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What is Poverty?

A farmer in West Bengal returns from ploughing the fields. Photo: Douglas Olthof.

This post was written by John Harriss, Director of International Studies at Simon Fraser University.

I can well imagine many readers reacting to this question along the lines of ‘What a silly question. Isn’t it obvious?’ Well, yes, it is, at least on one level. ‘Being poor’ surely means ‘not having enough’, or ‘being deprived’? But not having enough of, or being deprived of what? The obvious answer to this question is probably ‘Not enough money’. But then that only raises the question of ‘Not enough money for what?’ ‘Not enough money’ for some people, clearly, might be a fortune for others. This is particularly obvious when we think across societies. Poverty in our own society might still mean having all sorts of things, like television sets, fridges and motor cars that a poor woman in Lesotho, say, probably can’t even dream of. So answering the question ‘what is poverty?’ really is a bit more complicated than we might think at first.

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