What Ferguson  and the US Riots have Taught me about Poverty and the Post 2015 Development Agenda

A sign at the IMF headquarters in Washington/photo

A sign at the IMF headquarters in Washington.  Pasted all over the IMF building,including lifts and corridors, the sign is mainly  intended to have a psychological impact on staff-the reality of  IMF work is far from poverty/photo

“The main problem is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits”

The past three months have seen one of the most honest discussions in the history of development in America. With all its sophistication and gadgetry, when it came to keeping peace, American protection and justice systems resorted to the most crude weapons known to man-killings and race.

And so since August 2014 we have been treated to debates on killings, race, and more killings. The count has traveled from Ferguson, Missouri to Staten Island. By the last count it had reached Brooklyn, one of the largest Boroughs in what we call the Global Financial Capital of the World, New York.

I have followed what is perhaps one of the most  honest  media and public discussions in the history of war on poverty and want-from Nicholas Kristof’s five part series “When Whites Don’t Get it [1] (and also here), to CNN’s LZ Granderson honest piece “America, We have a problem [2] to  John Blake’ s  quote from  Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists[3]

The one statement that touched me most was a statement by Rev Jesse Jackson

“There’s nothing more painful to me,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said, “than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

The issues that have engulfed the US and sparked widespread unrest are not new to the United States, neither are they just about the United States.


Travel on any flight within Europe and suddenly you get to see the disparity that exists between people of color in Europe. You will be surprised that intercontinental flights across Europe is the exclusive preserve of whites, hardly anyone of color.

Neither is it about race and color. In fact what has emerged out of the US is more about how we do development, where we do it and what drives us to do it.

Nick summarized what may be an issue in many countries around the world today.

“The U.S”, wrote Nik in the New York Times, “has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa had during apartheid. The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits.”

And so I have been reflecting over the past few weeks over what all these mean for our push for a new global development agenda. We have haggled over how many Goals we want, how we will communicate them to “ordinary people” (we are extra-ordinary) and grass roots (the rest of us come from glass roofs).

Here are a few thoughts that I have gathered over the few months.

Economics, Philosophy and History, does matter in Development

In the past, those who wanted to engage in development studied sociology and psychology. Then we moved to political science and economics. But that too became too complex and we decided to simplify development making it about….development.

Many of us today are coming from either the academic background where we analyze and assess different dimensions of poverty or from a specific line known as development studies.

Yes, development is today about….development.

Watching the story unfold in the US left me wondering whether we are aware just how deep the roots of poverty and deprivation have become in countries we consider “developed.”

We define poverty as being about lack, about want. We define poverty as something we can resolve by having 1,000 toilets for every 500 people, one doctor for every 200 people, and one policeman for every 250… We define poverty as being about a meal on the table today. “Three square meals” is what we would love to see the whole world have.

Very simplistic, sadly

Watching the events unfold over the past months I have come to learn that history, economics, philosophy….all these define development, and its more than just poverty.

And that history is not just about race, or colonialism, or domination.


Poverty cannot be understood without a context. Its history, economics and philosophy  give us the context we need. I saw that there are far too many of us who do not take enough time to look at these three areas. The deprivation of African Americans-whether in lower Brooklyn or far away in Mississippi; whether in the lower poorer ends of Paris or in nearly all sections of Greece, does not just happen. People are not poor because they are poor.

All that battle about income and about money does indeed matter.

Jobs matter, but economics is more than jobs. It’s freedom to earn it without jeopardizing the lives of the rest of us. History is about appreciating that we can never walk with anyone whose shoes we have not fully measured and whose past steps we have not taken.

What we have witnessed in the US is more about history than just race.

Its more about the society than merely one’s ability to earn a living.

Its more about appreciating that others have walked a more difficult path, and we have some role in that well trodden path.

We can do all the good we can, pat ourselves in the back for all the budget we  have in our organizations, clap and have celebrations for the millions we reach “with the much needed food and water”  or publish in journals and UN documents about  how  the M.D.G.s has “halved poverty in our generation”. But if we do not understand and take time to walk through history, economics and philosophy of poverty, we will have put off a fire but left a huge smoldering rod that soon ignites a larger fire.


There is no development without context, and there is no development if it’s not contextual.

Poverty knows no wealth

While our attention is focused on what appears to be a race issue, the story of poverty is in fact much deeper than we think. In December 2013, the New York Times published [4]the story of Dasani, a young girl living with her family in Auburn Family Residence, a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless, situated along Myrtle Avenue next to the upscale Fort Greene in Brooklyn, New York.

The story was as breathtaking as the many that we put on our websites about Africa’s children and show the world during our Fundraising campaigns.

But what caught my attention was not the level of poverty facing Dasani and her siblings.

It was the contrast that made the poverty of Dasani heart-breaking.

Reading her story made me feel that it was perhaps easy for her. She at least has a house and two meals-no comparison to the tales we write about when it comes to Africa’s poverty.

Yet I realized that like many others, it is this feeling that  Dasani’s poverty is less painful than that in rural India that makes us lose the mark.

The New York Times captured the entire feeling and state of Dasani in this one paragraph

Slipping out from her covers, the oldest girl sits at the window. On mornings like this, she can see all the way across Brooklyn to the Empire State Building, the first New York skyscraper to reach 100 floors. Her

gaze always stops at that iconic temple of stone, its tip pointed celestially, its facade lit with promise.

“It makes me feel like there’s something going on out there,”

It suddenly, and sadly, hit me that for Dasani it doesn’t matter how you define her poverty.

What is occupying her mind is not the mice or the rotten food. It’s the disparity between her and the people across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Relative poverty is just as bad, if not worse than extreme poverty.

Because it communicates a sense of helplessness, a sense of “priviledge on the other side” a feeling of unworthiness and being unwanted.

It tears at the differences that exist between men and reveals the other person as being too far ahead and the rest of us too far behind.For those who grew up with no shoes there was no feeling of extreme poverty because in the entire neighborhood the only people with shoes were those on TV or local gated communities.

And that is where those of us in development  sometime get off-track.

Inequality-the wide disparities between those of us who have and the rest who want to-is  just as great a psychological torture and cause for pain and suffering than not having a meal for a day or two.

Yes, not being able to take your child to a doctor is immoral, watching your wife die because there is no  no medication or clinic is a painful experience we should not allow any father to undergo in 2014.

But so is being dumped in a rundown public school because you do not belong to the class of those who can manage the cream of education quality.

The net effect is the same if we consider that  poverty creates the same universal cycle in people’s lives and livelihoods.  All we need is to look at poverty not through the eyes of  what is known as The CNN Effect  or  through the eyes of our Fundraising Departments, but through the eyes of what the UN Secretary General told us in his 2014 Post 2015 Synthesis Report[5] –People

IN 2015, CNN produced Ivory Towers [6], a   documentary on how investment in education has short- changed so many people in America, leaving them with no jobs after studies, but with debts that run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When we see poverty through our own eyes and not through the eyes of the people experiencing the pain, we think the best thing we can give them is something closer to ours.

And this is a good feeling and a good thing.

In the Post 2015 Development Agenda we have gone to great length to try and advocate for what we call immoral poverty,  the extreme poverty that degrades and de-humanizes.

But in the process we have elevated this battle  above those next to our door step.

Many of us who travel or live in New York have perhaps never stepped out of Manhattan, the wealthiest part of  New York. We do not know how those who sleep in the subways feel when there is so much wealth around them. We do not know how those in upper Manhattan and in Bronx and in long island  feel when we zoom past in our yellow taxis to get to the  United Nations to  make yet another “intervention” on the need to end extreme poverty somewhere in Haiti or Mozambique.

The riots and the debate that have  followed the shootings in America have shown me that while extreme poverty is dehumanizing, it is just as immoral as extreme wealth a midst so much want.

A midst great wealth.

Consider this from the writing of Nick:

“In America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid.”

Most troubling, America’s racial wealth gap, pay gap and college education gap have all widened in the last few decades…black median household income is $34,598, compared with $58,270 for non-Hispanic whites…African-American children on welfare heard only 29 percent as many words in their first few years as children of professional parents. Those kids never catch up, partly because they’re more likely to attend broken schools. Sure, some make bad choices, but they have often been on a trajectory toward failure from the time they were babies.


We may need to tone our fight for poverty that exists in far-away lands and begin to ask if indeed the world will be better if what we fight  for is not an end to extreme poverty, but  the beginning of equal opportunity, equity and justice. The Post 2015 agenda calls for a universal approach to development. We should not sacrifice it for the sake of what will give us greater emotional satisfaction, raise more funds or make us maintain our careers.

Extreme poverty and extreme wealth produce the same effect in those left behind- a cycle of struggle and want and crime and more struggle.

Poverty and injustice is much closer home than we think

One of the most interesting debates that emerged out of the whole American shooting stories was the  realization that we have paid so much attention to those far away and forgotten those next to us.

In July 2014 the New Yorker Magazine detailed how America has privatized the correctional (prison) system and grossly under-funded public institutions, creating immense suffering for the poor.

For a great many poor people in America, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich ones. [7]

These stories do not find their way into our own development discourse or proposals.


We are researching about Haiti and Papua New Guinea and Liberia and Sao Tome and D.R.C. and Kenya

Our conversations about Africa always gravitate to the usual “what about your corrupt leaders and your slums.”

On the face of it  one may feel a little privileged  that Africa and the other so-called Less Economically Developed Countries (L.E.D.C.s) are getting so much attention and with it so much funding.

But at what cost to the cause of poverty?

What about our own backyard in Europe and North America?

We are increasingly out of touch with our own poverty  and preoccupied with poverty in far away land and over the seas. These days the greatest career  builder for anyone in development is a section that includes  some experience in a remote area of Africa, a poverty stricken area of Mongolia or some conflict country in the Foreign Policy Magazine’s  annual role of honor-The Failed States Index [8].

Its good and encouraging that we have so much love for poverty and suffering that is far away.

But what we are telling those closer to us is that they are better, safer and frankly do not matter, even though they live next to us.

The largest and most well-funded charities (often by the same governments that has ignored its own people) are those working in some far away land in Africa.

I am not sure about you, but I will not leave my people starving to use my government’s tax to feed the children of another government. I can do both, but I cannot do the latter and not feel any sense of guilt or responsibility about my fellow citizens.

And American is not alone.

There are gross cases of poverty  and gross underemployment across Europe (1 in 7) [9], in large sections of China and in several of what we call middle income and “developed” states.


While it helps to pay attention to the poverty and underdevelopment in what we see as the poorer parts of the world, the  Ferguson case has challenged us to one Principle we have ignored for a while now:“Leave No One Behind.” That no one includes those in America and Europe in much the same way it includes those in D.R.C.

They, too, are people, our brothers, our sisters.

It doesn’t pay to stigmatize one continent and pass by the same cause of stigma in our backyard.

The world will only be a better place if we focus on poverty everywhere, not just poverty that draws emotional attention, more funding, greater control of other people’s resources and better career prospects.

And Finally

A new definition of Civil Society may be needed

 I have watched countless News items of demonstrations and matches across the US.

I have read analysis and documents and more analysis.

There is one glaring face that is missing.

The face and voice of organized Civil Society, those we commonly know as NGOs.

I have watched the people demonstrating.

I have read opinion pieces in News papers and websites.

I have looked waited to hear or read what the more analytic N.G.O.s are saying or proposing about the difficulty facing the poor in America.

Not a word, not a  demonstration, not  a match.

We mobilized hundreds of thousands to match against Climate change.

We moved in anger to fight debts under the Jubilee campaign.

We protested in articles and documents about treatment of gays and our colleagues who are human rights defenders.

Yet when we were presented with an excellent opportunity to defend the cause of the African-Americans we left them on their own.

It’s their brothers and neighbors and sisters and fathers and friends who are calling for justice.

The rest of us in organized NGOs are silent, loudly silent.

I begun to wonder what has happened to us.

Have we become so organized that we can no longer cry with those who are oppressed on the streets?

Have we become so compromised by the governments that fund us that we can no longer hold those governments to account? Or, perhaps as I wrote [10] a few months ago, there are no more activists in the N.G.O. Sector.

All of us are following our careers, a job, a decent living. Or perhaps we are out of touch with the streets and prefer to “engage”  in hotel rooms and in conferences.

Perhaps there is really no Civil Society.

We are, as our name states, simply nongovernmental, perhaps too civil and too close to governments that fund us that we cannot feel the pain of our society.

Perhaps the name Society should be removed from our name

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-after-ferguson-race-deserves-more-attention-not-less.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1 and here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-when-whites-just-dont-get-it-part-3.html

[2] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/25/opinion/granderson-ferguson-america-problem/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

[3] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/invisible-child/#/?/?chapt=1&ref=opinion&chapt=1

[5] http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5527SR_advance%20unedited_final.pdf

[6] http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/cnn-film-ivory-tower

[7] Read the stories here http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/get-out-of-jail-inc and here http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/the-caging-of-america

[8] http://ffp.statesindex.org/

[9]   http://www.poverty.org.uk/summary/eapn.shtml

[10] https://africaplatform.org/2014/09/today-look-struggle-facing-civil-society-advocacy-try-balance-modern-day-engagement-tried-tested-activism-ask-another-way-activism-activism/

Leave a Reply