Selected Excerpts from

The Skeptics Guide to Global Poverty

By Dale Hanson Bourke



We, the Relatively Rich

If you are reading this book, you are probably not poor. You may feel poor compared to your friends and neighbors, but in the perspective of the world, you are not poor.


It is not just that the relatively modest cost of this book would exceed a poor person’s income for a week; it is that the poor lack access to information.  They do not have bookstores or libraries. Most cannot read. Those who go to school often leave at an early age to help support the family. And many suffer from impaired vision because they lack simple nutrients in their diets or suffer a small infection that goes untreated.


Being poor, it turns out, is much more complicated than lack of money. Poverty runs deep into the family and community, robbing individuals and whole societies of life-saving information, health care, food, and water. Poverty robs individuals not only of security and health, but also dignity. A poor person is often too busy surviving the present to spend much time thinking about the future. And yet, the poor do have dreams. Voices of the Poor, a series of books created by the World Bank, quotes poor people whose hopes and dreams—especially for their children—are much like ours. 


Fixing poverty isn’t easy either. So many have tried in so many ways that the average person views poverty as an intractable condition. Some even like to quote the words of Jesus, “You will always have the poor among you . . .”, as evidence that poverty is simply part of the human condition.  But just as knowledge is power to the poor, it is also power to those of us who are relatively rich. We can make a difference, but we have to understand more. We need to be smarter about poverty.


What does it mean to be poor?  Is there an objective measure of poverty?

More than 1 billion people in the world live on less than $1 per day according to the World Bank.  These people are considered the poorest of the poor and lack enough resources for basic survival.  Worldwide, 2.7 billion live on less than $2 per day.  Practically, that means that they are often hungry and malnourished, have limited or no access to clean water, no health care, and little or no access to education. The infant mortality rate is high, the life expectancy is low, and exposure to disease is constant and often deadly.


Why do we hear so much about poverty in Africa? Aren’t people poor in other parts of the world, too?

There are pockets of poverty in many parts of the world, but sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have the greatest concentration of poverty. As a percentage of population, more people in Africa live on less than $1 per day than anywhere else in the world.  Latin America and the Caribbean also have a high concentration of poverty. When poverty is understood as not only lack of income, but also lack of health, education, and opportunities, the population of central and southern African countries suffers the most.


Why is the US always asked to help other countries?

The US is a big nation and the richest in the world. The US economy is nearly three times the size of the next largest economy, and Americans along with some Europeans are personally wealthier than the citizens of almost all other countries. Because the US is so much wealthier and Americans have the capacity to give, countries in need often see the US as their best hope.



What is the Third World?

The term was first used in the 1950s during the Cold War to distinguish countries that were not aligned with the West or the Soviet Bloc. Today, however, the term is frequently used to denote nations that are poor, not industrialized, or low on the development index as measured by the UN.  There is no objective definition of Third World and in academic and development circles the use of the term is sometimes considered pejorative. It is more acceptable to call such countries “developing countries” or the global South. Sometimes the countries are referred to as the “Two-Thirds World” to make the point that they actually make up the majority of the world.


Why are so many people starving? Isn’t there enough food in the world?

Actually, there is plenty of food in the world to feed every person, yet more than 800 million people are chronically hungry. Hunger and poverty are responsible for approximately 25,000 deaths each day according to the UN World Food Program.  The problem is not food production, but food availability. In many parts of the world, people do not have access to adequate quantities of food or food with sound nutritional value. Many poor people fill their stomachs with starches, such as maize or rice, that provide few nutrients. Poor people cannot adequately protect themselves against nature’s cycles, so have a hard time preserving food for times of drought. They have limited ability to irrigate dry soil or protect crops against the hot sun or invading pests.


Wars further disrupt people’s ability to grow crops or find ongoing food supplies. And environmental factors, such as soil erosion and water pollution, are also harmful to food production. In some parts of the world, the deserts are encroaching more and more on once productive land.


Why is it so hard for people to get clean water?

Only 2.5 percent of water on the Earth is fresh water, and more than two thirds of that is frozen.  Water demand exceeds supply in much of the world, including developed countries. California, for example, receives most of its water supply from other states.


But many people do not have the ability to bring water from one place to another efficiently or to store water for droughts. In some villages, women spend much of their day walking to a source of water, filling their buckets, and bringing the water back to the village. To some people, the “rainy season,” when rains fill ponds and streams, provides the only water for the rest of the year. For months after the rains end, women dip their buckets into fetid water and livestock drink and walk in the same water.  Some aid organizations concentrate on drilling wells to help provide access to clean water. But depending on the geography of the region, wells may need to be dug through hard rock or may require more than a hand pump to draw the water out of the well.


Other sources of clean water are becoming polluted by industry, run off from fields, or use by livestock and humans of the same bodies of water for bathing and drinking water.


What does AIDS have to do with poverty?

Poverty relates to HIV/AIDS in many ways. Those who are poor are often malnourished and in poor health. They easily contract malaria and tuberculosis, making them even more susceptible to HIV infections. Women are often infected in poor countries because they have little power to resist sexual advances or to insist on protection if their husband is infected. Some women are so poor that they trade sex for food, especially if their children are starving.  Men are also victims of poverty, often having to travel to another country to work for months at a time and often going to local prostitutes. Men who worked as truckers in Africa helped spread the HIV infections as they moved from major city to major city, frequenting prostitutes and spreading the disease across Africa.



Why are there so many wars and conflicts in poor countries?

Poor countries often lack strong leadership, healthy democracies, and adequate infrastructures—including courts—to handle the types of conflicts that occur in daily life. In addition, people in many poor countries must struggle to gain access to water and other natural resources needed for daily life, so it is common for property disputes to occur when such resources are controlled by a few.


In Africa especially, the history of colonialism included pitting ethnic groups against one another in order to gain and maintain control. Several books have documented this, including King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild and Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader. When country borders were drawn, tribes and people groups were often purposely divided up to minimize numbers and power.


Natural resources such as oil are another factor creating tension in countries where rights are not clearly established by law and outside forces often fuel control over the resources giving little to the poor people in the country. People are frequently driven out of their homes by wars or natural disasters and make their way into other regions or lands where they are considered outsiders. Sometimes this creates tension in the new land.


What is microfinance and how does it help people?

Microfinance has become one of the most effective

ways to help the poor move up and out of poverty. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work in microfinance through the Grameen Bank, which operates in Bangladesh.  Microfinance entails making small loans without collateral to poor people. Usually there is some training or advice that goes along with the loan to help a poor person learn how to improve his or her business.


There are a number of microfinance organizations, some faith-based or with a particular emphasis to their work. Many emphasize group loans, meaning a group of individuals comes together to cross-collateralize the loans. Most organizations give the majority of their loans to women.


An increasing emphasis is on providing savings opportunities for the poor. Traditionally, the poor could not safely accumulate funds, so had a hard time saving enough to pay for schooling or to buy property. As the poor are able to create income because of loans, they also need to be able to save money in banks, where it will gain interest and remain secure.


Other financial products growing out of microfinance include insurance for health, burial costs

(important in areas where deaths from AIDS is significant), crop failure, and other natural disasters.


What does it mean to be poor in America?

Poverty in America is different from poverty in the

developing world for a variety of reasons. Poverty is defined as having a family income that is less than the poverty line. In 2007 that means that a family of four living on less than $20,650 is living below the poverty line and is, therefore, considered “poor.” An individual who makes less than $10,210 is poor, but that is equal to living on $28 per day.  Unlike the poor in developing countries, a person who is poor in the US often has adequate food, clothing, and shelter. More than 70 percent of the poor own cars and 46 percent own homes. Poverty in the US is often a temporary condition, so a family may fall below the poverty line one year, but will often recover the next. Although 13 percent of the population of the US is currently below the poverty line, those who make up that number will change from year to year.

Some economists suggest that in a developed country, poverty should be defined as “significantly less access to income and wealth than other members of society.” By that definition the poverty rate is linked to income inequality.

I am a donor to a humanitarian organization and sometimes wonder if my contribution really makes a difference. How can I know?

Giving to a nonprofit organization should be a way to not only help others but also to become educated about the issues. Start by reading the website of the organization to see how they operate and exactly what type of work they do. Does the organization do the work itself or pass the contributions through to others? Is the organization accredited by one of the watchdog agencies? Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator. com) is one way to get basic information about a nonprofit organization and an overview of their work and efficiency.


If you are a donor you have the right to ask for more information about the work and should request an annual report. You may also want to review the form 990, a detailed financial report every nonprofit must file and must make available to anyone who requests a copy. Most organizations have a copy available on their website. The 990 shows exactly how much of the organization’s funds went to work in different areas and also lists the salaries of the top executives.


Is child sponsorship a good way to help children?

Child sponsorship exists primarily as a way to help people in developed countries identify with one poor child. Groups like World Vision, Save the Children, Compassion, and others have used child sponsorship as a development model for many years. It has been a very powerful tool for keeping donors engaged and for educating donors about the types of issues facing that child. Over the years, most child sponsorship organizations have grown from helping just the individual child to creating infrastructure to assist the entire community.


The largest child sponsorship organizations voluntarily cooperate with one another to promote best practices and to minimize potential harm to the children. This includes making sure donations actually go to the intended purpose, and keeping donors from visiting children without notice, since this has created some instances of child predators gaining access to children.


Organizations based on a child sponsorship model keep children as the focus of their work. As with any organization, it is important to check that a particular group is accredited or review the documents from the organization so that you feel good about your donation.


How does one person get started?

Reading this book and then finding more information on websites or through the bibliography (page 109) is a good way to start. Are there certain types of poverty-related problems that particularly interest you? Learning more about the causes of those particular problems may lead you to an organization already working to solve the problem. Do you wish others knew more about the problems of poverty?  Why not organize a group at your office, place of worship, or school to study the issues and suggest ways to get involved?


Some organizations, like DATA ( or Bread for the World ( are particularly helpful in providing information to use with friends or to share with your church, synagogue, or mosque. The Center for Global Development ( offers studies and open forums on issues relating to poverty. Some groups sponsor public campaigns and need local organizers. Others have particular days designated for activism. There are numbers of ways for a person to get involved and more than ever, there is evidence that one person does make a difference.





Excerpts from The Skeptics Guide to Global Poverty by Dale Hanson Bourke (9/07, Authentic Books)

Reprint permission and review copies: Pamela McClure, 615-595-8321,