What blog/book/article spoke to you the most in 2012?

Ok so there are a lot book-related prompts in this series, which is fine because I have a lot of book-related posts to get through. I mentioned in this post that one of my firsts this year has been reading a book on economics. Poor Economics not only gave me the confidence to read out of my comfort zone, it also answered many of the very basic questions and redressed misconcpetions I had (and I suspect many of you have) about poverty (are poor people always hungry? why do poor people have so many children? can anything be done to help them or is poverty eradication a dream?).

Some takeaways:

Hunger

–        There is enough food in the world so that no one needs to be hungry.

–        Distribution of food, however, is a problem.

–        Barring emergencies, even those below the poverty line would be able to meet basic calorie needs by living on a diet of banana and potato.

–        However, understandably, poor people do not want to only eat banana and potato. Also, when they get a bit more money, they prefer to spend it on other things or on tastier food.

–        Moral: Poor people are human beings like you and I and don’t want to eat only banana and potatoes.

Health

–        Just like the rest of us, poor people make healthcare choices based on what they believe works.

–        Thus, stuff that shows quick results (like antibiotics, injections etc) are more popular than long-term stuff like vaccines.

–        There is an element of conscious choice involved. Poor people are not ignoramuses (ignorami?) led to the slaughter by devious but more enlightened souls (not always, anyway). They decide what works for them and choose things that give them hope (even when that means faith-healers over hospitals that tell them that there is nothing to be done for a family member suffering from AIDS). This ties into a irate discussion I engaged in on an online forum with a woman who posted some article on how big, bad Nestle conned these poor, dumb poor people into choosing formula over breastmilk. Why is it always assumed the poor are so easily misled? Why does it never enter anyone’s head that a mother with less income might decide she prefers what she perceives to be an easier option, just like higher income mothers (though none of those mothers might like to admit the reasons behind their choice to a health-case worker, for example).

–        Just like us, they can be incentivized to choose what Someone Who Knows Better thinks is best. This may be patronizing, but it happens to all of us, just that we don’t know it.

Education

–        Even rubbish education, helps. So rubbish government schools are better than nothing.

–        And again, it is often the poor, including poor children, choosing not to go to them because they are rubbish and thus perceived to offer no significant benefit.

–        However, good education helps more.

–        The focus should be on ensuring that children are really learning at every stage, even if this means at the end of 10 years, they have learnt less than children in more privileged schools. Quality, not quantity.

Population

–        Do larger families really breed poverty? Or is there a good reason poor people choose to have large families?

–        If saving is compared to support from children in old age, support from children trumps saving. To increase the odds of said support, more children are needed. Ergo.

Microcredit

– Is microcredit the magic bullet that will pull people out of poverty? No. But it does help. It needs to be complemented by other measures and it needs to be fine-tuned to make it more effective.

– Microinsurance would also be very helpful but no private company has figured out how to make the numbers work. The poor would benefit a lot from being insured against huge health events, weather incidents, etc. There might be a role for the government here.

– Stress is not some rich man’s disease. The poor get stressed too. A study measured the cortisol level of poor people and found it to be quite high. Some of them are so stressed and depressed they cannot function effectively enough to take steps to better their lives.

Through all this, the dominant message I got was  – the poor are just like you and me. If you and I can’t do what we know is the right thing for our lives (each more healthy, save, be disciplined at work) when we have a lot of training wheels and guard rails put in place for us so seamlessly that we don’t realise they exist, why do we expect people who live in much more challenging situations to do so? Policies to help the poor might do well to realise that poor people are people first, just like everyone else and subject to the same vagaries of human nature that we all are.

The book concludes that there is hope for the poor if we can persist in devising and tweaking ways to help based on situations on the ground, rather than looking, as economists are want to do, at the macro.

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