Do you remember your first job? What a monumental moment that was when you could finally get some extra cash in your pocket and no longer had to ask your parents for money! This creates a sense of independence. We like the independence that making our own money gives us, empowering us to make our own financial decisions. As teenagers we most likely spent our money on “stuff” such as fast food, movies, music, gas for the car, you name it, and we thought “life is good”. We felt independent, right? Perhaps, but, then the reality was that we still couldn’t afford our own house, car, car insurance, telephone, health insurance, etc….so the independence we felt was not truly independent. We were still greatly dependent upon our parents, which allowed them to determine certain rules we needed to follow. We were stilled tied to our parents’ authority. Although, we felt independent, we knew we still had not arrived. This is a good thing if our parents are fair and loving people, but could potentially be harmful if our parents ever used money to control and manipulate us. Regardless, most of us eventually moved (or will move) beyond that first job to hopefully finding a career, and then moving out, and finally developing a career for ourselves, gaining true independence.
The feeling of true independence is rare for those living in poverty. This ultimately leads back to the relationship between sovereignty and poverty, something that nearly all developing countries have to wrestle with. If a country’s monetary system is dependent upon another country, then sovereignty and independence is not truly possible. To understand the problem of poverty in many countries, it is helpful to understand some of the causes of poverty. Much of the struggles within West Africa are shaped by its history with French Colonization and now the European Union. Many cultural aspects within West Africa were taken from French culture- administrative procedures, the educational system, building structures, and even the CFA (African Franc) was copied off of the French Franc. Most of West Africa gained their “independence” in the 1960’s. In some situations the French basically just packed up and left, which left many West African nations independent! Great news, right? Well, not exactly. Although the French had left, they retained an imprint on the African way of life in several aspects. And, this influence indirectly left much of west Africa still dependent upon the French system. So, although many countries gained sovereignty, most countries remained dependent upon the economy of France to survive. The lingering influence is easily seen within the West African banking world and at the level of individual Malian men living in France, working undesirable jobs to get by for their families.
This is, at least in part, some of the issue in much of West Africa. Although there are sovereign states, the ties back to France and Europe are still so present that there is no real sense of true independence. This dependency issue is also not uncommon for many of the countries that went through this similar process of colonization.
While sitting in a little neighborhood cafe in West Africa, I struck up a conversation with a young man who was working. I asked him if he had gone to school. He said, “Yes, and I also graduated from the University.” He had studied business and was hoping to get a position working for either a French company or the government. The challenge is that those types of jobs are limited and his chance of getting a paid position was slim. So, instead, he was working at a small cafe, hardly making enough money to buy food for the day to feed himself. Think about that for a moment. He was a young man who had made all the right decisions in life- got an education and stayed out of trouble- but he was still unable to find a job that would allow him enough money to take care of himself, let alone feed a family some day.
This is the challenge with poverty and the intrinsic systems of dependency. If a nation is dependent on another country, then poverty for the majority of the population is inevitable.
When we talk about poverty it’s important to take into consideration all the variables that play into it. It is very important to not judge and to ask the right questions. We can then consider how we can actually make changes to systems that are not truly empowering a people and a nation.
Think back to the teenager… fast forward to his adult life. Still living at home but now 50 years old, making minimum wage, the promise and potential of ownership of the business one day. But, that day never arrives, the systems of dependency still exist, which leave him trapped in an endless cycle of dependency and poverty.
If you are looking to grow in your understanding of poverty, I would encourage you to watch the documentary Poverty Inc. It might not provide all of the answers, but it will provide insight for sustainabilty. Click below to watch the trailer.
About the Author:
Ian Vickers is a co-founder and the Chief Executive Officer of Global Partners in Hope. He has over 20 years of international development experience, having lived and worked abroad much of his career. Ian has an educational background in Intercultural studies (B.S.) and Leadership (M.A.) and is fluent in both French and English. Ian and his wife Joanna live in Omaha, Nebraska near their three children.