The four faces of poverty in region

The four faces of poverty in region
Poverty 4.0 is poverty created by structural injustice. These poor might include young women drawn into factory work in Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam (above), where competitive austerity engenders a ''race to the bottom'', keeping salaries so low that there is little scope to save.

THE headline story of South-east Asia is one of success.

Yet, there is a puzzling persistence of poverty in the face of rapid economic expansion. To unravel this puzzle we need to think differently about poverty, how it is measured and experienced and, importantly, how it is tackled.

Development does not so much eradicate poverty as re-engineer it. When people claim they are poor in 2014 they are not usually suggesting that their poverty is the same as that of their forebears.

In 1982 I spent almost a year working in two villages in the province of Mahasarakham in the north-eastern region of Thailand.

At that time Thailand was poor and the north-east was the poorest region of the country. The households I worked with had little income, almost no consumer goods, and few amenities.

Although there was a small primary school, a mere handful of villagers, almost all of them farmers, had more than four years of education. These villagers were poor, but there were also no great cleavages in village society. The experience of poverty - of meagre living - was a shared one.

In 2012 I completed, with colleagues at Khon Kaen University, a study of three villages in a neighbouring province - Khon Kaen. In the intervening three decades Thailand has progressed from low to upper middle income status. These villagers lived palpably more comfortable lives. They had running water, electricity, the large majority of households owned motorbikes and mobile phones, and their children went to secondary school. They also had bank accounts and could access medical care.

Even so, more than one-third described themselves as ''poor'', and nearly one in 10 as ''very poor''. Tellingly, these villages were also far more unequal places in terms of income gap, housing, education levels and consumer goods acquisition.

Despite three decades of rapid economic growth and rising incomes, poverty seems as entrenched today in rural Thailand as it was in 1982.

To understand the ''stickiness'' of poverty we need to think of it being experienced, produced - and tackled - in four very different ways.

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