It has now been nearly two months since I left Niger. With the comforts of home again at my disposal, I’ve quickly forgotten how to be frugal and once again started taking luxurious conveniences for granted.
Fortunately, my studies at Haverford have allowed me to continue to think about Niger and the many questions my trip raised. The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, which funded my internship, also requires interns to take a course in Development in Human Rights, which helps us tie our experiences to academics. I would like to share an excerpt from one of my response papers for the course, in which I try to relate the theoretical texts I read for class to my experience in Niger.
“The Problematization of Poverty,” a chapter from Arturo Escobar’s book, Encountering Development, explains when and how modern discourse over poverty and underdevelopment came into being. Escobar recognizes that the condition we now know as poverty did not exist or was not recognized as such until after World War II. One part of this process was the undermining of traditional ways of life by new economic systems. This effect was in evidence in Niger, where during the pre-colonial and even colonial period most rural people maintained self-sustaining, traditional lifestyles, but today they struggle to make ends meet even while simply living off the land.
Since independence in particular, the economics of the global capitalist system have increased costs while lowering revenues for many. Instead of a maintaining a sustainable and self-sufficient, if basic, economic existence, rural Nigeriens now struggle to pay for essentials, a classic sign of poverty. For example, a pastoral shepherd could formerly live a comfortable, if simple, life from his animals by eating and selling them to buy other food and staple goods. Today, this shepherd must somehow earn a bit of additional income, apart from his livestock sales revenue, in order to maintain his lifestyle. The erosion of this traditional way of life means a slip into the condition we know today as poverty.
Most Nigeriens’ aspiration is not American-level wealth and consumption, although most would gladly accept these things. More accurately, most Nigeriens hope to earn enough money, often through odd jobs or migrant labor, to finance their families’ continued traditional lifestyle in their ancestral villages. With such a radically different conception of material well-being, the case of Niger challenges existing global indicators of poverty. Insofar as they measure abstract and absolute wealth without accounting for the local baseline of economic well-being, such indicators cannot be meaningfully compared internationally. This situation also challenges conceptions of development, since many Nigeriens seek simply to return sustainability to their traditional ways of life, rather than seeking the strong economic growth that might enable them to approach developed country income levels.
For this reason, poverty has a different feel and connotation in Niger than in the United States. Here, there is an expectation that everyone should have great personal wealth and access to modern consumer goods. Factors like affording food and shelter are only relevant for a small, extremely disadvantaged portion of the population. In Niger, by contrast, poverty is the dominant condition, yet it lacks much of the sense of squalor and misery associated with it in the Western world. Most of Niger’s “poor” continue to live happily on extremely small “incomes,” according to international economic measurements.
I was surprised during my time in Niger how habituated I became to the presence of poverty around me. I came to accept this condition as something that will hopefully improve over time but not something that must urgently be resolved to save millions of people from leading miserable, hellish existences. I still wonder whether I simply became jaded or desensitized, eventually discounting the seriousness of their condition.
My continued reflection continues to raise more questions than it answers, but I think that’s how it should be.