Asking ‘Why poverty?’ might be more complicated than you think.

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

I have a four year old daughter. A beautiful, articulate and thoughtful young lady. A preschooler of her age usually has a vocabulary of almost 2,000 words, and though I have not counted them all, I am sure that is about right for her. But of those 2,000-odd words, which one is her favourite? Which one does she seem pull out more than any other? Without a doubt, it is the word ‘why’.

‘It’s bedtime.’


‘We need to share.’


‘I think you are beautiful.’


‘Can you see those boys? What sport are they playing?’


‘Actually, they aren’t. They’re playing football.’


‘Why are they playing football? Or why are they playing football, not basketball? Or why is that particular sport ‘“football”, and why is it not “basketball”? Well… it’s because of the type of ball they are using. No, it’s because of the rules they are adhering to. Actually, it’s because their parents taught them how to play football, because their parents prefer that game and secretly want them to one day sign multi-million dollar professional contracts. But really, it’s just because they’re children and they like being active with their friends. (Hangs head in shameful, existential-crisis defeat). I don’t know why. Can we please just go home?’

Though it might be tempting to think that a young child’s continual asking of ‘why’ is really just a deviously crafted ploy to drive the responding adult completely insane, the truth is that she is on a mission: a mission to know about her life, to understand what is happening in the external world around her and to find a place for all the new pieces of information that are flooding into her little life. She desires to make sense of her world and her place within it. We could say that only if she knows the why of a thing, will she truly know the thing.

Like us, Aristotle himself recognised and reckoned with such a curious need for explanation. He reasoned that it is our nature as human beings to wonder and marvel at the unknown, and to succumb — almost involuntarily — to an explanation-seeking mode whenever we come across unexplained or unfamiliar phenomenon. Aristotle, born in 384 BC in the city of Stagira, Chalcidice, on the northern periphery of Classical Greece, is a towering figure in human history, and his contribution to humanity’s collective thought and reasoning is very nearly unparalleled across all ages. His surviving writings span an extensive range of philosophical disciplines: logic, metaphysics and philosophy, aesthetics and rhetoric, ethics, and political theory; and non-philosophical fields such empirical biology. Even 2300 years after Aristotle’s life, his thoughts are well worth giving our attention.

Aristotle argued that understanding causality is such a salient component of knowledge that we cannot truly say that we know a thing until we have grasped why it is so, or, ‘Why did this thing come to be?’ Aristotle’s concept of causality and his analysis became something of a philosophical benchmark and remains a staple of contemporary philosophical discussion to this day. In his renowned pieces Physics and Metaphysics (admit it, you’ve read them both), Aristotle distinguishes four kinds of reasons, or four aitai (from the Greek αἰτία, best translated as ‘reason’ or ‘explanation’, but also ‘cause’), which together provide ‘objectively obtaining grounding relations between the things I want explained and the things which explain them’ (shout out to Christopher Shields, of the University of Notre Dame, for that quote which makes me feel smarter and stupider in one fell swoop).

To put it more simply, we want a satisfactory reason for the unfamiliar phenomenon before us.

Accordingly, it has become tradition to label Aristotle’s four causes as follows:

  • Material cause: that from which an entity comes to be (or ‘What is it made of?’).
  • Formal cause: the shape or structure of an entity (or ‘What makes it different from, you know, things that are different from it?’).
  • Efficient cause: the agent imposing the shape or the structure (or ‘Who caused it?’).
  • Final cause: that for the sake of which (or ‘Why did they cause it?’).

As you can see, the Aristotelian notion of causality is one that refers to processes, not just static events, and carries with it an explanation of why some change was initiated in such a way that makes plain the connection between the activity in the agent and the alteration in the patient. Or in other words,

The Explanation is an adequate explanation only if Explanation correctly cites each of the four causes: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final.

Still with me? Nice work.

Cause and effect is one of the fundamental principles of our existence: every effect has a specific and predictable cause; every cause or has a specific and predictable effect. Things happen for a reason, even if our limited knowledge or experience has not yet made the connection between the variables. We know that bringing water to a rolling boil, for instance, always makes it safe from dangerous and pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites. These microorganisms are inactivated at the temperature of boiling water. It is not that they will be inactivated sometimes and will not be inactivated at other times. It is that they will always be inactivated, period. The cause (high temperature water) is always followed by the effect (inactivation of such bacteria, viruses and parasites). And yes, you just learnt that boiling water doesn’t actually kill its dangerous contents, it just inactivates them. You’re welcome. Remember me when you win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and they make a story of your life.

Likewise, planes are able to fly because of a set of very well-known reasons: lift, weight, thrust and drag (at least I think so, I’m not a rocket scientist). These causes keep a plane in the air (effect) and will continue to do so unless they are overridden by a greater cause. This is what gives us confidence to board an aircraft. That and the quality of the food.

Causality is important, because it gives life a degree of predictability.

So, what does this have to do with understanding poverty? Let’s remember that poverty is not static, but rather it is generated (and regenerated) by identifiable causes — and together you and I are both presumably very much interested in those causes. Our explanations of poverty will only be adequate if, and when, we are able to correctly cite each of the four causes:

  1. What is poverty ‘made of’?
  2. What differentiates ‘poverty’ from ‘not poverty’?
  3. What triggered the poverty?
  4. Was, or is, there an ultimate purpose for poverty?

(That last one will really mess with you. I think there is a purpose. What do you think?)

Possessing an adequate explanation for the occurrence of poverty sharpens our overall knowledge of the phenomenon, and in turn equips us fight it ex-ante (before the event) and ex-post (after the event). Granted, in the physical sciences, such as physics and chemistry, establishing causality is rather more straightforward. A good experimental design can nullify any potentially puzzling variables and lead to a high degree of certainty and validity. Questions of an anthro-sociological nature, as is our interest here, are exceptionally more difficult because the welfare of individuals and groups is influenced by an unusually complex set of variables.

But let us be of no doubt: poverty is caused.

People are made to be poor. Communities lack for a reason. There are triggers, events and circumstances that virtually guarantee entrapment. Our goal is to identify those causes with as much certainty as the field allows, so that we can predict the problems before they take hold, and take action to avoid them.

So as we resolve to get smart, so we can do good, let’s not be afraid to jump into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Aristotle (or a curious four year old, you can take your pick) and let’s ask this critical question about poverty: why?

Dr Phillip Barnard is committed to helping more people engage practically, intelligently and compassionately with the issue of poverty in our world.