"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

The Allure of the City

I will freely admit that talking meaningfully about finding solutions to poverty is far above my pay grade.  Additionally, even as a graduate student, my pay grade is enough to keep me out of the grips of poverty, especially with a household of one adult.  Moreover, despite being a graduate student, I am not nearly as well-versed with the who’s who in the appropriate fields… o the joys of being “multi/trans/inter-disciplinary”  The fact that I smash together culture, education, engineering and theology on the blog shows the extent of my generality.

So now I’m going to really go out on a limb and comment on a blog post I read that features a dialog between David Roodman and Land Pritchett.  They are better qualified to speak to the development of the microfinance industry than I am, but I’m an academic-in-training so I am going to try to make a meaningful contribution to something.  Most likely, the something will be my own thoughts.

Generally, I think micro-finance initiatives, both in the form of micro-credit and micro-savings, represent a critical tool in trying to work structurally to address poverty.  Micro-finance focuses primarily on supporting people as they advance their use of skills they already have to organize small businesses.  In many ways, micro-finance celebrates entrepreneurship rooted in the context of existing livelihoods.  However, when I read the discourse on the blog post, I had to wonder about the role of industrialization and urbanization.

Persons living in rural areas often depend on livelihoods integrally connected with the weather.  Increasingly strange seasonal cycles create some true collapse stories of these livelihoods.  You can ask the Mongolian herders trying to eek out a living by gathering the carcasses of their animals.  I have read similar stories for the past 3 years; the Mongolian herders are not the only affected group.  Additionally, I grew up in a community experiencing a livelihood shift as the major industries left the area.  When you see the logical path forward evaporating, thoughts of the youth may turn to escaping for greener economic pastures.

The city serves as a metaphor for advanced opportunity.  But I wonder about those people who see their future in the rural areas, living with rural livelihoods.  The greater the distance from a population center with a high population density, the more difficult it becomes to build appropriate infrastructure to support on-demand utilities.  It is also difficult to consider participating in a globalized economy if one is far away from a trade center.

Yet, we assume that the globalized economy is inherently better than the local economy.  We value urban over rural.  And we value a sense of a “job” over the cultivation of a “livelihood.”  This is problematic.  I do not bemoan persons who make their flight to the city for any number of reasons, but I think we commit a significant error in judgment if we assume that participating in the global urbanized economy represents the top aims of individuals and communities.  In particular, if we postulate that local persons are capable of adding value to their local resources through their labor, then it seems that this value might not be expressed solely in macroeconomic terms like GNP or GDP.

Moreover, in pursuing GDP, we can make choices that favor jobs at the expenses of livelihoods.  As an example that strikes me as just a really bad idea on many different fronts, Chile is considering significant dam projects in the Patagonia region.  We see very fragile ecosystems with seemingly intact rural communities.  The greater industrialization of the area will likely bring people from other areas to settle who have differential ability to participate in the national economy than the locals.  I am reminded of my visit to a community in England largely supported by the fishing industry where bankers in London wound up buying up a lot of seaside property for vacationing.  The rising home values drove away home ownership abilities of the local people, uprooting many families while also developing fostering greater rent-dependence.

In reality, I think people with the means to do so wind up alternating between participating in local and global economies.  But I think they do so from the position of cultivating a livelihood rather than simply working a job.  Sometimes the livelihood can only exist in a rural area, dominated by pastoral scenes of Mongolian sheep and goats.

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