Within seconds of reading this you can get a seven-day weather forecast for Rio de Janeiro, Delhi, or Tokyo. You can learn how vaccinations work, get instructions on how to construct a pig pen, and even get the definition for poverty… in Japanese. The point being, we live in an information rich world. With 1.7 billion internet users, some of us clearly have access to limitless amounts of information that the remaining 5.3 billion do not. However, when one goes further and looks at the world’s 72 million children who are not enrolled in school, 774 million that are illiterate, or billions who do not have access to a public library this information gap becomes almost unimaginable and its consequences are very real.
When I first heard I was going to be working with the “ultra-poor” in Bangladesh, admittedly I was thinking in purely economic terms. Poverty to me was defined by a lack of financial resources (money) or productive assets (capital such as land, livestock, or a business). I thought the “cycle of poverty” was driven by economic disparities in which the poor, lacking any means to make money simply became poorer. However, after talking to over 670 of Bangladesh’s ultra-poor I found this isn’t exactly the case.
Many of the individuals I have worked with live in isolated villages miles from the nearest paved road or electrical socket, are illiterate, have never been to school, and have never seen a computer, world map, or library. As a result these ultra-poor women are severely “handicapped” when it comes to obtaining knowledge beyond what they already know or are directly exposed to. Thus, issues and opportunities that require additional knowledge beyond what an ultra-poor individual already possess poses great difficulty for them, such as a new business venture, or an illness within their family. This lack of access to information is undeniably linked to the ultra-poor’s financial condition. However, the distinction must be made that these are in fact two different types of poverty—one financial, one informational. In doing so, it becomes clear that the “cycle of poverty” cannot only be attributed to a lack of financial resources, but knowledge resources as well. But why is such a distinction important?
The answer is perhaps best explained through an analogy given to me by a villager in Islampur, in the northwestern corner of the country. The man told me, “If I am sick, and I have all the medicine in the world, but I don’t have the knowledge or advice on which medicine to take, what good does it do me?” His point is simple yet significant and has wider implications for development organizations. In order to truly tackle poverty, development organizations must be willing and able to address both types of poverty simultaneously. Not only must they present individuals with opportunities and resources, but they must also give individuals the knowledge they need to utilize those opportunities and resources. The implications of not doing so can be disastrous and render programs and donor dollars useless. As one woman told me, “If I am given a cow it is just a cow, only once I am given training and advice does that cow become an asset.” BRAC has done a wonderful job identifying and addressing both types of poverty that entrap so many ultra-poor by giving them not only material support, but social and educational support as well. However, some other organizations have yet to embrace this approach to programming, greatly reducing their potential impact.
If wealth is equal to power, and power is equal to knowledge is it therefore safe to say that knowledge is equal to wealth? While the dynamics of poverty are much more complex than this, my experiences in Bangladesh seem to say so. In recognizing that the world’s poor are not only financially poor, but knowledge poor, development organizations can tailor their approach to have a greater impact on the individuals they serve.