Poverty-free Futures (2004)

By Ivana Milojević

Approximately 10 years ago I was standing with my mother at a food store in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. We needed to buy yogurt required by a recipe to finish a dish. It didn’t cross our minds that between her, who worked as a senior manager, and myself, employed as an associate lecturer at the university, we wouldn’t have enough money to make such a purchase. At that time it was only the cash economy that worked, as personal checks and credit cards were no longer accepted. The prices of all goods regularly skyrocketed over night as inflation reached the highest ever-recorded in history. People were going straight from their workplaces – where everyone received income as banks collapsed – directly to the markets. Delaying your visit to the market by couple of hours would cost half of your salary. Our family friend, gynecologist and director of maternity hospital, was too busy to go for a couple of days. Eventually, for his half-monthly income, he managed to buy a bar of soap.  

The interesting thing is that most people didn’t feel as horrible, depressed or anxious as you would expect. In the situation when we could not afford one yogurt my mother and I could not help but laugh. Running to the market became some sort of national sport. Women “competed” to find out exactly how many liters of juice could be made from one orange (I still have a recipe which makes four to five). But at that time we could laugh because we felt that our poverty was temporary. We still had other assets apart from income that we could use. We could still envision a better future. And for some reason, we stopped comparing ourselves with “the West” as we had in previous years of relative affluence (a comparison which would have given us a sense of inadequacy, apprehension and inferiority). We looked around us and concluded that most people were in the same boat and that compared to many others we were still quite fortunate.

My first thought in coming to Australia was that Australia would collapse were it to experience the sorts of the economic sanctions in place in Yugoslavia. At that time, petrol could be found only sporadically but unlike in Brisbane people of Novi Sad could walk to most places or drive bicycles. Alternatively, they could easily organise car polling. Other strategies included waiting in queues for days and taking turns to do so, borrowing cars using less gas from family and friends, smuggling petrol over the border and buying at the black market. The joke at the time was that while a western European earns 3,000 spends 2,500 and saves 500 DEM, the average Yugoslav person earns 30 but spends 3,000 DEM a month. While probably serving to boost everyone’s morale this joke as well as the previous petrol and juice examples help make few important points.  

First, how easy it is to move from a situation of relative affluence to a situation of poverty. This has happened to millions of people in Eastern Europe, over a relatively short period of time. For example, using the cost of a basket of basic goods as a measure of poverty, the figures show that child poverty in Russia has now reached 98 per cent (Bradbury & Jantti, 1999)! Throughout history, this has not only happened to the members of the middle class like myself but to the members of the financial and social elite as well, and not only in Eastern Europe. Empires fell, the economic system collapsed, wars occurred, family, age and work situation changed, and so on. Because of what I saw in my life and learned from glimpses into history, I believe that no one is safe from finding herself/himself in a situation of poverty. And, if we factor in environmental degradation as an indicator of overall quality of life we all might already be poor, without even knowing. Therefore, addressing and resolving poverty is everyone’s business and should be everyone’s priority.

The second point I make in regard to the previous examples is that people who find themselves in situations of poverty use multiple strategies to alleviate their condition. The poorer they are the more elaborate and ingenious their strategies for survival are. At the same time, it is often thought that the poor are totally powerless to change their situation and that their only hope is to be passive recipients of aid. Because of this, strategies that today’s poor use or have used before to maintain their societies are rarely considered in poverty elevation measures. In Australia, for example, Aborigines stress the importance of the land at all levels as necessary in addressing their current disadvantage. However, the government’s reply to Aboriginal poverty is almost entirely through welfare state measures which primarily focus on financial transactions and welfare handouts. This reply is a product of western, materialistic and industrialised society. It fails to address the issue of importance of traditional natural and cultural assets as well as the importance of spiritual progress and well-being. Another example is the 1994 boycott of products produced by child labour, led mostly by the USA which resulted in 50,000 Bangladeshi children losing their jobs, and as a result many of them then turned to begging and prostitution (Bjonnes, 2001). While the boycott had good intentions it was one more case “of Westerners selectively applying universal principles to a situation they did not understand” (Marcus quoted in Bjonnes, 2001). It is depressing that more strategies for alleviation of poverty have failed rather then succeeded. In addition, some have directly contributed to an increase in poverty. For example, development policies in the Third world have made many people landless and/or destroyed their environmental assets, as well as their social cohesion and traditional economy. This has not only contributed to the increase in their poverty but has sometimes been the single biggest factor that created it in the first place. Still, just because poverty alleviation measures have not been successful in the past does not mean that the problem of poverty is such that it cannot be resolved. This however requires tapping into the experiences and strategies developed by those who experience poverty on daily basis.

Third, and related to the previous perception that poor are powerless, is also the conviction that poor have no future since their predicament will only get worse (S P Udayakumar, 1995: 339). For example, a 1995 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded that poor countries that now suffer widespread malnutrition and a general lack of food security can look forward to little improvement in the foreseeable future (Gately, 2001). Another study (Hanmer et al., 2001) concluded that Sub-Saharan Africa would not be able to meet the international development targets – halving of the extreme poverty by 2015- in any likely future scenario. While such forecasting and trend analysis is powerful and might be accurate it does little when it comes to envisioning alternative futures and motivating people to work toward social change.

Fourth, poverty is a complex, multidimensional issue which cannot be understood only in terms of economic indicators, such as GNP or per capita income. Access to other assets such as community support, infrastructure and knowledge base play an equal, if not a more important role. This is why poverty alleviation strategies in the future need to be based on a reconceptualised understanding of poverty, if they are to be successful. This includes understanding that there are poverties not poverty, that these poverties are processes not states and that prevention rather then relief is crucial (Walker & Park, 1998: 47).

Fifth, poverty needs to be defined from the perspective of the poor. For example, one study shows that poor rarely speak of income but rather focus on their ability to manage physical, human, social and environmental assets (Narayan, 2000: 5). This means asking the poor how they define and see their living and working conditions and which areas do they believe need to be transformed.

Sixth, poverty is a cumulative process. The longer it goes on the more difficult it is to uproot it. And while the common understanding is that the poor somehow get accustomed to the situation, in fact, the longer poverty goes on the more difficult it is to bear it. People who find themselves temporarily poor might respond to that situation with dignity, humour and resourcefulness. But sooner or later other feelings such as shame, humiliation and despair set in and the opportunities and assets for ingenuity decrease. That the poor do not get accustomed to the situations of poverty can be easily seen from the higher level of poor health and illness among poor as well as from their higher mortality rates. Around 500,000 women die yearly from pregnancy and birth related complications which are usually related to a lack of proper nutrition and adequate health services. Almost 2 million children will die this year because of poverty. And it is estimated that around 30 million people die each year from hunger.

These are only some of the important factors that need to be considered if we are to eradicate poverty. The literature on poverty is huge, including both the economy oriented studies as well as critical and alternative approaches. In order to summarise what I see to be crucial issues in regard to poverty eradication, I use the Causal Layered Analysis methodological approach, developed by Inayatullah (1998). This approach offers deconstruction, reorders knowledge and seeks to find the root causes of social diseases (Fricker, 2000). It implies that there are different levels of reality and different ways of knowing. Consequently this requires different levels of analysis and understanding of various realms for implementation of social and individual transformations. Causal Layered Analysis has four levels: the litany, social causes, discourse/worldviews and myths/metaphor. The litany focuses on quantitative trends and problems which are often exaggerated and used for political purposes. At the level of social causes interpretation is given to the quantitative data. The third level is concerned with structure and the discourse/worldview that supports and legitimates it. At the fourth level analysis looks for the deep stories, the collective archetypes, subconscious dimension of the issue under inquiry. Causal Layered Analysis does not privilege a particular level but attempts to integrate discourses, ways of knowing and worldviews as well as create transformative spaces for the creation of alternative futures (Inayatullah, 1998: 815-829).


At the litany level poverty is measured only through economic and other quantitative indicators. The discourse tends to focus on the overwhelming nature of global poverty, for example, estimates that currently 53% of the world population is classified as poor and that around 3 billion of people live on less then 2US$ a day. The number of people in poverty is represented as the matter of fact and causes are rarely explored. In western media, poverty is usually constructed to be “out there”, among “the Others” and rarely “here”. The common results of poverty, such as high fertility rates, low literacy levels, political arrest, organised crime and scarcity of resources are often presented as its main causes. For example, in mainstream discourse on poverty there is a huge concern about overpopulation. It is often stressed that world population is expected to increase from 6 billion as it is today to 7.2 billion in 2015 and somewhere between 7.7 and 11.2 billion in year 2050. As the 95% of this increase is projected to occur in the countries with currently have high proportion of the poor it is implicit that the poor themselves are “guilty” of creating a future poverty.

At this level, the strategies for elevation of poverty mostly focus on poverty relief and aid packages. The common response among the affluent is either apathy – the problem of poverty is so huge that it cannot be resolved; helplessness – I wish there is something I/we could do; or projected action – the government, UN or NGO’s should do something. Sometimes, magical solutions, such as genetically modified rice and other crops, are also discussed.

Social causes

At the level of social causes analysis, economic, cultural, political and historical factors are discussed. Social causes analysis is most commonly found among policy planners and academics. At this level, processes such as colonisation, modernisation, globalisation, capitalism, urbanisation, as well as national and international governance are discussed. Other indicators of poverty, such as access to education, health care, are included but poverty is still primarily measured through economic indicators, such as GNP and income per capita.

Strategies usually include suggestions on how to increase economic growth rate or labour productivity and how to encourage foreign investment.  Other suggested strategies include investments in agricultural research, education, health, creation of welfare safety net and so on.  


At the worldview/discourse level, the main debate is whether economy needs to be regulated. Libertarians and conservatives argue against any or against any significant interference into the free-market economy, and maintain that poverty can only be elevated through the free flow of capital and labour. Some also argue that the widening gap between the rich and the poor is “a natural, necessary and even desirable component and hallmark of the improvement of the human condition” (www.libertarians.org). That is, poverty is the normal condition of human society and if the rich were not allowed to get ever richer the poor would never have any chance to improve their conditions at all. This they could do through ever- increasing access to tools of ever-increasing productivity, through acquiring advanced technology and by “jumping on the bandwagon” of the general development and economic growth that entrepreneurs create (www.libertarians.org).

Left-liberals, environmentalists and socialists argue that the global “casino capitalism” is directly complicit in creation of poverty where previously there was none as well as that the unregulated, “free” economy/markets is a myth. They stress that poverty is not created through production (or the lack of it) but because of the way profits are distributed. They argue that although global economic activity has grown at nearly 3% each year and doubled in size twice over the past 50 years the number of people living in absolute poverty hadn’t been reduced at the same pace. In regard to the widening gap between rich and poor they argue that this indeed is a problem because in the future world where “two-thirds are poor and deprived of basics and promise, there will not be any peace and security” (Udayakumar, 1995: 47). Contrary to the focus only on the competitive aspects of the human nature it is cooperation that is seen as the only possible way out. The future is seen as a collaborative enterprise in which the “well-being of the poor demands on the cooperation of the rich, and the safety of the rich relies on justice for the poor” (Udayakumar, 1995: 347).

Discussions on this level also allow for an analysis of the ways in which the discourses themselves not only mediate issues but also constitute them. Or how discourses we use to understand poverty directly influence strategies that are being put in place. For example, if poverty is understood predominantly in terms of economic indicators, only economic measures are going to be suggested. The strategies will therefore not include measures that work against oppressive social structures that are complicit in creation and sustenance of poverty, such as, patriarchy, for example.


At the myth/metaphor level deeper cultural stories are discussed. For example, in which ways western advertisement or other propaganda makes indigenous populations believe that their own culture, dress, food, or language are inferior as well as how are needs for products and lifestyles produced elsewhere created (Bjonnes, 2001). Or, in which ways are local and global narratives creating a situation in which some become easy prey for economic exploitation by others.

At this level, we can see how deep beliefs, such as the belief that humans are inherently competitive and selfish, create a worldview that informs discussions that formulate policies that determine the actions (or the lack of it). Or how these actions and policies differ from those that are formed by the worldview that emphasizes the role of communication, cooperation, altruism, caring and nurturing as the main themes in human evolution.

At this level we can also investigate deep cultural myths and their relevance for poverty creation and elevation. For example, in the western history two basic narratives about the relationship between men and nature exist (Hollis, 1998). One is the myth of  “The Land of Cockaygne”, the land of milk and honey, the “golden age” where the nature provides abundant resources and the magic bowl of porridge never empties.  This is the land of unlimited consumption, limitless choices, and ever increasing growth and progress. The current version is consumer based global capitalism where new wealth and products are constantly being created. This is being done both through technological and economic innovations as well as through the colonisation of nature, lands, peoples, and space.

Another myth is that of Arcadia, where nature is bountiful but humans do not indulge themselves beyond their needs (Hollis, 1998). It is the idea and the image about the harmony between humanity and nature rather then the image of domination and control of the nature by humanity so as to produce society and civilisation. Throughout European history, the Land of Cockaygne was especially popular during medieval ages and among lower classes which sought to relieve the drudgery of their everyday lives “through the pure satisfaction of sensual pleasures” (Hollis, 1998:14). Arcadia, on the other hand, originated in ancient Greece and was revived by Renaissance humanists that were “seeking to restrain the selfish tendencies of the rich and powerful classes” (Hollis, 1998:14). Its modern version are today’s ecological, New-Age and anti-globalisation movements.


Poverty is not a necessary evil but the result of how we perceive the world and act within it. The poverty is continuing because the poor are truly silenced, that is, alternatives that incorporate local knowledge, experiences, desires and worldviews of the poor are invisible in the mainstream discourses. Writing and reading about poverty is a luxury in itself, luxury that is beyond the means of those that are poor.

In addition, official discourse rarely allows for a discussion about the ways in which we, the affluent of the world, are complicit in creation and perpetuation of the poverty. Or in which ways spiritual poverty -“a psychological state, generally among the affluent, expressed as a constant hunger for more material things; a sense of alienation, loneliness, and spiritual emptiness” (Bjoness, 2001) – is also an issue which needs to be addressed.

But the worst thing that the mainstream discourse and both the “left” and the “right” worldviews do, is to describe poverty in such terms that it becomes unthinkable to imagine poverty-free futures. Together with the focus on overwhelming nature of current poverty this lack of imagination makes us powerless to act today, one step at the time. But for this to happen, we do not need to travel far and wide nor do we need to carry with us the influence of political power and huge wealth. What we could do is to address destitution among ourselves, listen to those among us who are not allowed to speak and jump on the wagon that is carrying their imagination into the poverty-free futures. The future in which every person will have an easy access to at least one delicious yogurt a day.


Bjonnes, R. (2001). “Strategies to Eradicate Poverty: An Integral Approach To Development”, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, UNESCO.

Brandbury, B. and Jantti, M. (1999). Child Poverty Across Industrialized Nations, Innocenti Occasional papers, Economic and Social Policy Series No. 71, UNICEF International Child Development Centre, Florence.

Fricker, A. (2000). “Poverty Amidst Plenty: a role for Causal Layered Analysis”, paper presented at DEVNET Conference on Poverty, Prosperity, Progress, Wellington, New Zealand, November 2000. 

Gately, D. (1995). “Comprehensive Projections Model Predicts Future Hunger Hot Spots” (reports on the study released by the International Food Policy Research Institute on malnutrition and lack of food security), www.ifpri.cgiar.org

Hanmer, L. (2000). “Will Growth Halve Global Poverty by 2015?”, www.odi.org.uk

Hollis, D. W. (1998). The ABC-CLIO World History Companion to Utopian Movements. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.

Inayatullah, S. (1998). “Causal Layered Analysis.” Futures 30(8): 815-829.

Narayan, D. (2000). Crying Out for Change, Published by Oxford University Press for the World Bank, Oxford.

Udayakumar, S.P. (1995). “The futures of the poor.” Futures 27(3): 339-353.

Walker, R. and Park, J. (1998). “Unpicking poverty”, in C. Oppenheim, An Inclusive Society: Strategies for Tackling Poverty, Institute for Public Policy, London.

Ivana Milojević

From: Milojević, I. (2004) Analysing Poverty: From Abundance and Contentment to Relative Poverty and Back. In S. Inayatullah (Ed.), The Causal Layered Analysis Reader (pp. 259-266). Tamkang University: Taipei. Previous versions of the article published in Social Alternatives and Development journals.