When you get included in a poverty reduction project because you are ‘officially’ poor, you get a number, an ID card to tag you, track you. But who are these millions of people becoming ‘poor’ in 2020? Who were they in 2019?
Humans have a strange habit. We give names to everything — persons, objects, places, events, experiences. We even give names to things yet to come, like our unborn children. We give names to widely anticipated events — Doomsday. Or places we hope to visit or not hope to visit one day — like heaven or hell, for that matter.
The names closest to our lives are, of course, our own names. As you all may remember, someone else had picked those for us using their honest and sincere judgement around the time we were born. In a sense, our names are timeless, stuck with us our whole lives, and for some of us lucky ones, beyond our lifetime, depending on our deeds when we were alive.
As we grow older, we get additional names from various sources. Our close friends give us names matching our heights, skin colour, or some weird habits we have, which only they humbly managed to discover.
As teachers, we get names from our students, as political leaders from our followers or opponents, as celebrities from our fans. Some of us may choose our own pen name as an author, stage name as a performer or an online name as an online gamer or TikToker.
As a biologist, I am fascinated by evolution in everything. Our individual names also evolve in so many ways throughout our lives. They get changed as we get married, or as we change our religion. There are some rebels among us who modify their birth names, even change it altogether.
Some changes are bestowed upon us — a couple, a couple of years into their marriage and without any children, are called by their acquaintances 'a couple not trying for babies'. A few years later, they are called 'a couple not having children'. A decade later they are labelled as 'a childless couple', forever.
If we stop here and look beyond our personal naming practice, or culture for that matter, our social status gives us names — put us in boxes.
The most significant of such 'boxing' is probably calling ourselves 'poor' or 'rich', and something in between, like 'middle-class'.
Calling fellow human beings' poor' is one of the greatest ironies of our lifetime. Between 2000 and 2019, the world GDP has grown by 260%, but still, 24% of 7.8 billion people are called 'poor'.
As the last World War reshaped our perspectives towards the world around us, we did realise, even as nations, being poor is simply a bad sport. The so-called 'poor', 'developing', 'third world', 'least-developed' or 'Global South' countries, therefore, tried to lower the numbers of their poor people — often with hundreds of millions of foreign monies, received years in years out, in the name of poverty alleviation projects.
But, it is only in the year 2000 the world came together to fight poverty, extreme poverty to be specific when it fixed eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Having 'Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger' as the number one goal did say how we felt about our fellow 'extreme poor'.
Fifteen years on, still having 10 percent extreme poor people worldwide remained our number one concern as human beings. In 2015, all countries collectively rearranged their development agendas as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The single global indicator they agreed on to measure a better world by 2030 was 'Leave No One Behind' — a rather romantic way of saying there will be no 'extreme poor' by the new 15-year deadline.
Of course, emotions and poverty had their own names in our poverty-stricken Bengal Delta — Sarat Chandra's 'Mahesh', Kazi Nazrul's 'Daridro', Zainul's 'Famine Sketches'.
Poverty has philosophical connotations to us as well. BRAC's Imran Matin heard and told us how the 'chronic poor' see themselves as 'invisible' in their own society. For them, 'life is like mending a cloth — sticking patches and stitching' — their sorrows and tears are invisible as well to others.
Our four-decade economic innovations and experiments with poor women did give us our first Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. And we did hear Professor Mohammad Yunus's dream of 'making poverty a museum piece'.
But, who gets to define me as 'poor'?
This has been quite straightforward over the last few decades, as international bodies effectively describe the world to us through economic telescopes and microscopes. You are extreme poor if you don't earn 1.9 dollars or Taka 160 every day — it is as simple as that.
But, in 2009, my first professional exposure to 'extreme poor' taught me something else. I got the shock of my life when I found that our extreme poverty alleviation project team colleagues were literally struggling to find extreme low-income families in flood-prone northern Bangladesh to include in a donor-funded project.
I quickly realised we were struggling to identify the extreme poor families to make them our project beneficiaries because of the beneficiary selection criteria set out by our funder.
You don't have to be a social science student or an NGO worker to call a family 'extreme poor' if they are hardly earning a hundred taka a day. You know they are in terrible shape if they do not eat properly even once a day, or if they live in a makeshift house on an embankment or if they do not have assets like a small cow or if they are not allowed to get loans from the microcredit office as they might not be able to return the borrowed money. Any of these characteristics may qualify a family to be called an extreme poor family.
But with a sincere intention, in our project, we were trying to find all these features and even more in a single-family. Practically, we were looking for extremely low-income families who would be the poorest among the poorest! And it was tough to come across.
A few years back, I was listening to the eminent economist Professor Abul Barkat at an Asiatic Society Bangladesh seminar where he argued that more than 80 percent of Bangladeshi were extreme poor. To him, if you miss out on core human rights, you are extremely poor. According to Professor Barkat, it was a stark contrast from the conventional way of defining the extreme poor, considering daily income or food in-take — a 'livestock method of measuring poverty'.
So, we define our fellow 'poor' as per our purpose — as a donor, NGO worker, researcher, policymaker, or planner.
But, this year, the Covid-19 has shaken our ongoing fight to eradicate extreme poverty in Bangladesh and worldwide. Globally, an additional 207 million people will become extremely poor due to the Covid-19, the UNDP disclosed on December 3.
Bangladesh's poverty figures came down from 57 percent in 1990 to 20.5 percent in 2019. But, our General Economic Division estimated a rise to 29.5 percent due to the Covid-19.
When you get included in a poverty reduction project because you are 'officially' poor, you get a number, an ID card to tag you, track you. But, who are these millions of people becoming 'poor' in 2020? Who were they in 2019?
Are they the ones who got out of the poverty trap in the last decade and filled up project and donor reports as satisfactorily vibrant case studies? Or were they always balancing their lives on the so-called 'upper and lower poverty lines' looking out for social safety nets, if there were any to save them when needed, and thus they were never out of poverty in a real sense? Or are they branded 'poor' for the first time in their lives due to the evil pandemic?
If my very existence gets shaken, beaten, pushed around, and reshaped by a pandemic and I am put in a box called the 'poor' with millions of others, does it truly redefine me economically, socially?
Doesn't it actually challenge our perceptions of 'poverty' and 'poor', question our false celebration of poverty alleviation, laugh at our plan for a 'poverty museum'?
Coming back to naming: As human beings, others give us names, they define us. But how do we give ourselves names, define ourselves against the social constructs, like 'poverty' or 'poor', that we collectively define or fail to define?
In the film 'The Way of the Guns' (2000), there was a very lonely, distressed girl named Robin played by Juliette Lewis. When asked, which name she called the baby she was pregnant with, Robin replied, 'When you think about deaf people, people who are born deaf ... who've never heard a spoken word. What do you think they call the sun or their mother ... or their own reflection in the mirror? That's what I call it.'
I wonder, all the names we get in a single lifetime, what's the name we give ourselves as we stand before the mirror.
The Author is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle Is @hmirfanullah