What is poverty? Hefty question? Of course. There are plenty of definitions, interpretations, metrics and numerous contexts. During a workshop in our pre-departure training in May, all of us Southern Africa JFs were put to the task on this question and we came out with more questions and uncertainty than when we began. I would consider it part of the JF program to observe, understand and even experience it to a degree and then be able to at least formulate some sort of personal answer to this important question.
Only a few weeks left but you’ll still have to give me a bit more time for a full answer!
I want to address the concept of vulnerability which is often tied to poverty and which played a big part in one of my original placement hypotheses. First, the designation "subsistence farmer" tends to have a negative connotation. In my mind it was always used to imply a family who is barely scraping by, living hand to mouth with no leeway. This is where the concept of vulnerability played in: with no room to spare the family would be especially susceptible to shocks, whether environmental, health or otherwise, and thus vulnerable. For just a moment let’s remove coffee from the equation in Misuku and see what’s left. Generally speaking all of the farmers here would be subsisting just nicely. They are able to farm all their own food even with a degree of diversity in their vegetables. I’ve basically lived with farmers the whole time I’ve been here and seen clearly that the majority of their day is spent on food, whether cooking, harvesting, preparing or eating, but they could in theory just live off their land in a stable sort of equilibrium. Misuku is food-secure.
Healthy banana trees and bean crops in front of your average Misuku home.
Some of Misuku's women who work extremely hard to put food on the plates of their families every night.
I read an interesting article in an old African magazine here on the $1 USD per day World Bank benchmark for "extreme poverty". They make a good argument about the absurdity of this measurement which is somewhat in line with what I’ve seen in Misuku. Most people here are farming to live: there is little actual money involved. You could say many actually use closer to $0 per day. So then why use a financial measurement to describe their condition? Interestingly, if you look at the value of the food being harvested they would be actually pretty wealthy in a Canadian context where their organic produce would go for a nice premium in a trendy Yaletown market! I’m sure the World Bank tries to account for these things through tools like purchasing power parity (PPP) but I would guess for most people the measure only carries the very simple financial meaning. Regardless it is probably the most quoted "definition" of poverty around. In conclusion, I believe it misrepresents realities here so I’m putting in my vote to abolish the whole idea!
Further, in terms of susceptibility to health risks, the key ones of course are HIV/AIDS and Malaria in sub-Saharan Africa which both happen to have particularly low rates in the Misuku region. Thus, overall it appears to me that the chance of shocks on farming families is low. Now, even in a situation where something unfortunate was to occur to disturb a family, I am quite confident that there are sufficient informal social safety nets through friends and family to cushion all but the worst blows. So then where’s that big-bad-dangerous beast we call poverty?
Re-enter coffee, stage right.
In Misuku, coffee production is what makes the difference between a static, stagnant existence of subsistence and one of progressive development.
Quote from a letter written to Canada by the Cooperative Board of Directors:
We have a vision for Misuku and the profits from our coffee sales will make this vision into reality. We should develop to a sufficient standard of living with our own hospital, roads which are passable year-round, iron sheet roofs, modern secondary schools with quality teaching staff. Coffee allows us to pay secondary school fees for our children and increase the level of education in our communities. We believe that development goes hand in hand with education. Coffee also gives full lives and opportunities to our communities’ HIV/AIDS orphans. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has not missed Misuku and there are many children left behind who need support.
Where I see real vulnerability is in the farmer’s control over their own development and this future they are dreaming of. I believe there is indeed potential. The most serious farmers are able to bring in MK 100 000 per year or $830 CAD. Here's the catch: coffee is very susceptible to international market fluctuations and this directly impacts the income of the families of Tebbie Chawinga, Jairos Musopole, Milward Kabaghe, Minney Kabuye, Lusubilo Kuyokwa, Bestine Msukwa and 600 other families in Misuku. (See Annette’s recent post about coffee markets.) Last year they were hit as hard as many others around the world by that financial crisis. Planning and budgeting for their development is a monumental task as it is. How do you explain to farmers in rural northern Malawi that they have to take a hit in their development because some damn American brokers were reckless in their lending?
Please buy Fairtrade coffee.