“A Recap of a Conversation with Katherine Boo on Tackling Urban Poverty: Some Lessons from 20 Years in the Field”

kathy boo

Keynote on Poverty: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author, Katherine Boo

BY Ricardo Light

(Feb 2, 2016)

A Conversation with Katherine Boo on “Tackling Urban Poverty: Some Lessons from 20 Years in the Field” was sponsored by the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, Institute for International, Global and Regional Studies (IIGARS), Department of Planning, Policy & Design, and Department of Sociology.

Dr. Richard Matthew, Director of the Center for Unconventional Security Affairs and the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, moderated Pulitzer prize winning author and investigative journalist Katherine Boo as she discussed the experiences detailed in her latest book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Dr. Matthew began the seminar by noting that poverty, like many of the most pressing issues of our time, is extremely abstract. There are currently around 1.6 billion people living in poverty worldwide. In Orange County alone, 1 out of 2 children experience poverty. He added that most of our time is focused on local concerns, thus rendering global issues somewhat irrelevant to our spheres of reality. Attempts to make global poverty less abstract, we need to break down the distance between those with the means and those in need. Dr. Matthew introduced his guest by stating, “If anyone has the ability to make poverty real to the world it is Katherine in her [recent] book.”

Addressing the room from the podium, Boo noted that her goal for the book was to narrow in on ideas that are missed in the general discourse on poverty. “My role is not to provide silver bullets, my hope is [to] provide a rigorous, unsentimental insight into how government policy and market forces affect people on the ground,” she said, “there’s this ideal that we understand poverty around the world, so the only question left is how do we fix it? But we know a lot less than we think.”

According to Boo, much of the data that buttresses our understanding of poverty around the world is flimsy and unreliable. For example, deaths resulting from tuberculosis in Mumbai often go unreported in densely populated slums. Speaking from her personal experience while living in such areas, Boo stated, “I personally witnessed more tuberculosis deaths than were reported by the government for an area 75 times larger than where I was stationed.” She added that when such diseases and incidents are reported, they are reported from a position of authority, making data inherently biased or skewed, and thus resulting in the misreporting of a significant number of cases.

Boo revealed that officials often look at a patient through secondary diagnosis rather than first hand. “Some of the most wrenching events experienced by communities will leave no trace on the public record,” stated Boo, “It’s not just about  what we don’t understand, what we think works to alleviate poverty isn’t field tested.” She told the audience that when she investigates a program that claims to help populations in poverty, she finds that either the reforms don’t run deep enough to have any impact, or that they end up circulating money around a small group of people in positions of power. “In seeking to be a part of the solution, we may be implicit in the problem,” she noted.

In the last decade, India has had a record amount of social spending. According to Boo, the logical conclusion is that all that spending didn’t work; but in reality, much of that funding never reached it’s intended target population. For example, microlending doesn’t work as well as expected, and it is often abused. She provided a case study of one group of women, who run a microlending firm in India. The women intentionally maintain high interest rates to benefit from people who cannot repay their loans in full. This phenomenon essentially renders them financial slaves, since there is little hope of escaping the high interest rates. Boo added, “Until there’s greater communication between the planning, policy world, and the communities, there will be no real change.”

Boo discussed how the absence of fixed work has many consequences in the way it alters relationships between poor young urban workers. In fixed work, one develops close ties, or at the very least a familiarization, with coworkers. She noted, “day after day of working in a small crowded space you get to know people, your coworkers, developing a closeness to the people you work with.”  Without a fixed job, however, workers gather at the crossroads to wait for work to come to them. This fosters a fluidity of the relationship with other laborers. Work becomes impersonal and competition for the same job arises. “If the policy we designed had a better sense of the dynamics of community,” said Boo, “then they would achieve their goals better.”

She implored students to take an approach of humility, to avoid assumptions, and to secure better feedback from the communities they wish to help. “If you can arrange your academic lives to maximize communication with the people you’re trying to help, then you can truly make a difference,” said Boo.

The discussion then led to a Q&A. Eager to ask their questions, people in the audience immediately raised hands. In one of her most notable responses, Boo revealed that many communities will misrepresent themselves (usually by posing to harbor more children) in order to appeal to Christian donor groups- which are often the most charitable, and are known to more likely assist children. Furthermore, she added, “most of the world’s poor are not being served by heroic NGO’s [non-government organizations], they’re using their own resourcefulness and creativity to foster solutions for themselves.” Communities in poverty tend to focus less on the conditions that lead them there, and more on the ways to springboard out of their circumstances. Boo explained that to simply have a job – or income of any level – is enough to make one feel a part of the ‘hopeful class.’ That opportunity is possible, and one with such an opportunity is less likely to self-report as living in “poverty”.

Building a sense of unity contributes to better standards of living for slum communities. Especially within the slums where kids isolate themselves at home to do homework, there isn’t much connection with other youth. As Boo witnessed, bringing the youth together with sports and social activities allows them to commiserate with peers over their common challenges. Boo concluded the session by stating that the rich and middle class have more and more access to information, yet there’s so little accountability in terms of destination for poverty aid money. “We must have a level of maturity in realizing how difficult the work to improve conditions of poverty is,” she said, “and realize that not every solution will work, it’s trial and error.”