David R. Loy — Buddhism and Poverty
Tuesday 7 September 2010, by
Buddhism and Poverty
David R. Loy 
Does Buddhism have anything special to contribute to our understanding of poverty,
and how to alleviate it?
Like other religions, Buddhism is sometimes criticized for its idealism: for encouraging a
non-materialistic way of life that goes against the grain of our main desires and
motivations. If we want to reduce poverty, we are referred instead to the science of
economics, which has discovered the laws of economic growth that promote worldly
well-being, and to international development agencies, which apply those principles to
improve the lot of “undeveloped” societies.
This paper will argue that the opposite is true. In fact, contemporary economics is much
more “idealistic” in the sense that it presumes an unrealistic image of human nature based
upon an eighteenth-century ethical system, utilitarianism, not derived from empirical
observation but conceived in a philosopher’s study. As a result, economists today tend to
live in an idealized, one-dimensional world of statistics and equations which do not
accurately reflect human values and goals in the world we actually live in.
In contrast with the calculating individualism that neo-liberal economics presupposes,
Buddhism is more down-to-earth in its understanding of the sources of human ill-being
and well-being. Its approach also happens to correspond more closely to the way most
pre-modern communities have understood well-being, and “undeveloped” societies today
still do. The purpose of this paper is to explore the implications of Buddhist teachings for
the problems of economic development that confront us at the beginning of a new
millennium. From a Buddhist perspective, it is not surprising that the institutional efforts
of the last fifty years have actually aggravated the social problems they were supposed to
solve. Far from providing a solution, the development approach still taken for granted
today is better understood as the problem itself. Buddhism can help us to see that, and to
envision more viable alternatives.
Shakyamuni Buddha often summarized his teachings into four noble truths: ill-being
[duhkha], its cause, its end, and its cure. He was sometimes called a great physician,
because there is a logic to this structure that is consistent with how medicine approaches
physical dis-ease. A similar logic would also seem appropriate for other problems we
want to solve, such as poverty, and when we try to understand economic
“underdevelopment” according to this simple model, it helps to illuminate aspects of the
issue that have often been overlooked or ignored.
What is poverty?
Paradoxically, perhaps, the actual obstacles to solving the world’s most acute
problems are less the cultural traditions of a large number of peoples than our own
ingrained belief that the boundless progress which results from technology and the
market can somehow liberate us from nature and society. (Berthoud, 74)
Until very recently religion has not played much of a role in development debates
because its teachings have been usually perceived as preoccupied with a “higher world”
or at least a different dimension of life. Whether or not that is true of some other
religions, it is not the case for Buddhism. Far from ignoring or minimizing poverty,
Buddhist teachings are sensitive to it, offering both diagnosis and remedies. The most
important thing, however, is that Buddhism challenges our understanding of poverty by
contextualizing the problem in a different way, one which questions the assumptions that
still dominate our thinking about “undeveloped” societies.
According to Buddhism poverty is bad because it involves dukkha. The Pali term dukkha
is arguably the most fundamental concept in Buddhism, yet it is often misunderstood.
The usual English translations are “suffering, frustration, dissatisfaction,” but “ill-being”
is perhaps the best in this context. The point of the Buddhist path is to end our dukkha,
and that does not involve making any significant distinction between worldly dukkha and
some other transcendental sort. As a philosophy and way of life which advocates
eliminating dukkha, Buddhism does not and cannot value poverty that is a source of i In
the Anguttara Nikaya, for example, the Buddha says that for a person who enjoys sensepleasures
poverty (Pali, daliddiya) is miserable, because it leads to borrowing and
increasing debts and thus ever-increasing suffering.
Buddhism does value nonattachment towards material goods, and promotes the virtue of
having less wants, yet that is not the same as encouraging poverty. Poverty, as ordinarily
understood in early Buddhism, consists in lacking the basic material requirements for
leading a decent life free from hunger, exposure and disease. Buddhism recognizes the
importance of such minimum material needs even in the case of those who aspire to its
spiritual goal, and in fact the basic needs of a monk or nun provide a useful benchmark
for measuring that level of subsistence below which human beings should not be allowed
to fall. The four requisites of a Buddhist renunciate are food sufficient to alleviate hunger
and maintain one’s health, clothing sufficient to be socially decent and to protect the
body, shelter sufficient for serious engagement with cultivating the mind, and health care
sufficient to cure and prevent disease. People who voluntarily renounce worldly
possessions and pleasures in favor of a life of such minimal needs are viewed as
belonging to the community of “noble ones” (ariyapuggala).
Although lack of these four requisites seems to be a good definition of human destitution,
they are not themselves sufficient to evaluate the situation of those who do not choose to
follow a spiritual path of renunciation. For example, education and livelihood are not
mentioned, the first because literacy and some study were usually taken for granted, the
second because Buddhist renunciants in South Asia were mendicants who devoted
themselves not to production but to contemplation. Sakyamuni’s Buddhism assumed both
a low-tech culture that had comparatively little impact on its environment, and relative
freedom from the external economic (although not political) forces that ravage many
indigenous societies today. Because our situation today is in many ways unique, it
requires a creative response that cannot be derived from early Buddhist teachings but
must rather be informed by them. The important question is: who should decide what
that response will be?
In any case, there is much in those teachings to inform us. According to the Anguttara
Nikaya, the Buddha taught that some people are like the completely blind because they
do not have the vision to improve their material circumstances, nor the vision to lead a
morally elevated life. Others are like the one-eyed because, although they have the vision
to improve their material conditions, they do not have the vision to live morally elevated
life; the third class have the vision to improve both. Such Buddhist teachings imply that
when measuring poverty it is not enough to evaluate the material conditions. For a more
comprehensive evaluation of deprivation it is necessary to take into account the moral
quality of people’s lives. But that is not to minimize the importance of the first eye.
There is a causal relationship between material poverty and social deterioration,
according to the Lion’s Roar Sutra (Cakkavatti-sihanada Sutra).
In this sutra the Buddha tells the story of a monarch in the distant past who initially
venerated and relied upon the Buddhist teachings, doing as his sage advised: “Let no
crime prevail in your kingdom, and to those who are in need, give property.” Later,
however, he began to rule according to his own ideas and did not give property to the
needy, with the result that poverty became rife. Due to poverty one man took what was
not given and was arrested; when the king asked him why, the man said he had nothing to
live on. So the king gave him some property, saying that it would be enough to carry on
a business and support his family.
Exactly the same thing happened to another man; and when other people heard about this
they too decided to steal so they would be treated in a similar way. Then the king
realized that if he continued to give property to such men, theft would continue to
increase. So he decided to get tough on the next thief: “I had better make an end of him,
finish him off once for all, and cut his head off.” And he did.
At this point in the story, one might expect a moralistic parable about the importance of
deterring crime, but it turns in exactly the opposite direction:
Hearing about this, people thought: “Now let us get sharp swords made for us,
and then we can take from anybody what is not given, we will make an end of
them, finish them off once and for all and cut off their heads.” So, having
procured some sharp swords, they launched murderous assults on villages, towns
and cities, and went in for highway-robbery, killing their victims by cutting off
Thus, from the not giving of property to the needy, poverty became rife, from the
growth of poverty, the taking of what was not given increased, from the increase
of theft, the use of weapons increased, from the increased use of weapons, the
taking of life increased . . . (Digha-Nikaya iii 65 ff, in The Long Discourses, 396-
Despite some fanciful elements, this myth has important implications. Poverty is
presented as a root cause of immoral behavior such as theft, violence, falsehood, etc.
Unlike what we might expect from a supposedly world-denying religion, the Buddhist
solution has nothing to do with accepting our (or others’) “poverty karma.” The problem
begins when the king does not give property to the needy — that is, when the state
neglects its responsibility to maintain what we today call distributive justice. This
influential sutra implies that social breakdown cannot be separated from broader
questions about the benevolence of the social order. The solution to poverty-induced
crime is not to punish severely but to help people provide for their basic needs.
In another sutra, the Buddha speaks of the four kinds of happiness (sukha) attained by
householders: possessing enough material resources, enjoying those resources, sharing
them with relations and friends, and not being in debt. More important than any of them,
he emphasizes, is the happiness of leading a blameless life. Elsewhere the Buddha
teaches that the greatest wealth is contentment (santutthi paramam dhanam). There are
said to be seven kinds of noble wealth: faith, moral conduct, the shame and the fear of
doing something reprehensible, developing one’s character, sacrificing one’s possessions
for the benefit of others, and insight into the three characteristics of existence (dukkha,
impermanence, and no-self). The Buddha says that in the discipline of the noble ones
who follow the Buddhist path, the absence of these seven may be called true poverty, a
poverty even more miserable than that resulting from lack of material resources.
By redefining these moral qualities as “noble wealth,” Buddhism draws attention to the
fact that the single-minded pursuit of material wealth will not make human beings happy
or even rich. A world in which envy (issa) and miserliness (macchariya) predominate
cannot be considered one in which poverty has been eliminated. This follows from the
second noble truth of the Buddha: the cause of dukkha is tanha “craving”. When human
beings gain an intense acquisitive drive for some object, that object becomes a cause of
suffering. Such objects are compared to the flame of a torch carried against the wind, or
to a burning pit of embers: they involve much anxiety but very little satisfaction — an
obvious truth repressed by immediately turning our attention to another craved object.
For Buddhism such a proliferation of wants is the basic cause of unnecessary ill-being.
This implies that poverty can never be overcome by proliferating more and more desires
which are to be satisfied by consuming more and more goods and services. In some
places this may result in the elimination of material poverty for many or most, yet at the
cost of promoting a different kind of poverty that is even more harmful. In short, there is
a fundamental and inescapable poverty “built into” a consumer society. For that reason,
development projects which seek to end poverty by “developing” a society into an
economy focused on consumption are grasping the snake by the wrong end. From a
Buddhist point of view we should not be surprised that such efforts in social engineering
end up creating more problems than they solve.
This is not a criticism of wealth itself: as in the Bible, not money but love of money is
the source of evil. However, wealth must be acquired by righteous means, through one’s
own efforts without using immoral or exploitative methods. Economic activity involving
injury to human or nonhuman life, or undermining the moral ideals of a society, however
beneficial that may be according to purely economic criteria, is unacceptable from a
Is this image of our human nature and its potential too idealistic? I don’t think so: in
fact, this approach reflects better than economic theory the attitudes of most societies not
already conditioned by advertising into believing that happiness is something you
purchase. According to my favorite definition, by the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat
Hanh, Buddhism is “a clever way to enjoy your life.” Confusing the quality of one’s life
with a quantitative “standard of living” is, in contrast, a stupid way. Many of the Third
World peoples we have been so eager to “develop” seem to be more aware of the
difference than we are.
The first World Bank definition of poverty was based upon the crude criterion of average
national income. Since then the Bank has become more sensitive to differences of
income among sectors within a country, and now even within families. For economics,
however, lack of income remains the basic criterion of ill-being, perhaps because some
such numerical measurement is necessary to satisfy the economist’s craving for statistical
assessment. Gross National Product is a lot easier to gauge than General Well-Being. As
a result, development agencies have been slow to realize what many anthropologists have
long since understood: in traditional societies, especially rural communities, income is
not the primary criterion of well-being; it is sometimes not even a major one.
One of the things we found in the village which surprised us was people’s idea
of well-being and how that related to having money. We talked to a family,
asking them to rank everybody in the village from the richest to the poorest and
asking them why they would rank somebody as being less well off, and someone
as poor. And we found that in the analysis money meant very little to the
people. The person who was ranked as poorest in the village was a man who
was probably the only person who was receiving a salary. (Delia Paul on a rural
household in Zambia, quoted in Chambers, 179)
When a master builder in a Bulgarian community was invited to rank people according to
wealth, he “spontaneously enlarged the list of wellbeing criteria emphasizing the
importance of children’s education, good health and a good humoured nature....
Interestingly, the less well-off group included the most wealthy person in the village —
an unhappy, bad tempered fellow put at the bottom of the pile along with the drunks and
the sick.” (quoted in Chambers, 179). From his study of the literature Robert Chambers
concludes: “Income, the reductionist criterion of normal economists, has never, in my
experience or in the evidence I have been able to review, been given explicit primacy”
To assume that we in the “developed” world know something about worldly well-being
which such peoples do not is a form of intellectual imperialism that looks increasingly
dubious. De-emphasizing income is something difficult for us to understand, since
money is after all the “pure means” that enables us to buy anything. . . . or is it? Our
obsession with economic growth seems natural to us because we have forgotten the
historicity of the “needs” we now take for granted. That includes the need for a monetary
income in Western societies now thoroughly monetarized and commodified, where
anything can be converted into anything else through a common medium of exchange.
Since our needs (or rather our wants) are now taken for granted as defining our common
humanity as much as universal human rights do, we are encouraged to forget what for
Buddhism is an essential human attribute if we are to be happy: the need for selflimitation.
The fundamental human problem is not the technological and economic issue of meeting
all our material needs — something psychologically as well as environmentally
impossible — but the psychological and spiritual need to understand the nature of our
own minds. For this reason any formulation of “needs” is as much a value judgement as
it is a determination of fact. This is something Buddhism and other religions emphasize
but economics does not acknowledge. Economics cannot avoid reducing the good to the
amount because it factors all desires into its basic equation of scarcity, which derives
from comparing limited means with potentially unlimited wants. Without having been
seduced by the utopian dream of a technological cornucopia, however, it would never
occur to most “poor” people to become fixated on fantasies about all the things they
might have. For them, their ends are an expression of the means available to them.
Insofar as they do this, we are imposing our own value judgements when we insist on
seeing them as poor, or as living in a state of scarcity (again, except for the destitute
unable to satisfy basic requisites for survival). It is presumptuous to assume that they
must be unhappy, and that the only way to become happy is to start on the treadmill of a
lifestyle dependent on the market and increasingly preoccupied with consumption.
All this is expressed better with a Tibetan Buddhist analogy. The world is full of thorns
and sharp stones (and now broken glass as well). What should we do about this? We can
try to pave over the entire earth; or we can wear shoes. “Paving the whole planet” is a
good metaphor for how our collective technological and economic project is attempting
to make us happy. It will not be satisfied even when all the earth’s resources are
transformed into products to be consumed. The other solution is for our minds to learn
how to make and wear shoes, so that our collective ends become an expression of the
renewable means that the biosphere provides.
Why do we assume that “income/consumption poverty” is the same as ill-being? That
brings us to the heart of the matter. For us, material well-being has become increasingly
important because of our loss of faith in any other possibility of fulfilment — for
example, in heaven with God, or the secular heaven of socialism, or even (due to despair
about the ecological crisis) the future progress of humankind. Increasing our “standard of
living” has become so compulsive for us because it serves as a substitute for traditional
religious values — or, more precisely, because it has actually become a kind of secular
religion for us.
If so, our efforts to economically “develop” Third World peoples, who have their own
spiritual traditions, may be viewed as a contemporary form of religious imperialism, a
new mission to convert the heathen. . . . Despite their benighted violence, do “Third
World terrorists” understand this aspect of globalization better than we do?
What are the causes of poverty?
With the rise of the modern world, a distinctly modern faith — faith in progress
— arose to make sense of, and give ultimate meaning to the new notions and
institutions that were now dominant. Our deep reverence for science and
technology was inextricably linked up with this faith in progress. The universal
enforcement of the nation-state was carried out under the banner of progress. And
increasing conformity with the rule of economics, and intensified belief in its
laws, are still shadows of this enlightened faith. (Jose Maria Sbert, 192)
According to the accepted development model, the cause of poverty is not a major issue.
Poverty is more or less taken for granted: it is the normal condition of “undeveloped”
peoples, one which plagues all pre-modern societies, since it can be alleviated only by
technological and economic development.
From a Buddhist perspective, however, there is something odd about this indifference to
the causes of something we want to cure. This is reinforced by some intriguing
discoveries which do not support the assumption that poverty is the normal pre-modern
condition. Studies of “stone age economics” have concluded that the first humans in
some ways had a comfortable life more leisurely than ours. Archeological research into
early hunting-gathering communities (and anthropological surveys of more contemporary
ones) has found that they usually survived quite well on a few hours work a day, with a
diet more nutritious and varied than the farming settlements that supplanted them.
Agriculture also meant harder work, but it could support a greater population density and
still produce a surplus — the latter advantage usually restricted to those who had the
power to appropriate it. Such appropriation led to the development of social classes,
something that could not easily arise within hunting and gathering communities. We
view this appropriation as the origin of kings and priesthoods, but it can just as well be
looked upon as the origin of the poor, deprived of the fruits of their more arduous labors.
If social class continues to be our fundamental social problem, it is one that fifty years of
“development” have done very little to alleviate, for, as many recent studies have shown,
the share of human wealth owned by the rich worldwide has increased during this period,
and continues to do so, while the share owned by the poor has decreased. According to
the United Nations Development Report for 1998, twenty percent of the global
population now accounts for 86 percent of consumption; the three richest people on the
planet have assets that exceed the combined GNP of the 48 poorest countries. The result
is that three-fifths of the 4.4 billion people in developing countries lack basic sanitation,
one-third have no safe drinking water, one-quarter are inadequately housed, one-fifth
undernourished and one-fifth lack access to modern health services. This continuing
catastrophe is partially due to the fact that in “undeveloped” countries it is the powerful
and wealthy classes that continue to benefit most from the efforts of development
agencies such as the World Bank; and when projects fail, as many do, it is the poor that
suffer the most from their failure.
For example, between 1980 and 1989 thirty-three African countries received 241
structural adjustment loans from the World Bank. During that same decade, average
GDP and food production per capita in those countries both declined. The value of the
minimum wage dropped by over twenty-five percent, government expenditure on
education declined from $11 billion to $7 billion, and primary school enrolments dropped
from eighty percent in 1980 to sixty-nine percent in 1990. The number of people
classified as poor rose from 184 million in 1985 to 216 million in 1990, an increase of
seventeen per cent (George and Sabelli, 141). If we accept the World Bank’s profession
that its primary concern is to eliminate poverty, we are forced into the paradoxical
conclusion that one of the causes of poverty is the Bank’s own efforts to reduce it.
In the early Buddhist texts the cause of dukkha is sometimes identified simply as craving,
and sometimes as the three roots of moral evil (akusalamula). Human ill-being can be
resolved only by transforming these roots: greed (lobha) into generosity, ill-will (dosa)
into loving-kindness, and delusion (moha) into wisdom. The eradication of these sources
of unwholesome motivation is itself the goal of the Buddhist way of life, i.e., the
“awakening” of nibbana.
The role of greed and ill-will in causing poverty is more or less obvious, but the function
of delusion more subtle. One way to understand its role is to consider how we are misled
by our own dualistic thinking. Dualistic categories divide things into opposites that are
nonetheless dependent on each other because the meaning of each is the negation of the
other. Such a conceptual understanding can lead to problems that are much more than
conceptual. If I want to live a “pure” life (however that is understood), I will be
preoccupied with avoiding impurity. In the same way, desire for fame is also dread of
anonymity, for without such dread one will not usually make the effort to do whatever is
necessary to become famous. Whether I win or lose that competition, I am motivated to
play that game by internalizing the comparison between fame and anonymity. The same
applies to my hope for success and my fear of failure. In each case, we hope to gain the
first (purity, fame, success) and escape the second (impurity, anonymity, failure), but
psychologically they are indivisible, for each is dependent on the other.
In the same way, desire for wealth is inevitably shadowed by and preoccupied with fear
One implication of this dialectic is that there is no such thing as a “poverty problem” that
can be understood separately from what must also be called a “wealth problem”. Rather,
we are inflicted with a wealth/poverty dualism. This can be understood in several ways.
One way is to recognize the simple point that many critics have made about
globalization: although not a zero-sum game, rapid economic growth has also meant
rapid impoverishment and rapid increase in inequality, a different kind of development
that development agencies prefer to ignore but that structural adjustment programs have
To understand why we allow this to happen requires us to apply the wealth/poverty
dualism to our collective motivations. Isn’t a concern for “attacking poverty” the flip
side of our aggressive preoccupation with wealth-creation? In this way we excuse the
negative impacts of economic globalization because, after all, we are trying (or do intend)
to address those problems. More insidiously, we thereby rationalize a way of life
preoccupied with economic growth, no matter what its costs. “Undeveloped” poor
people must be miserable because that is how we would experience their circumstances
of life. Mesmerized as we are by growth, we assume that everyone else must be too — or
should be, especially if we are to have access to their resources and their demand for our
In medieval Europe, poverty provided an opportunity to save one’s own soul by being
generous; today some such generosity is necessary to justify our own acquisitive lifestyle.
We can feel good about making a killing on the stock market if we donate some of it to
charity. More cynically, poverty programs have been useful for subverting protest. “The
goal of assistance is precisely to mitigate certain extreme manifestations of social
differentiation, so that the social structure may continue to be based on this
differentiation” (Georg Simmel). Today we have sophisticated economic instruments
that allow us to take such assistance a step further and (since we no longer worry about
our immortal souls) make a profit from our generosity: the assistance must be returned,
with interest, no matter what the social cost to the recipients.
Development institutions have been quick to emphasize that a lasting solution to world
poverty requires continued growth, a logical conclusion if one assumes that the only route
to follow is the production/consumption example provided by the “developed” countries.
This means diverting limited community resources to new economic goals, which
requires further consolidation of the power of government agencies and other financial
institutions. Such power no longer forces anything, now it helps — but who needs help,
and how that help is to be given, is decided not by the people to be helped but by the
helper. In this way our human nature is redefined according to the interests and control
of professionals (Gronemeyer, 97).
Global poverty is thus conceptually necessary if the world is to be completely
commodified and monetarized. Otherwise one cannot rationalize the profound social
reorientation (experienced by most people as social disorganization) that is required.
Traditional cultures and lifestyles must be redefined as obstacles to be overcome, and
local elites must become dissatisfied with them, in order to create a class of more
individualistic and self-interested people that will serve as the vanguard of consumption.
There is another implication of the wealth/poverty dualism that afflicts the psychology of
wealthy people and nations. The poverty of others is also necessary because it is the
benchmark by which we measure our own achievements. Unless there are losers, we
cannot feel like winners. Unless the undeveloped are unhappy about their lot, we are
unable to feel happy about what we have, unable to rationalize the things we have had to
put up with in order to get there, unable to excuse the negative consequences of our
economic development. In this fashion too what we perceive as a poverty problem is due
to the tinted lenses of our wealth/poverty spectacles — and what is colored most of all by
those lenses is our own self-appearance. To live in a commodified world is to recognise
that we too are commodified, and as we know the value of commodities is determined by
price comparison. Who earns more, you or me? We can rarely ask this question because
it cuts too deeply, to the source of our self-esteem. This also applies collectively, to the
way we see others. . . .
In all these ways, then, we need the poor.
None of the above should be taken as making light of the situation of those many people
in the world whose destitution needs to be alleviated as soon as possible. What it does
suggest, though, is that among the causes of poverty today are the delusions of the
wealthy — delusions which have very concrete effects on the well-being of many people,
including the wealthy themselves. If so, we should not allow ourselves to be preoccupied
only with the poverty side of the problem; to correct the bias, we should become as
concerned about the wealth side: the personal, social, and environmental costs of our
obsession with wealth-creation and collective growth. Far from ignoring genuine
poverty, a Buddhist approach emphasizes the importance of seeing through such dualisms
if our efforts to help the destitute are to be actually successful.
What is the end of poverty?
The salvation of the people and of the nations shall come about through binding
them ever more tightly to the international market, equated with the world
community. There, the poor shall partake of the same substance as the rich.
Like any universal truth, adjustment is a purely abstract notion even if its
application causes concrete pain. The available choices are reduced to one.
There Is No Alternative; we are all bound by a single, compulsory, truth which
shall be recognized. Then shall the wayward nations be freed from their errors.
(George and Sabelli, 72)
It is, again, curious that development agencies such as the World Bank have said so little
about what would constitute the end of poverty. The goal is expressed in negative terms
which lack a positive vision of what kind of world we would have if poverty were
eliminated. We are led to conclude that this lack of articulation is either unconscious,
because the goal is more or less taken for granted, or conscious, because the World Bank
does not want to reveal it. In either case there are reasons for concern.
Both goals envision the solution as integration of the poor into the global economy. The
difference between them is what their role is expected to be in the globalization process.
The first scenario speaks in vague, general terms about the benefits that accrue from
linking up with the world economy: a market for one’s production; access to loans,
seeds, and other resources; leading to the most important thing, an income that enables
purchase of consumer goods — which opens the door to the promised land of capitalism.
Sure, one must start at the bottom, but with hard work and some luck you might end up
big-time consumers like us.
The second scenario is more realistic about the possibility of ending up consumers like
us. If that is the temptation, the promise is false. Insofar as the “undeveloped”
internalize our wealth/poverty syndrome, they are doomed to a life of increasing dukkha,
since there is no hope that they will be able to mimic our lifestyle. A world of over six
billion car drivers? The earth does not have nearly enough resources for China’s
population to live like Americans, nor could its sinks absorb enough pollutants. But there
is no need to worry about that, for in truth the world’s poor have a different role to play.
If aliens from another planet had been observing the World Bank‘s actual development
practices over the last fifty years, without listening to any of the rhetoric about its
intentions — helping the undeveloped, attacking poverty, and so forth — what would
they decide about the Bank’s goals? On the basis of his own lengthy experience with
Zimbabwe, Professor Colin Stoneman, an economic statistician at the University of York,
concluded that the World Bank is an institution “whose overall intention, and
increasingly effect, is to promote the construction of a single world market, substantially
on the basis of the present world division of labor ... [a] role mediated through an
ideology that is claimed to be a value-free science” [i.e., economics]. Doug Hellinger, a
former Bank consultant on urban development now with the Development Group for
Alternative Policies (D-GAP), makes the same point more cynically: “The Bank is
saying that to join the world economy you have to become more efficient and you have to
be able to compete against imports from around the world. But the purpose is not to
develop Brazil or to develop Ghana. They could give a damn. The U.S. is trying to stay
competitive with Europe and Japan and the Bank is helping to provide the government’s
friends in business with cheap labor, a deregulated atmosphere, and export incentives. It
isn’t a development strategy, it’s a corporate strategy” (in Caufield, 159).
If this has indeed been their intention, the World Bank and the IMF have been quite
For decades, the World Bank has had a free hand to carry out its policies,
especially during the 1980s following the onset of the debt crisis. Surveying the
results, some critics make the mistake of proclaiming that development has
failed. It hasn’t. Development as historically conceived and officially practised
has been a huge success. It sought to integrate the upper echelons, say ten to
forty percent, of a given third world population into the international,
westernized, consuming classes and the global market economy. This it has
A decade or more of structural adjustment has given marked impetus to the
process of global integration. Elites everywhere have managed to make their
poorer compatriots pay the costs of adjustment, whereas they, on the whole,
have profited from it or at the very least have lost, proportionally, far less.
(George and Sabelli, 147)
By no coincidence it was just after the Cold War began, in January 1949, that President
Truman first enunciated a new doctrine of assistance for “underdeveloped areas”. The
Soviet Union, as the first non-capitalist power to become industrialized, offered an
alternative model for development that could compete for the loyalty of Third World
countries. It is also no coincidence that, now that the Soviet Union has collapsed,
economic globalization has accelerated at the same time as the burden of structural
adjustment has increased for most of those same countries, still underdeveloped: these
also are not two separate developments but two faces of the same global integration.
What is the meaning of this integration? And why is it so problematic? In the same year
that the World Bank and the IMF were established (1944), the economic historian Karl
Polanyi published The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our
time. His account of the origins of capitalism does not directly address the globalization
that the Bank and IMF have since encouraged, yet it remains the best account of the
social consequences of a capitalist economy: a reversal of the traditional relationship
between a society and its economy.
In pre-modern societies, and in traditional ones today, markets that exist are limited in
place, scope, and time. They play a very circumscribed role because they tend to disrupt
social relations. Such societies make no clear distinction between the economic sphere
and the social sphere, with the result that economic roles are subordinate to social
relationships. According to Polanti, pre-capitalist man “does not act so as to safeguard
his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his
social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so
far as they serve this end” (46).
The great story of capitalism is the liberation of markets from such constraints. Today
we believe that the freedom to engage in market exchanges benefits all of us because it
leads to the economic growth that satisfies our needs. If it is true, however, that there is
no clear distinction between the economic and social spheres, there is another way to
understand unfettered markets: as a reversal of the traditional relationship between a
society and its economy: today, “instead of economy being embedded in social relations,
social relations are embedded in the economic system” (Polanyi 57).
Where there are no restrictions to protect social relationships, commodification tends to
occur with every potential resource that can be utilized for economic gain. This includes
the very moral fabric of society, woven of innumerable personal relationships, now
commodified into “social capital” or “moral capital” — ugly economist terms that
describe how market forces rely upon but damage that fabric of interpersonal
A basic contradiction of the market is that it requires character traits such as honesty,
trust, etc. in order to work efficiently, yet it is primarily motivated by a desire for profit
that tends to erode such personal responsibility for others. The last few decades have
made this more obvious. In the United States, massive “downsizing” and a shift to parttime
workers demonstrate diminishing corporate (and university) concern for employees,
while at the top astronomical salary increases and management buy-outs reveal that the
executives entrusted with managing corporations are becoming more adept at exploiting
or cannibalizing them for their own benefit. Internationally, the globalizing market has
promoted more exploitative relationships with the poor and powerless in “undeveloped”
parts of the world, where predatory governments often cooperate in keeping factory
wages at subsistence levels. These are examples of how the market itself “depletes moral
capital” and therefore depends upon the community to regenerate it, in much the same
way it depends upon the biosphere to regenerate natural capital. That is a good analogy,
for the long-range consequences have been much the same: even as we have reached the
point where the ability of the biosphere to recover has been damaged, our collective
moral capital has become so exhausted that our communities (or collections of atomized
individuals) are less able to regenerate it, with disturbing social consequences.
How do communities “generate moral capital”? This brings us back to the role of
religion, something development institutions have more often seen as an obstacle than an
aid. Throughout history, religions have been the main source and repository for society’s
deepest values and goals, those most essential to a community’s harmony and selfunderstanding.
Not all of these have been goals that we should pursue now, or values we
want to encourage today, but genuine religions have thrived because they have the
potential to promote and nurture responsible personal relationships. Aspiring bureaucrats
need to learn more than literacy and accountancy skills if they are to be good clerks: they
must also be equipped with a moral understanding of their responsibilities to other
members of society. Needless to say, this applies all the way up and down the hierarchy
of roles. Traditionally, religious values have encouraged this best; in contrast, material
values that emphasize income and consumption make it more difficult to resist the
corruption of graft and bribes. This is not an abstract problem: it touches on what has
been one of the major obstacles to successful development.
If a harmonious society requires the “moral capital” that religions usually regenerate and
that market capitalism tends to deplete, we should not identify economic reform with
market liberation. The implication works the other way: true social development may
require us to reverse the transformation Polanyi wrote about, re-embedding the economy
in social relations, rather than letting economic forces determine what happens to our
communities. Needless to say, this applies at least as much to the wealthy nations as to
the “undeveloped” ones.
Today the new rhetoric emphasizes “attacking poverty” by “empowering the poor,” yet
there is a dangerous ambiguity: empowerment for what? Is empowerment a means
(enabling the poor to join the world market) or a goal (allowing them to determine where
they themselves want to go)? For many historically “undeveloped” peoples, what we
may see about their entrenched poverty is not the most important thing about their lives
and culture. If traditional societies have their own standards of deprivation and wellbeing,
imposing a foreign one on them is intellectual as well as economic imperialism.
Insofar as that imposition undermines their traditional religious values, it may also be a
type of religious imperialism.
Except for not allowing destitution to continue — which should be something all of us
can agree on — we should accept that the world is enriched (as well as sometimes
damaged) by a plurality of understandings about human ill-being and well-being. This
does not mean that they all deserve to be tolerated: more totalitarian ones, in particular,
do not. How we are to determine the difference between tolerable and intolerable
understandings? This brings out the necessity for genuine democracy and, just as
important, freedom of religious practice. These, rather than military or economic
impositions, provide the best ways to make those decisions.
The moral role of religions is difficult for most Western-trained economists to accept,
since their discipline is a legacy of the eighteeenth-century Enlightenment project which
contrasted scientific and social progress with the regressive weight of privileged
churches. Today, however, it is necessary to recognize that the neoliberal economic
understanding of what happiness is, and how that is to be achieved, is only one vision
among many. Like every other, it has its advantages and disadvantages. There is a social
price to pay for the comforts and commodities it offers, a price that should not be
imposed on others who have their own worldviews and values.
All societies are confronted with the same basic tragedy of life, which for Buddhism is
not primarily poverty but illness, old age, and death. The main human response to this
has been religion, which addresses it in various ways. From a perspective informed by
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, these responses are superstitious and escapist.
From a Buddhist perspective, however, economic growth and consumerism are
unsatisfactory alternatives because they are evasions, which repress the basic problem of
life by distracting us with symbolic substitutes such as money, status, and power. Similar
critiques of idolatry are explicit or implicit in all the great religions, and rampant
economic globalization makes that message all the more important for our time.
How do we end poverty?
The apostles of new life . . . are the minority, typically those whose close contact
with Western education, Western political thought and Western material living
standards has led them to want greater opportunities to practice their knowledge,
greater outlets for their ambition, and a better material lot for their countrymen.
(Eugene Black, World Bank president 1949-1963)
If we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks, we will do so for their good
and the good of those who come after us. (Abel Alier, regional president of
Here, finally, we must see the strength of the economic paradigm, in devising and
implementing programs to end poverty — or so one would think. Unfortunately, because
the solutions attempted have not been based on an adequate understanding of the three
preceding questions (what is poverty, its causes, and its end), we should not be surprised
that the attempts have not been very successful.
The best answer to this last question is very simple, I think: let us admit that we do not
know. This is not a defect that can be remedied by more or better knowledge; the fact is,
we cannot know. In this situation, what we need most is humility: the modesty that
follows from acknowledging that we are unable to determine what is the best course for
other peoples to follow. If we are sensitive to what is happening in our own backyards,
we will have enough trouble trying to determine what is best for our “developed”
societies, all of which have major social problems.
I am suggesting, quite seriously, that one of the best things we can do for many
“undeveloped” peoples is to leave them alone. Whether or not that is the very best thing,
it is better than many poverty programs that have further diminished the ability of the
“poor” to meet their own needs, often because they have involved divesting local people
of their local resources (e.g., diverting agriculture from self-consumption into
monoculture for export). Letting-alone means allowing people to manage their own
resources, deciding for themselves their own opportunities and capabilities. Instead of
simply “doing nothing,” however, this can require intervention to restore local selfdetermination.
This does not mean that we are unable to help other communities decide what they would
like to change in their lives. Needless to say, this is an extremely subtle process if the
means are not to subvert the ends. Some recent work in development studies has been
moving in this direction, and many of those new, more participatory approaches are
summarized in Robert Chamber’s book Whose Reality Counts? It argues persuasively
that personal as well as professional and institutional change is necessary in order to
promote truly successful development. Several Buddhist-inspired development projects,
such as the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, already exemplify many of these changes.
However, and to say it again, letting-alone is not something that should apply to the
problem of genuine destitution, which morally obligates us to provide, at the very least,
sufficient food, clothing, basic shelter and medical care to all the world’s people. This, it
would seem, immediately brings us back to the onerous problem of devising economic
development strategies to do so. In fact, these basic requisites could be met quite easily
and inexpensively if our intentions were genuine and our motivation serious. Providing
them to the needy would actually require a very small percentage of the world’s annual
product. “It is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal
access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all,
adequate food care for all and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly $40 billion a
year,” according to the UN Development Report for 1998. “This is less than 4 percent of
the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world.” Probably the most effective
way to provide those services would be through some revamped United Nations agencies.
I am reversing the usual metaphor and suggesting that instead of pretending to teach the
poor how to fish, we give the most impoverished the fish they need. (The monarch in the
Lion’s Roar Sutta got into trouble because he failed to give property to the needy, not
because he failed to promote economic growth.) The dismal record of the last fifty years
of development reveals the cruelty of the usual slogan: when we have taught the world’s
poor to fish, the effect has often been to deplete their fishing grounds for our
The problem, then, is not that we do not have enough resources to provide for the basic
needs of everyone. We have much more than enough. The problem is a lack of
collective will, enough will to overcome the simple fact that the people who have the
most say about what happens to the earth’s resources do not care to do it. It is just not a
priority for them, and insofar as our own preoccupation with wealth accumulation
encourages us to acquiesce in this situation, we are complicit to it.
In other words, the problem of world poverty is not primarily an economic one. It is a
matter of our collective intentions and therefore our values. This brings us back to
religion, and the need for religious institutions which understand that market emphasis on
acquisition and consumption undermines their most important teachings. The corrosive
influence of economic globalization and its development institutions on other human
values needs to be challenged. Today the mainstream media that now constitute our
international nervous system are corporations interested only in the bottom line;
universities are becoming little more than a more advanced form of job training.
Revivified religions remain perhaps our best hope that the commodifications of
globalization will be challenged.
Gerard Berthoud, “Market,” in The Development Dictionary.
Eugene Black, The Diplomacy of International Development (New York: Atheneum,
Catherine Caufield, Masters of Illusion: the World Bank and the Poverty of Nations
(London: Macmillan, 1996).
Robert Chambers, Whose Reality Counts? (London: Intermediate Technology, 1997),
with the wittiest endnotes I’ve ever read.
Marianne Gronemeyer. “Helping,” in The Development Dictionary.
David Loy. “The Religion of the Market,” in Journal of the American Academy of
Religion vol. 65 no. 2 (summer 1997).
Susan George and Fabrizio Sabelli, Faith and Credit: The World Bank’s Secular Empire
P. D. Premasiri, “Religious Values and the Measurement of Poverty: A Buddhist
Perspective,” written for the World Faiths Development Dialogue with the World Bank,
Johannesburg, South Africa, 12-14 January 1999. The Buddhist sections of this paper are
much indebted to Premasiri’s position paper.
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon, 1957).
Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary (London: Zed Books, 1992).
Jose Maria Sbert, “Progress,” in The Development Dictionary.
Georg Simmel, “The Poor” Social Problems vol. 13 (1965).
Colin Stoneman, “The World Bank and the IMF in Zimbabwe,” in Campbell and Loxley,
eds., Structural Adjustment in Africa (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
Maurice Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha
Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995).
This article was previously published in the Kyoto Journal, Summer 1999.
Source : The World Faiths Development Dialogue