help during tough times: daughters marry someone in a nearby village, so that both families can rely on each other in times of trouble. There is often a network of borrowing and lending which lowers each individual’s level of risk, although it doesn’t eliminate it. In adverse times, such as severe ill health, villagers help each other by making small loans. The cost of health care is generally so expensive that a family can’t bear the cost alone, and if villagers can’t help, many have to borrow at exorbitant rates from moneylenders to pay for doctors and medicine.

Unfinished brick house
Unfinished houses are a frequent feature in poor communities.

It’s easier for us all to spend money today on what we want than to plan to spend more responsibly in the future. For the poor it is even more difficult. Since having money available for anything but necessities is so rare, whenever they do have any spare it’s tempting to spend it on treats like tea, snacks, alcohol, and tobacco. To counteract this, many poor people “freeze” their money when they can in things like fertilizer or bricks. When a family gets hold of any cash, they buy as many bricks as they can afford to add on to their house, but it’s rarely enough for an entire room. As a consequence, there are many unfinished houses in developing countries.

Although the poor would benefit greatly from saving money, very few have a savings account; instead, they find other ways to save money. Some borrow money in order to save and arrange for the funds to be immediately put in a savings account. By making payments on the loan they impose a discipline on themselves, which otherwise might be lacking. They might deposit money with a local moneylender, or join a savings club like a Rotating Savings and Credit Association (ROSCA). Described as a “poor man’s bank” ROSCAs don’t charge fees and allow members to make small but equal deposits and pool their money, with each member taking the whole sum once.

M-PESA storefront

In Kenya, M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) is a successful mobile-phone based money transfer and micro financing service, which was started in 2007. It allows users to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money and to pay for goods and services, and has now expanded to Afghanistan, South Africa, India and Eastern Europe.

Most poor people operate tiny businesses that don’t make much money, have no employees and tend to last no more than three to five years. The median business, in Hyderabad India, generates about $2 per day. A typical shop has very little inventory and few customers, and several shops in the same village carry similar items. Once women are married, their priority is the home where they are needed to take care of the children and run the household. Nevertheless, women run most of these small businesses, and do so not because they want to, but because it’s necessary for the survival of their families.

People in extreme poverty lack the means to improve their economic situation. If a woman realizes that her business will remain small and minimally profitable, her enthusiasm and commitment wanes and she’s likely to spend more time on other things. Lacking cash and denied credit from local banks, the poor must rely on moneylenders to buy raw materials in order to sell their finished products. But moneylenders charge so much in interest that borrowers barely make enough money to survive. This practice is so common in Third World countries that it has become socially acceptable.

If the very poor could borrow money at a reasonable interest rate, they could sell their products on the open market and make enough money to live a decent life. But banks won’t lend money to the poor for a variety of reasons: the loans are too small to be considered worthwhile; the poor have no collateral; they are illiterate and unable to fill out loan forms. Banks will only loan to the poor if a well-to-do person guarantees the loan, although, ironically, the poor are better at paying back loans than people with collateral. The percentage of bad debt from loans to the poor is less than one percent, probably because the indigent know that this may be their chance to break out of the cycle of poverty they are in, and that if they fail, they won’t get a second chance.

The Effect of Low Expectation

Holi festival India
The Indian festival of Holi marks the end of the winter and the advent of spring.

Dwali in India
School girls light candles (left) as they sit near a “Rangoli” during Diwali celebrations at a school in Amritsar. Diwali is the Hindu New Year. The festival of lights is held in honour of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. Hindus pray to Lakshmi to bring them prosperity in the coming year. Diwali celebrates the return of Rama and Sita in the story from the Ramayana.

The poor are under considerable stress and are more susceptible to impulsive decisions, plus saving isn’t attractive when the goals are so remote. Weekly or monthly savings require facing self-control problems repeatedly. Optimism and hope in the future would make it easier to be disciplined enough to save for long-term goals, but too often the poor have low or no expectation of their situation improving.

Children watch television in a village in rural Mali
Children watch television
in a village in rural Mali

Because they lack hope in long-term change they prefer to focus on short-term pleasures, which are carefully thought out and reflect strong societal and individual inclinations. In parts of India the extreme poor spend 14 percent of their budget on festivals, and a mother may start saving money for her daughter’s wedding ten years in advance. This means that while many parents are unwilling to spend a few cents for deworming their children, they will spend a considerable amount of their income on weddings, dowries, christenings and funerals; villagers will spend money to buy a television even though they do not have enough food to eat.