Spotlight on Poverty

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mcClure september 2014by

Julia McClure (HEC MW Fellow 2014-2015)






Last week the Guardian reported that ‘poverty is at its most deadly when we no longer notice, we no longer care, we no longer even question it’. This article formed an important backdrop to the Poverty Research Workshop, where researchers from across the disciplines turned out to try to challenge the invisibility of poverty.

Contributors explored the economic, social, political, environmental, cultural and religious approaches to understanding the causes of and responses to poverty.  The EUI was grateful to receive Norberto Ferreras from Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro and Steven Serels from the ZMO in Germany (former colleagues from the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History) to discuss forced Labour in Latin America, and famine in the Red Sea World. The rest of the contributions came from Max Weber Fellows at the EUI. Julia McClure discussed the ambivalence to poverty that emanates from Christianity, David do Paҫo illustrated representations of poverty in early modern Europe and Julija Sardelić introduced us to the marginalisation of Roma communities as political boundaries shifted in modern Europe and shared her documentary on this topic. These contributions interrogated the political and spatio-temporal landscapes of poverty.

Researchers also discussed potential solutions to the problems of poverty. Megan Andrew explored the pros and cons of existing strategies for decreasing inequalities through improving access to education in North America, Juliana Bidadanure introduced the basic income proposal and Basic Income Earth Network, Robert Lepenies introduced the Academics Stand Against Poverty network, and Zoe Lefkofridi demonstrated how economic inequality affects political inequality by presenting evidence of the poor’s under-representation and of policy outcomes’ bias towards the preferences of the rich.

This dialogue across disciplines and geographies illustrated the importance of developing a poverty research network. This will provide a database of ideas and connections of researchers who can contribute to more nuanced and robust strategies for approaching the complex issue of poverty. The need for such studies in the complexities of poverty and its many causes and faces was illustrated in a recent article in Aljazeera on ‘The Death of International Development’, which commented on the need to reject racist narratives of the poor as voiceless victims, aid-centric notions to development, and the paternalistic story of aid. Similarly, the contributors of the workshop grappled with reoccurring ambivalences and paradoxes within the complex relationships between poverty and freedom, poverty and rights, and poverty and movement, and this led to a questioning of the ideologies that have shaped perceptions and responses to poverty. This included considering the neo-imperial dimensions of global capitalism, the influence and limitations of Marxist materialist determinism, and the Christocentric valorisation of poverty and link between labour and dignity. This was an important advance as sometimes these ideologies have been as invisible as the many faces of poverty.

The OED defines poverty as: ‘the condition of having little or no wealth or few material possessions; indigence, destitution’, yet our dialogue was a reminder that this definition barely scrapes the surface of the complex issue that is related to rights, opportunity, education, democracy, culture, and labour as well as the necessities of life.

Above all this workshop worked to excavate the complex power dynamics that have shaped discourses of poverty. This process raised important questions, not just of how to define poverty, but of who defines it. Whose category is it? Who can choose to be identified by it or not? Who benefits from the category? Who benefits from responses to poverty? It also prompted the contrary questions of what is wealth and what is valued?

What began as a workshop based on a patchwork of papers on the experiences, meanings and responses to poverty in different times and localities around the world became a questioning of the politics, social visions, and ideologies shaping the world and the way in which it is understood and experienced. This workshop thus became a reminder not just of the need to increase the visibility of all the complexities of poverty, but also a reminder of the need to remove the veil of invisibility from the ideologies that have created and perpetuated multiple forms of poverties.


Julia McClure

Max Weber Fellow at the EUI and convenor of the Poverty Research Workshop

If you want to know more about this project at the Poverty Research Network please contact [email protected]