In writing my latest book, The Private Sector's Role in Poverty Reduction in Asia, I had the opportunity to examine and reevaluate what were the actual meanings of the terms poverty and wealth. Of course at a superficial level we can assume wealth means having a lot of money while poverty implies having little or no money. But how useful are these definitions? Why do people want money? How does having money actually improve people's lives?
A wealthy man might go to bed hungry due to fasting for religious or health reasons and a poor man could also go to bed hungry due to not being able to afford anything to eat. Although they are both experiencing hunger, are they in the same situation? If not, what makes the two experiences different?
The point I argued is the difference is not in the hunger, it is in having or not having a choice. The wealthy man chose hunger while the poor man had hunger thrust upon him. Wealth is having choices while poverty is primarily the result of a lack of options.
Real "wealth" is not primarily about owning material possessions or having money, it is about having choices in how to live one's life and spend one's time. A point made in the book is the primary reason the trillions of dollars given away in charities and development aid around the world has had almost no effect on reducing poverty is these types of programs generally assume poverty is the absence of money. And therefore supply specific items which outsiders assume are wanted and needed by those in poverty. But rarely do these programs allow for or create additional choices for the individuals being targeted. This top down approach has not proven to be a successful model.
On the other hand, the world has seen greater poverty reduction in recent years than ever before in the history of mankind with most of this reduction coming in East Asia (China and Vietnam) where there have been few charities operating but where foreign and local investments have created millions of job opportunities which individuals could choose to take, or not. This has proven to be a successful model.
While seeking greater material possessions is a common goal, it is rarely the sole purpose in life for most individuals. People want a variety of different things out of life, such as time to relax, travel, friends, and many other tangible and intangible "things" according to their cultures and personal preferences.
Increasing opportunities have proven the most effective method of decreasing rates of poverty and improving people's standards of living. Given opportunities and choices, individuals generally know how to improve their own lives better than do government officials or charity organizations.
Who knows the most about what you want out of life?
I suspect each of us would answer this question with the same answer, me.
Allowing people to decide for themselves what is important where options are available seems to be a better path to take than allowing one set of people to decide how another set should live and what they should have.
Thinking of wealth as an increase in the choices available can be a useful frame of mind in both our teaching and career development. Helping students gain mastery of the English language can create more choices for them in sources of information, entertainment and occupations. Friends and acquaintances enrich people's lives and having foreign language skills can increase the choices of friends and acquaintances for both the students and teachers.
For students, learning English opens up the possibility of engaging with people in both the real world and electronically from around the world as English is the most used second language. And while English is spoken fairly widely in Thailand and many other countries, it is not universally spoken and learning the local language of the country a teacher is working in increases opportunities to engage with people from various walks of life.
What do people primarily want from their professional career? Some people might primarily want high salaries. Some might want to engage in meaningful work while still others might be mostly looking for a stress-free lifestyle with a lot of free time. People might want different specific things from their jobs and careers, but one thing everyone wants is increased choices. The best solution to a bad job is having the opportunity to take a good one.
During the first year I was living here in Thailand many years ago, I recall having a conversation at a beach with a lady from France who was backpacking through Southeast Asia. At the time I was teaching English, and she reflected on how lucky I was. She astutely identified the incredible number of opportunities I had, which she didn't, to work across Asia due to little more than having the foresight to be born in a country where English was the native language. She was right; being a native speaker of the language people around the world use gives me wealth as it is an incredible source of international career opportunities.
However, as a person gets settled and wants to advance in one's career, it is a good idea to increase the level of skills and abilities which also increases one's career choices. If seeking further education, one might want to consider whether it is a good idea to pursue studies which would help only in increasing options in the field of English teaching or to study a subject which might open up many other possibilities.
In addition to education, there are many other ways to increase one's career choices, such as studying new languages, saving money which can be used in starting a business or learning computer programming or other skills. These days it is unlikely one can rely on a single employer for job security and advancement throughout an entire career.
Therefore the best method to ensure job security and advancement opportunities might be to be constantly upgrading one's skill set to ensure one will always have options for other work if a change becomes necessary or desired. In addition, our specific wants and desires change over time and what might have been a dream job in the past could become a trap one cannot escape from if new career options are not available
There has been some research which shows having more money, up to a certain point, can increase one's overall happiness. It is not necessarily the money or the material possessions which enrich one's life. A possession which one person enjoys can be useless to another. For example, having a large yacht won't do much to improve the life of someone who gets seasick easily. Instead, it is the increases in options available to the person which can significantly improve the quality of one's life.
Scott Hipsher is the author of a number of books, book chapters, academic journal articles, conference papers, magazine articles and newspaper pieces.
His books include
The Nature of Asian Firms: An evolutionary perspective
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking free from the colonial paradigm
Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries
And Scott's latest book The Private Sector's Role in Poverty Reduction in Asia