By Kevin A. Stoda, Kuwait
Sociologist Dr. Mark Olson at Gulf University in Kuwait recently published an article, “Kuwait’s Rich Man-Poor Man Syndrome”, on the need for the field of sociology to recognize a third definition of poverty.
For years a somewhat dichotomous pair of definitions have suffice in teaching incoming college freshman the distinction between (a) absolute poverty and (b) relative poverty.
Absolute poverty is illustrated through a vignette of his experiences in Africa some 3 decades ago as a Peace Corp volunteer, “Glancing out of a taxi on a gray overcast day in Addis Ababa, I saw a woman head bowed, as she was crossing the street, apparition-like. What was noticeable was that she was dressed in a garment completely made up of plastic sacks.”
Absolute poverty is noticeable by its obvious dimensions—or lack thereof.
When someone is living in absolute poverty she has nothing—or practically nothing to call her own. Moreover, absolute poverty can be marked by many untreated ailments, e.g. leprosy in a society which doesn’t have appropriate medical care, medicine, equipment or standards available. Olson shared of seeing such beggers with only stumps or partially missing appendages in his days in Ethiopia of the 1970s.
Olson turns to South America for his next example in order to illustrate relative poverty.
Olson explains, “Mention Colombia and thoughts come to mind of lush mountain jungles, guerillas in green fatigues, cocaine processing and fatalistic campesinos that plod along life’s rocky paths in sandals even as life speeds past them in caravans of expensive cars and SUVs.”
Olson adds, “These costly vehicles, usually out-fitted with smoke-tinted widows, are occupied by society’s elite, of both political and drug-trafficking origins. From the outside, the occupants are indistinguishable. Some might argue from the inside, as well.”
Because there are many classes, including a middle class, in Colombian society, poverty is referred to there often in terms of relative poverty in most instances. According to Olson, this preference in defining poverty (in terms of relative poverty) in describing Colombia is based upon the fact that “[t]hreats to life expectancy are more likely to come from the criminal elements or agents of state instead of poverty.”
“FACELESS POVERTY” IN GLOBALIZED MARKETS
Historically, Olson writes, “Whatever the imagery that poverty evokes, the point is that poverty has a face. What if, however, poverty fails to evoke a face? To the extent that poverty becomes faceless, should it also fall away as a category in reality?”
It is this manifestation of unmeasured, un-registered, or un-quantified poverty in a global context that Olson focuses on in the rest of his article. He finds inspiration for the concept all around him in the Gulf state of Kuwait, where he has researched and taught in recent years.
Olson continues, “What is remarkable about Kuwait is that [poverty’s face] it’s mostly unremarkable?”
This is partially a reflection of the many lacking official statistical measures of poverty in the less-than transparent Kuwait (member of WTO) society.