Got Poverty? Call An Expert, They'll Fix Everything Right Up — Oh, Hold That Thought. Maybe Not.

One of the world's biggest problems is one of the problems we keep messing up over and over again. At 2:59, the narrator talks about the time experts tried to solve a pretty bad health problem in Egypt and ended up creating more problems. Around 9:15, he talks about how our way of seeing the world as "saviors" vs "the poor" isn't really helping. At 11:55, he lists off the three most important things we need to know so no one has to go to bed hungry again.

Transcript:
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Narrator: And all this time, I thought the world was round. The world is not round. It has edges we can fall from and faces staring in entirely different directions.

And I thought the world was huge, but it is not. It's in our hands. We can hold it, change it, turn it, shake it. We can solve it, but not by sheer luck or chance. We must be tougher.

Khalid Kadir: We all have experts in our lives; computer experts, plumbing experts, legal experts. You name the problem, and there's someone out there who specializes in addressing that problem. Experts help us do things better than we can do them ourselves, whether it's a broken car, a computer glitch, or even a broken heart. Call the expert, they'll fix us right up.

So who do we call when society is broken? Who do we call when over a billion people live in poverty, unable to meet the basic requirements to sustain their lives? Or when the wealthiest 2% of the world owns 50% of the world's assets?

We call experts, of course, poverty experts. But who is a poverty expert, and can experts solve poverty?

To become an expert, you must know some specific field better than the average person. Poverty experts have a variety of technical specializations, including development studies, engineering, economics, public health, medicine, public policy, and now more than ever, business. With any of these degrees, a poverty expert gains the power to diagnose and propose solutions to problems that affect others, in particular the poor.

Now, this sounds perfectly fine, doesn't it? Poverty expertise, however, presents us with a conundrum. We certainly need specialized technical knowledge. I want an environmental engineer to make sure my drinking water is clean, and I want a doctor to take care of me when I get sick. However, expert-led approaches to alleviating poverty turn political and social problems into technical problems. But how do they do this?

Let me start by telling you a story. In a fantastic book, "Rule of Experts," author Timothy Mitchell tells the complex story of a particularly insidious form of malaria that devastated parts of Egypt starting in 1942.

The malaria parasite was carried by a mosquito species previously unknown in Egypt, and over a three-year period, it infected nearly three-quarters of a million people, killing between 100,000 and 200,000. To defeat this scourge, technical experts zeroed in on what they saw as a source of the problem, the malaria-spreading mosquito.

What the eradication experts failed to recognize was that the very problem they identified and set out to defeat was created by previous rounds of technical, expert-led interventions. The spread of the mosquito was made possible by the engineering of railways, a dam on the Nile River and irrigation canals, by the industrialization of agriculture, and by the economics of cash crops, in this case sugar cane.

Each of these technical interventions were intended to develop and improve Egypt, and yet each created more problems. True to form, while the mosquito was eventually eliminated from Lower Egypt in three years, in their wake the eradication campaigns created multiple new problems stemming from the use of highly toxic, recalcitrant chemicals, D.D.T. in particular, to be tackled by yet another set of technical experts.

The thing is that technical experts see the problems of poverty in very specific ways, and this informs how they devise their solutions.

So, how do experts see poverty? Here I want to draw upon the work of anthropologist Tania Li in her tremendous book, "The Will to Improve." As Li describes, experts are trained to draw boxes around human problems and transform them into relatively straightforward technical problems. Experts draw their boxes, and then they only look at what is inside of them.

These boxes, however, hide things. To start, these boxes hide context. In Egypt, experts drew their box around the mosquito. Doing so enabled them to ignore the context in which malaria wreaked its havoc: poverty. Poverty had created malnutrition and increased reliance on sugar cane, leaving the poor more susceptible to malaria than the wealthy. But these were not identified as problems. The mosquito was the problem.

Moreover, expert boxes hide history. Problems are treated like snapshots that exist independent of time. The historical forces that led to these snapshots, however, are silenced. In Egypt, hiding history allowed experts to ignore the colonial policies that unjustly forced small farmers off of their land. These policies enabled some to capture great wealth through the dispossession of others. Malaria, in turn, was a symptom of the poverty that resulted.

Finally, when they hide history and context, what experts really hide is politics. They disregard questions of power and inequality. Instead, experts describe problems as though they are simply natural. No one was involved, no one is responsible. Perhaps they came from the aether. As a result, the solutions they propose not only ignore the political foundations that lie underneath the problems, but in fact they help prevent challenges to the status quo.

There is more to these boxes. Not only do politics, history, and context disappear, but even the experts disappear. When experts draw their boxes, they draw themselves out of their pictures.

Let me take myself as an example. You see, I'm trained as an engineer. We aren't required to read books like "Rule of Experts" or "The Will to Improve" in engineering classes. Our education is entirely technical and trains us to look at the world through a lens that enables us to build, to produce, to innovate.

This training, however, never challenges us to reflect upon our own place in the world and to understand our location in the work that we are doing. We are, in effect, invisible to ourselves. Our invisibility prevents us - or does it protect us - from recognizing the ways that many of the problems we seek to address are the results of previous technical interventions by equally competent, specialized, and well-meaning experts.

Consider the case of your dirty drinking water. As an engineer, to solve your problem, I'll bring you filters or maybe I'll bring you chlorine, perhaps even a UV disinfection system. Whatever technology I bring, I'm certain it can clean your water. I'll even sell it to you cheap, less than it cost to produce, and provide free classes on how to use it.

What I won't do, however, is ask questions. I won't ask why your water is dirty, I won't ask who got the water dirty, and I won't ask why you're expected to be individually responsible for cleaning your own water.

If I were to ask, I might learn about the economists who, in an attempt to stimulate economic development, promoted the construction of a factory upstream. Now you drink water contaminated with the waste that comes out of that factory.

Or I might also learn about the agricultural experts who, in an attempt to increase farm productivity, gave farmers fertilizers and pesticides to cover their fields. These fertilizers and pesticides now choke the stream you drink from .

The list could go on and on. With each techno fix, another set of problems is created and a new crop of technical experts are employed to draw new boxes and devise new solutions. However, these solutions are never enough, as the poor are constantly forced to live on the margins. Tackling symptoms with technical interventions simply moves problems from one location to another. The problems continue because they are fundamentally political, not technical.

Ultimately, when technical experts see poverty and draw boxes, they separate who can help - experts - from those who are subject to help - the poor. Experts see poverty as deficiencies of the poor. They have the problems.

The other side of this equation: We don't have the problems, and so we must have the solutions. The idea that we must civilize the savages and modernize the backwards peoples has historical precedents, the perverse white man's burden, stemming from the colonial sense of trusteeship. This framing locates problems within the poor themselves and renders structures of oppression invisible. It targets the poor rather than the forces that both create their poverty and enable our wealth.

Now, I want to be clear about something. These technical experts really do want to make the world a better place, yet their claim of expertise is a claim to power. It is a claim that they know what is best for someone else. Their exercise of this power, however, often falls short, and there remains a gap between what is desired and what is achieved.

If you are a technical expert, that is in part because the technocratic way that you have been trained to see and solve problems is a way that does not challenge power. If you're an engineer, you've been taught how to overcome the limits of nature in the name of human progress. You haven't been taught to ask whose progress is being limited, nor who defined the supposedly natural limits that you have been called upon to overcome.

If you're a medical doctor, your education has taught you how to fix broken bodies. That education didn't teach you to ask how those bodies became broken in the first place, and it didn't teach you how to recognize nor how to address the social determinants of disease.

If you're an economist, your training taught you to leverage markets to promote never-ending economic growth. That training didn't enable you to manage the distribution of scarce resources, much less how to maximize social, non-economic values.

We need more than technical experts. If we want to solve poverty, then we must first recognize that it is a problem that has no technical solution. It cannot fit in a box. While the symptoms might fit nicely in boxes, the structures that support and maintain these symptoms do not.

We don't need to solve the symptoms. We need to dissolve the structures. We need to get political, to contextualize our work, and to engage with history. Depoliticizing poverty by viewing it as a technical problem to be solved by experts is not only ineffective, it gets in the way of real change.

So what kind of expert are you? What boxes has your training taught you to draw? How have you learned to define problems, and through what lens do you see poverty? And finally, how might you come to understand what is missing from inside the boxes you draw?

There may be small errors in this transcript.
About:

Original video via #GlobalPOV Project at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at University of California, Berkeley. FYI, my coworker Adam curated a little something by them recently which y'all should also check out. Join the convo under #GlobalPOV on Twitter to see the most recent buzz on wealth and poverty. Thumbnail image via Flickr user dolanh, used under Creative Commons Non-Commercial license.

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Andrea Garcia-Vargas

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