REFLECTIONS ON REDUCING POVERTY – A SYSTEMS THINKING APPROACH

The comments and responses in discussions on reducing poverty in this group have some great ideas; some less so.  I thought it will be a good idea to frame the salient points on reducing poverty into a workable comprehensive framework.  This article is not intended to have the final say.  It is intended to encourage more robust and meaningful discussion with differing views with a better understanding of the problems besetting poverty.  This article is best considered as a work in progress in which this group can make the challenge in reducing poverty manageable.

An academic approach on solid ground or a practitioner approach on shifting sands

As practitioner I have reluctantly choosen to be extremely cautious working with punch lines with fancy sound bites. No doubt, the imageries projected by these punch lines are seductive but in reality many punch lines had proven faddish. They are the Shakespearean “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”  Many management fads were hot one day and gone cold the next merely because they could not stand the test.  I choose to be more discerning.

I prefer to start with a more stable footing relying on empirical findings from academic researches.  Some may argue that academic exercises may be too focused or mundane to be relevant in the practical world.  I keep an open mind that they do provide alternative voices to different perspectives.  The key is looking for the synergy between the practitioner and academic approaches.  I try to draw on their strengths and avoid their limitations.

The cry for a practitioner approach in preference to an academic approach echoes from reductive thinking.  Reductionism was first introduced to the West by the genre of Greek philosophy popularised by Aristotle and Socrates.  Descartes revitalised this thinking approach with his discourses on biological science.  He systematically reduced biological systems to their constituent atoms and molecules to establish a hierarchy of chemical, biological and physical properties.  His attempt was to discover how constituent parts fit together to make the system work.  Reductionism undeniably had laid the foundations for rigorous methodologies in scientific inquiries.  It also laid the foundation for the advances and breakthroughs in scientific knowledge, technological inventions and engineering designs.  It does well in helping to understand the definable and linear relationships among individual parts in closed, at times complicated, systems.  The solution to problem can be as unsophisticated as fixing the faulty brake to make the complicated car system safe to drive.

However reductionism meets its nemesis in a fast changing VUCA world.  Its thinking framework is unable to observe the working of open systems, in which the interactions among the constituent parts are complex and non-linear.  A case in point is the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory.  The effect describes a phenomenon in systems that are very sensitively dependent on initial conditions.  A miniscule change in the initial state can result in dramatic outcome in the later state.  An example is the flap of a butterfly’s wings in America generating the initial air turbulence to cause a storm in Asia.  Another example is the current concern of world economies on US-China trade war to make USA Great Again.

VUCA describes the 4 key aspects of the modern world.

  • V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and confusion that surrounds organization.
  • A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.[1]

In open systems, the responses of the parts and the system to external stimuli can vary in different conditions and situations over time.  Systems thinking offers a framework to observe such systems and to anticipate the impact of the drivers of change on the behavioural patterns among the components as they adapt and evolve in response to changing conditions in the larger environment.  Understanding the nature of the VUCA elements can help us to be more strategic in our undertaking.[2]

The advice not to think of the future is mindless.  The future may be murky but this is the very reason we need to pay attention to future trends so that we can assess potential opportunities and threats.  It is not to predict with 100% certainty but to be prepared for possible eventualities that will disrupt the way we are doing things now and to be agile in taking timely corrective actions.  There are tools and methodologies for strategists to consider review future trends.

I once run a workshop on “How to be relevant in the New World.”  I asked the participants what it means to be relevant.  Most responses focused on the changes they need to make – adopting a positive attitude and mindset, developing new skills, be single minded among many others.  I reminded them that many of the jobs today did not exist before.  They saw that their personal improvements and commitments must lean towards preparing for jobs which do not exist today.  They realised that it is more important to develop soft skills.  Job specific hard skills can be rendered useless in different job scope.  This is why workers had to be retrained because of skill obsolescence.  My days in market development taught me the relevance of anticipating the future opportunities and challenge in deciding what, why, where, when and how to develop a market.  We need to imagine the likely future.

In management, we have a saying that failing to plan for the future is planning to fail in the future.  We will miss the opportunity to be ahead if we react to change after it had taken place.  It is like trying to suck the cow teats from behind.  One will be kicked in the face.  Many struggle to come to terms with how the Digital Age and advancements in quantum computing will empower smart cities.  More so, we need to understand life-changing impact from Digital Age and Smart cities on poverty.  These developments will leave those unprepared, especially those in poverty, further behind.

Systems thinking

“Eco-systemic thinking” may sound better than systemic thinking but what really has changed?  It has to be based on systems thinking.  If systemic thinking is wrong, can eco-systemic thinking be any better?   Systems thinking is a tool.  It needs a master craftsman to turn out a masterpiece. The old adage from my grandpa still rings in my head – “Don’t blame the tools for your bad workmanship.  Go improve your skills!”  Changing the tools will not necessarily help one to be a better craftsman.

Systems (with an S) thinking is not thinking of system in the singular.

Systems Thinking 101 is about observing systems at three-fold levels – the constituent sub-systems or parts; the system as displayed by the patterns of behaviours resulting from the interactions of the parts within the system; and the external environment with which the system interacts.  The system will adapt and evolve changes in the larger environment.  As the system changes, it can change the larger environment as well.

Systems can overlap and they are nestled in hierarchy.  I am a member of this group but I am also members of other groups from which I can draw on and share different expertise. Systems thinking is thinking in terms of ecosystems within eco-systems within a larger environment.  It provides the principles and concepts to observe systems at more than one level of eco-systems.  We can look at eco-systems at various depths – starting from the organic parts to the system and expanding to the immediate surroundings, location, the country, the region, the continent, the world and the universe beyond.  The number of levels are defined by the observer.  There is nothing new that “eco-systems thinking” can add to systems thinking other than confusion.  .

Spirit of abundance vs. spirit of “WE FIRST” in sharing and caring

If we want to help in reducing poverty, we need to do more than changing the mindset to be one of abundance.

The abundance vs. scarcity theory was mooted by Stephen Covey.[3]  Covey suggested that the Scarcity Theory views everything in life as having limits. People hoard because they believe there is not enough to go around. This theory convinces one to believe on the limited ways to achieve success.  Anyone wishing to be successful must follow the same path and prescription that others have followed.  In contrast, the Abundance Theory is a mindset that looks at each glass as half full.  It sees a world that offers unlimited opportunities and there is always room for more persons.  It is about thinking “we first” and sharing by putting others first.  Success is measured by their ability to work together and support each other. It is interesting how this idea had evolved to be denigrated.  It means much more than the abundance mindset based on generosity.

A systems thinker will consider abundance and scarcity as complementary. Different situation will require me to consider whether that half cup will limit or increase available options.  When I am running low on gas in a remote area, I have no other option but to fill up my tank before my car grind to a halt before reaching my destination.  I need to worry and monitor the fuel gauge.  It is crazy to think that there is lots of gas out there.  However if I want to be excellent, I must think of the potential that I can achieve.

One really has to go into the field and to soil the hands working with the have-nots to know what it is like working with them.  There are many heart warming stories.  Stories are often told of parents foregoing the last morsel of meal to feed their young without the second thought of the need to survive in order to feed their young. People share their food with others who are more in need.  Let me share a lesson from a page from my experience. I met a group of “have-not” kids playing and laughing in the mud with no worry over their next meal. I handed to them a packet of Smarties.  In their excitement one kid spilled the chocolate sweets.  Instead of beating up that kid, the rest simply pick the sweets and popped them into their mouths without hesitation before I could offer them another packet.  What camaraderie! They were not driven by the mindset of abundance.  Even if they have the means, they could not buy such goodies in such remote place.  They were driven by a mindset of “we first”, bonded by a fellowship to share and enjoy the treat together.  It dawned on me to harness the energy from their “we first” mindset to help them improve.  This is more powerful than the mindset of abundance or generosity envisioned on the desk.

One has to be in the field to see the joy expressed by the have-nots when they are able teach others to fish!  They found it more edifying for them to feed others than to be fed.  They recover the sense of self respect that they have lost through their dependence on hand-outs.  This eye-opener unfolded the “we first” mentality beyond my imagination.  One has to be in field to see the reality of the challenges and opportunities to re-imagine visions.

Trying to inculcate a mindset of abundance to the have-nots is futile when they struggle to meet their basic needs.  We must first help lift them out of the poverty trap by tapping on the energy from their “we first” mentality.  The abundance mindset may have more appeal with the haves.  Generosity is the part the haves play in contributing to the betterment of mankind and to satisfy their altruistic need.  The trend in philanthropy is that the donors want greater transparency in how their dollars are effectively spent.  The challenge is to re-imagine courses of action which will merge the needs of both the haves and have-nots to maximise the impact of the donations to benefit and enable the recipients.

Systemic Poverty

I like the group’s passion in trying to help reduce property but we must have a robust understanding on poverty to move forward.

What is poverty? How do we decide on the poverty threshold?  Poverty is systemic.  It is a social construct.  It is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon.

The causes of poverty are many and diverse.  Some primary causes are unemployment, running Inflation, poor management of resources, government, debt, corruption, lack of food, lack of access to education, mental illness and lack of proper psychiatric care, epidemic and chronic diseases, overpopulation, inequality of opportunity, high divorce rate, a culture of poverty, illiteracy, extreme weather and climatic conditions, and natural disasters.   Some are systemic and are unpreventable.

These multifaceted and interwoven factors build on and play off one another with a devastatingly synergistic effect.  One problem created by poverty creates another, which in turn creates another, leading to a seemingly endless cascade of deleterious challenges.[4]   We need a multi-prong systemic approach to address the multiple interlocking factors that impinge on poverty.  The approach of changing the mindset to one of abundance is too light weight, probably a bit naïve, to reduce poverty in the light of such trying circumstances.  Changing the mindset is just a piece in the jigsaw puzzle.  It will need the skill of a master strategist to put together the 17 “SDG” pieces of the jigsaw puzzle into the final picture.

Defining poverty and poverty threshold is subjective and arbitrary.  It is philosophically, ideologically, culturally and even politically charged. It also is contextual specific as it is dependent on the observer’s definition and the purpose for defining it.  This is why debates on poverty can provoke so much emotion and passion that participants could not reach any consensus.

Poverty is fundamentally a state of real or perceived lacking in some physical resources or non-material resources.  People are deemed poor when they perceive themselves as lacking these resources or when they are perceived by others as lacking them.  Poverty in multiple resources often leads to physical deprivation. The definition can be esoteric if we attempt to combine measurements of material deprivation with moral and social deprivation.  We can see the “poverty” in both haves and have-nots.  The have-nots can be financially poor but they can be morally rich; the haves can be financially rich but they can be morally bankrupt because of their greed, selfishness, exploitation of the weak and corrupt practices.  Some of the blogs and comments in this group alluded to the “depravity” in the haves but in different context.

Here is a glimpse on the variety of definitions.

Primary poverty or absolute poverty means the lack of the means to meet basic personal needs, such as food, clothing and shelter and living below a deemed poverty line.   The absolute poverty threshold is usually fixed, independent of permanent location or era.

In 2015, 17SDG[5] raised the “international poverty line” from $1.25 to $1.90 per day per person to cover the cost of food, clean drinking water and sanitation. This is taking into account inflation.  The United Nations defines poverty as the inability of having choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having access to a school or clinic, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation.

Secondary poverty means earning enough money to afford the necessities, but part of that earning is spent on “coping” with financial-cum-work related stress, making it a struggle to make ends meet.

Relative poverty is the condition in which people lack the minimum amount of income needed to maintain a minimum standard of living in that society. It can be measured as a percentage of the average income or as a percentile of income.  It may be considered a better measure on the poverty line as the threshold can vary from country to country, or from society to society.  Relative poverty can change over time to reflect the changing cost of living.  As the wealth of a society increases, the amount of income and resources required to maintain the proper standard of living will increase.  While money will not buy happiness, it is required to achieve better living standards.  In the United States, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is USD 45 284 a year, much higher than the OECD average of USD 33 604 a year.  There is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn nearly nine times as much as the bottom 20%.[6]   The nature of its definition makes relative poverty highly unpreventable.

Types of poverty

There are six types of poverty[7]:

  • Situational poverty is generally caused by a sudden crisis or loss. It is temporary. It is caused by environmental disasters, divorce, or severe health problems.
  • Generational poverty occurs in families where at least two generations have been born into poverty. Families living in this type of poverty are not equipped with the tools to move out of their situations.
  • Absolute poverty involves a scarcity of such necessities as shelter, running water, and food. Families who live in absolute poverty tend to focus on day-to-day survival.
  • Relative poverty refers to the economic status of a family whose income is insufficient to meet its society’s average standard of living.
  • Urban poverty occurs in metropolitan areas with populations of at least 50,000 people. The urban poor deal with a complex aggregate of chronic and acute stressors (including crowding, violence, and noise). They are dependent on often-inadequate large-city services.
  • Rural poverty occurs in nonmetropolitan areas with populations below 50,000. These are households with families with limited access to services, support for disabilities, and quality education opportunities. Programs to encourage transition from welfare to work are problematic in remote rural areas, where job opportunities are few (Whitener, Gibbs, & Kusmin, 2003). The rural poverty rate is growing and has exceeded the urban rate since the 1960s.

Psychological profiles of those in poverty

The psychological profile of the have-nots is characterised by a sense of low self-worth.  They do not recognise their self-worth to be “I am greater than all of those things”. This is displayed in many ways. They have low self-esteem and are in self-denial in that they do not think, feel and believe in themselves.  They feel ashamed.  They are acutely aware of their lack of voice, power and independence when subjected to exploitation.  They are vulnerable to discrimination and inhumane treatment even from those they seek help.  They feel the pain brought about by their unavoidable violation of social norms.  Their inability to participate with the community and to maintain cultural identity leads to further social ostracisations.

Strange the have-nots rarely speak about income, but they do speak extensively about resources that are important to them[8].  These resources are not so much about money, land and material belongings but social assets depicted by social networks such as kinships and community; and environmental assets such as trees, forests, water to which they belong.

The message here is subtle but clear.  The have-nots do see their problem as economic inequality as in social inequality.  They are denied the right to be heard, the right to access social networks and more importantly the right to equal opportunities.

The perception on poverty is vital for the design, evaluation and implementation of social policy. There is no one miracle cure.  Different definitions seek different remedies.  Different political and ideological affiliations seek different policies.  In the US, debates are argued often along political lines with Republicans supporting the cultural/behavioural grounds and Democrats defending the structural/economic grounds.  The socialist will trace the roots of poverty in problems of distribution and the use of the means of production as capital benefiting individuals, and calls for re-distribution of wealth as the solution.  The neoliberal believes the solutions lies in creating conditions for profitable investments but this is pointless if governments do not incentivised investments in the poorest areas which need it most.

Concluding remarks

This article attempts to present various perspectives in a nutshell.  The reality is that there is no one effective anti-poverty strategy.  Each cause and type of poverty requires its own strategy, each relying on a coordinated response from different agencies.  The culture of poverty is a social theory that asserts that the values of people experiencing poverty play a significant role in perpetuating their impoverished condition, sustaining a cycle of poverty across generations.

Besides poverty is a perception of the status which is bestowed on people who have relatively little – even in societies of plenty. We probably will not be able to end poverty.  Managing poverty and Inequality is perhaps more meaningful than ending poverty.  It is about giving those who are relatively poor opportunities to a better, fuller life by reducing social inequality.

Poverty is a social injustice as much as economic injustice.  This is relevant in the sense that poverty by definition is a social construct.  Attempts to reduce by economic means will have limited success without addressing the social issues at stake.

When working to reduce poverty, we must bear in mind the sub-groups we are targeting.  Is the focus on the haves by appealing on their mind set of abundance to donate generously to the have-nots OR is it to enable the have-nots to stand on their two feet OR both?

The closer we get to reducing extreme poverty, the harder will be the going.  The law of disproportion will come into play.  Disproportional amount of effort will be required to remove the last remnant bit of poverty to reach zero poverty.

Eliminating poverty may be a utopian dream but this does not mean we cannot it more manageable.

I am reminded not to commit what I am advocating against.  I will prefer your “comments” to your compliments.  The comments will act the sounding board on the robustness of my thoughts.  I look forward to your comments.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volatility,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_theory

[3] http://franklincoveystephenpearson.blogspot.com/2011/01/abundance-mentality-vs-scarcity.html

[4] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00265.x

[5] https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/envision2030.html

[6] http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/united-states/

[7] Eric Jensen’s study from Teaching with Poverty in Mind (2009)

[8] https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPOVERTY/Resources/335642-1124115102975/1555199-1124115187705/ch2.pdf

 

4 thoughts on “Reducing Poverty – A Systems Thinking Approach

  • Stephen Saunders

    Henry, I appreciate and value your section titled “Systemic Poverty”. You ask not to be complimented, so please take this as more of an evaluation. I agree with your assumption or premise that poverty will never be completely eliminated. Some argue that the SDG of eliminating poverty is not a practical or achievable goal. What I have found so far in life is that everybody has a slightly different view of riches and poverty, depending on background and experience. There is no one correct answer to poverty, that is my belief. Therefore, there is also no one solution. We all need to pull together.

  • HENRY KWOK

    Stephen. thanks for your quick comments. yes you are correct that there is no one miracle solution to poverty. each case is very unique thus it needs special approach. poverty being a systemic issue will not lends itself to be solved. it can only be managed.

    SDG goals no doubt are too many. the question we have to ask is – does the failure to attain one or more goals means one has failed? the reductionist will ask how to achieve all of them. a systemic thinker will think and find the purpose or meaning why those goals are established. our role will be easier if we understand the why – not the how? the why gives us the space to imagine.

  • HENRY KWOK

    @Stephen. thanks for the comment. i do hope this article will start you on a journey to help complete this unfinished narrative!!

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