Friday, November 26, 2010

Poverty as the Mother of Invention

This morning over breakfast I listened to some of Amy Goodman’s interview with Manfred Max-Neef, author of Outside Looking In:  Experiences in Barefoot Economics, on Democracy Now!  Her summary for this segment included the following quote from Max-Neef:

Economists study and analyze poverty in their nice offices, have all the statistics, make all the models, and are convinced that they know everything that you can know about poverty. But they don’t understand poverty.

This is the usual theory-versus-practice argument;  but Max-Neef gave it an interesting twist in the course of the conversation.  He made the point that one thing economists have never bothered to study is the capacity of the poor to invent new strategies for survival.  Since I do not have the transcript, I cannot reproduce his words;  but he said something like, “You can’t be stupid when you are poor and expect to survive.”

This struck me as a sharp piece of irony when we consider the emphasis that economists, along with the rich and mighty whom they serve, place on “innovation” when they attend mutual admiration gatherings, such as the World Economic Forum.  As I have observed in the past, just about any talk about innovation in such settings is reckless, if not downright delusional;  and I continue to regard it as “the moral equivalent of Jonestown Kool-Aid.”  In one of my attacks on this “Davos set,” I proposed two “corollaries” to the familiar precept that necessity is the mother of invention:
  1. We innovate for the sake of satisfying needs.
  2. An innovation is only as good as the price it entails for satisfying that need.
For anyone who is poor, those corollaries probably constitute a pathetic insight into the obvious.  Needs can be reduced to adequate resources for food, clothing, and shelter.  The pursuit of any “creative solution” that does not directly satisfy at least one of those needs is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a waste of time.  Furthermore, if the resources available to “invest” in any such solution are limited, you need to make sure that the solution will be worth the commitment of such resources, as well as of time.

I did not listen to enough of the interview to determine whether Max-Neef has had any impact on any of those innovation evangelists who see economics as little more than a set of guidelines for making a fast buck.  I suspect he would be about as welcome at any gathering of such evangelists and their flocks as Muhammad Yunus, who has been as serious about understanding poverty as Max-Neef is.  The challenge that both of these gentlemen face is that those in power really do not want to understand poverty.  They want to keep it at arm’s length, using it for political gain, if they bother to recognize it at all.  However, there will always be the possibility that those poor clever enough to survive may come up with inventions through which the rich and mighty become irrelevant;  so perhaps there is some hope for the future!

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