What Does Extreme Poverty Look Like?

Stories on poverty are fairly common in the press. Generally, they describe those living in poverty as having very little or no money or material possessions. It’s a pretty vague concept which makes it difficult for those of us living in relative prosperity to truly understand. The concept of poverty is further clouded by single statistics—the World Bank classifies those around the world who live on less than $1.90 per day live in extreme poverty. That’s right; extreme poverty is a thing. But that kind of number is simply too hard for many people to wrap their mind around. 

So, what does it look like then, to live life in extreme poverty?  

Food: Those living in extreme poverty cannot expect to have the money or means to provide at least one meal to themselves or their families every day. On days when they can put food on their table, it might be a single food product, like potatoes, that lack protein or vitamins necessary to maintain good health over time.  

Healthcare: Most of you reading have at one time or another in your life have had a painful toothache. Remember that? You were in misery, but you were able to make an appointment with the dentist fairly quickly. Your tooth was either drilled and filled or had to be pulled. Nonetheless, the event was a minor speed bump in your life, thanks to the safety and availability of modern dentistry. Now imagine having that same toothache, but you live in a small village with no dentist or doctor to treat you. And even if you could get yourself to a dentist, it would be a day’s travel away, and you wouldn’t have the money to pay for treatment anyway. So, you suffer along with your toothache, sometimes for years until the tooth falls out or you find someone in your village with a pair of pliers to pull it.  

Clean Water: Thirsty? Grab a glass and open the tap. It’s simple-- clean water, delivered to our home, for pennies a day. For those living in extreme poverty, water can be several miles away, forcing one member of the family, traditionally an adult female, to carry a large container to the watering hole to collect water. The only available water source is often filthy, tainted with animal or human waste and possibly contaminated with industrial or agricultural chemicals. 

Education: Children living in extreme poverty often lack access to the most fundamental elements of education. There may be a school house, but there are no books or school supplies. Or the “teacher” is barely literate. Not only does a lack of education make it extremely difficult for a child to escape extreme poverty, but it can also do the same for many adults. Many poor adults living in remote locations speak a regional language or dialect that is not understood by others in their country, making it difficult for them to trade their goods with those outside the village or district.  

Economic Development: For every 100 people in the United States who want to work, more than 96 currently have a job. How did we come to have it so good? In part, because we have near universal literacy and most workers can do simple arithmetic. We have dozens of banks and credit unions willing to lend money at low rates. We have a well-developed distribution system that gets food from the farm to the local market and manufactured products from the factory to the store. For those living in extreme poverty wanting to start even a very small business, they are not likely to have any savings, access to capital, math skills or a way to get their crop to those who would gladly pay for it just 100 miles away.  

Environmental Sustainability: You don’t have to be an environmentalist to appreciate the damage to poor communities affected by deforestation. When all the trees in a large area are clear cut without replanting, the area can cause floods or even bury whole villages in mudslides. Without trees, an area loses many or all of its animal species and in some cases, convert to a desert. Extremely poor populations simply don’t have the financial resources to replant deforested areas, so the environmental degradation forces them to move out of the area, making their financial situation worse, if that's even possible.  

Those are some pretty big challenges. Who has been successful in helping people emerge from extreme poverty? 

In many areas of the developing world, extremely poor communities remain trapped in a cycle of poverty because they are subject to more than one of these conditions. Between 2014 and 2017, CHOICE Humanitarian has successfully brought 1,833 families out of extreme poverty in the Lamjung district in Nepal alone using an innovative approach to development, providing boots-on-the-ground assistance to local communities to build trust, collaborating with villagers to identify what they value most and providing leadership training to formal and informal community leaders. Through leadership training, community leaders in the seven countries where CHOICE Humanitarian operates are equipped to leverage donated funds from CHOICE, work productively with their government for the right kinds of assistance and perpetuate projects independent of outside assistance. For more details and how you can help, check out the CHOICE Humanitarian Model 


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