Poverty: A Personal View

The bell for talk has rung. Now’s the time and now’s the hour for action! 

By T. Del Fuego

Poverty is a very slippery concept to define. Borrowing from the UK, the former Finance Minister had defined as poor any household whose monthly income is equal to or less than 50 percent of the minimum wage, which presently stands at Rs7,500. Based on this criterion, it is reckoned that 24,000 families fall in the poor category, affecting a total of 100,000 persons. But, in the absence of the protective safety nets that exist in the UK, we are being less than honest since we are comparing like with unlike. Given our specific circumstances, we should consider a household as poor if its monthly income falls below the minimum.

But, whatever definition of poverty one chooses and there are several, the crux of the matter is the virulence of this affliction and the tenacity with which it clings to humankind. Why so? I do not profess to have all the answers but, based on life’s experiences, I would like to share my thoughts with you.  

A Retrospective Look

When I was a boy growing up in the early 1950s, it was quite common for people in my village to have large families. This was partly due to tradition, partly due to the ignorance that such traditions carry in their wake and partly due to the lack of sex education and family planning — the contraceptive pill had yet to be invented and condoms were unheard of. It always struck me as very odd that the (white) people, who could afford it the most since they earned more as l’état-major of the nearby sugar estate/mill where most of the villagers worked, had relatively smaller families. Our mothers, prolific baby producers, would explain away their large brood with the inarguable Bhagwan déwé là — it’s a gift from God!

People were poor not only because they had little money but, more fundamentally, because there were simply too many mouths to feed. One of the first lessons I learnt in life was not from a sage or a guru, but from my school friend, PG, who was later to become an education official. PG and I used to sit next to each other. His father was a labourer but, because he was an only child, his parents could afford to give him all he needed. We both wore the same khaki uniform but, whereas I wore mine as it had came out of the wash, his was immaculately pressed, with starch added to give it a sheen. Unlike me, he probably had more than one set because his was always clean whereas mine tended to get dirtier as the week progressed. He wore white plimsoles and white socks whilst I went barefoot and his hair was neatly combed and smelled of Brylcream. The contrast between us was too stark not to be noticeable. At the tender age of seven, my young mind had it figured that large families spelt misery, small families meant relative well being. 

The Present 

Five decades later, whilst I am writing this piece, I look around me and what do I see? The poor monoculture colony that was the Mauritius of my boyhood has become independent and has prospered, that our people are better off. I will come to the residual “pockets of poverty” later but, for now, let us look at what it is that has provoked this dramatic change.

First, the size of the family has shrunk; most couples make do with a maximum of two children nowadays. The second and the third reasons follow as a consequence of the first. Girls, who in the past would have stayed at home to help mother look after younger siblings, are now free to attend full time education. Thus empowered, instead of spending most of their lives as reproductive machines, women are able to take up formal employment with regular incomes to supplement the earnings of their husbands. The end result is that there is more money coming into the household and, concurrently, there are fewer mouths to feed. The flimsy thatched houses of yore have given way to solid concrete ones which are furnished with modern, comfortable furniture. Instead of malnutrition due to insufficient nutritious food, we now have a problem with obesity through over-consumption. It is also not unusual to see several graduates in working class families, something that would have been IMPOSSIBLE 50 years ago. Indeed, most would have never even heard of universities and degrees!

It should be clear by now that Education has been a decisive force behind our economic progress. When I was growing up, save for the lucky few who got through the Petite Bourse, people had to pay for secondary education. Money being tight, it was mostly the boys of the family who got educated, as this was deemed to be a better investment. Most of the colleges were of indifferent quality but, somehow miraculously, many of us managed to get through. Today, education is free and most private and government schools are housed in modern buildings and often staffed with graduates, a luxury in the old days. But failure rates, particularly at the crucial primary level, are much too high and, given the resources we spend on Education, simply unacceptable.

I also remember how, at the beginning of our industrialization process, people would queue up at the factory gate in the hope of getting a job. Why, I even know of people who carried recommendation letters from politicians to boost their chances of landing one of these jobs. People wanted to work; they would take any job to earn a living and preserve their dignity. How things have changed! Now, it is the recruiting officer who is seen (figuratively speaking) hanging about the factory gate in the hope of finding a willing worker. Eventually, unable to find anyone locally, he is obliged to import workers from overseas. There are not a hundred reasons for this; the pay and working conditions are no longer acceptable to the unemployed and one can sympathize with them to a certain degree. At one end of the scale, we have princes who find derisory a monthly salary of Rs 200,000 plus perks whilst, at the other, we have factory workers earning less than Rs 1,000 for a forty-five hour week. That is, the former can earn in a week what the latter takes a whole year to earn; and there is no lump sum or final salary company pension in the EPZ. 

The Causes

So, we have here a certain explanation for those “pockets of poverty” that people in the know keep talking about. First, the unemployed are unwilling to take up jobs that they would have once rushed to do. Then, we have an education system which seems incapable of delivering and we are not even talking of the World Class education so dear to some. In an interview of Week-End, some months ago, the then president of AHRIM echoed the view of many in saying that “pour combattre la pauvreté… il faut passer par l’éducation,” but laments the fact that a large proportion of applicants simply do not possess “le profil requis,” amongst which figure “une base educative minimum” to take up employment in the burgeoning hospitality sector.

In other words, jobs are available but there is a mismatch with people’s expectations and their (lack of) skills. They do not possess the skills necessary for the relatively better paid, more glamorous jobs in sectors such as IT, but at the same time they are no longer prepared to work in the factory for small rewards. This is a direct result of employers’ unwillingness to share more equitably the benefits of the enterprise. For example, the hotel sector makes so much money its owners are able to raze their establishment to the ground after only 15-20 years of existence and spend billions to build anew. Renovation and refurbishment would cost a fraction, releasing money that could be used to better reward its employees. Asked in the same interview whether members of AHRIM had easily accepted to contribute to the Rs 40m social programs recommended by their Association, its president had this to say, “Je dois dire que quand on a présenté le projet le réflexe des représentants des groupes étrangers a été phénoménal: ils ont répondu sur le champs alors que les Mauriciens ont pris un tout petit peu plus de temps.”

The reticence of local entrepreneurs to share equitably the national cake (produced with the sweat and tears of the toiling masses) throughout our history is largely responsible for the disparities, past and present, between the haves, the almost haves and the have-nots. We often hear complaints about the (low) productivity of Mauritian workers. There is an old adage that says “pay peanut, get monkey.” Given the pittance that workers are paid throughout much of industry, it is hardly surprising that productivity levels remain unsatisfactory. Reward them adequately and you would be amazed with the results. There is no better incentive than the prospect of a good pay packet to spur a worker to put in that extra effort. Money talks!

Apart from the above, there are still other, more pernicious, sociological reasons for those pockets of poverty. Some of these are so taboo that no one dares to talk about them aloud in public. I shall leave it to the socio-apologists to express these in the technical jargon that is often used to camouflage some of the self-evident truths in our society. For my part, as a mere layman, I shall just call a spade a spade and leave it to the reader to judge for himself whether I am inventing or exaggerating anything.

First, we have the NOW mentality; we are no longer prepared to strive patiently towards a better future for ourselves and our family. This leads us to believe that someone else — usually government — must do it for us and do it now, please! Second, there is social irresponsibility. People, no matter what their physical, mental or financial state, believe (and are tacitly encouraged in this by religion) that they have a divine right to produce children knowing full well that they will be incapable of giving them a decent life. Third, there is the individual irresponsibility of promiscuity and absent fathers. How often do we read of some poor woman struggling to bring up a horde of kids on her own, the concubin(s) having long disappeared into thin air as it were. Last, but by no means least, remember the little boy’s observation 50 odd years ago about the relationship between family size and living standards. In spite of the availability of sex education and free contraceptives from the Mauritius Family Planning Association, far too many of us continue to reproduce well beyond our means, energy and food crises notwithstanding. 

The Solutions 

Piecemeal action by parastatal Trusts, whilst helping, will never succeed in eradicating poverty. A holistic approach is required. Without being too simplistic, I would suggest that much of the solutions to the poverty phenomenon lie within the questions raised in this article. Address the questions systematically and the resolution to the problem would automatically follow, given a helping hand where needed. A complete change of mindset is required from all of us — business enterprises, government, NGOs, religious/secular leaders and the individual.

For the working masses, we need skilling and empowerment through continuous academic/technical instruction, inculcating individual/social responsibility through broad-range civic education and economic empowerment through better rewards. But, unless we “empower” employers to bring their contribution, much of our efforts will be in vain. Sanctimonious social programs are no substitute for a decent wage. Ultimately, it is all a question of money and the taxpayer cannot be expected to continue subsidizing low wages through unaffordable social (housing and other benefit) programs forever. There is ample evidence to suggest that this fosters a parasitic mentality in some people whilst others more deserving do not claim because of the social stigma attached to means testing and government handouts. Altruism aside, a more equitable sharing is the surest way to avoid the social storm that I see brewing on the horizon.

The bell for talk has rung. Now’s the time and now’s the hour for action!

* Published in print edition on 12 August 2010

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