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Tracing Linkages between Social Isolation and Poverty

October 1, 2014

Convenor: Ian Skelly, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Conversation Starters:

  • Dr. Sabina Alkire, Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI)
  • Kennedy Odede, Shining Hope for Communities
  • Radosveta Stamenkova, Bulgarian Family Planning and Sexual Health Association
  • Lidia Kemeny, Vancouver Foundation


SKELLY: I’m Ian Skelly and I’m really just an observer here at this event. I bring no particular expertise to this subject at all, I fear. But Kim persuaded me to come and help run this symposium I suspect because for the past 15 years or so I’ve been helping His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales to articulate many of the ideas that you’re discussing today.

For those of you who, who don’t know a lot about what he does, and there’s a small regiment of people who work for various organizations that he’s created here who, who will be giving their ideas, he has been always it seems to me for the past 15 years when he’s been raising millions of pounds to put into charitable organizations concerned with one issue.

We’ll be hearing tomorrow about his ideas to do with the way in which built environments can either cohere or fragment communities. He’s just as concerned, as you might know, about the way in which we grow our food and the way in which it disconnects us or connects us to, to the land. You will enjoy, I know, a session on geometry a little later on. You’re going to be doing some drawing. That’s another presentation from another organization that he’s created to, to try and stress the fact that we are, we are increasingly worrying, suffering a worrying disconnection from… the world around us. I was reminded of this very issue when I was coming here at the airport the other day because I had to buy a cup of coffee.

And it suddenly struck me that you can’t buy a cup of coffee anymore. They have these huge long lists of options at Starbucks and places, and the mere question, “Can I have a cup of coffee,” causes all sorts of panics from behind the slate because everything is geared to the individual.

We live in a world which is increasingly focused on the individual. And what I, I’m aware of from my work with the Prince of Wales helping him to articulate his ideas what he’s always been concerned about and what you’re concerned about is the individual within community.

That’s the relationship which I think is going to come up time and again over the next few days.

The purpose of this next exercise is not to listen to a panel of people as we’ve been listening to but actually to actually turn the conversation over to you. But in order to get the conversation going and to discuss the first of the three key issues that the symposium is going to discuss we thought it would be a good idea to draw four members of our small community here up to give you some food for thought, some focus as to what your own discussions are going to hopefully concern themselves with over the next hour.

The first of the sessions is, as you can see from your list, exploring the link between poverty and isolation. And I have four people here on the panel at the moment who are going to give their own insights just as a sort of taster to the discussion that will then follow to give you some food for thought about this, this connection between poverty and isolation.

And Sabina Alkire has spent a lot, lot of time studying this link so Sabina, perhaps we could just start with you, if you don’t mind. You run the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, which is a bit of a mouthful. But what, what you’re trying to do it seems to me is measure this, this real between isolation and poverty and, and to better understand the links. Is that the case? Could you give us an insight into what your, your work has resulted in?

ALKIRE: Yes. Amartya Sen is one of the inspirations from our work and an advisor to our center. And he describes poverty as in a sense the conjunction of disadvantages that batter a person’s life at the same time. And speaking again with many different communities, as all of us have in the room, we know it’s, poverty is not just the lack of money, but it might be hunger, it might be a relational difficulty, it might be a lack of service or discrimination. And so an attempt to measure it quantitatively for policy requires identifying dimensions of poverty and measuring them.

And yet so often we overlook social isolation. And so I wanted first of all to acknowledge the importance with a quote from Thomas Martin where he wrote that, “One of the moral diseases we communicate to each there in society is huddling in the light of an insufficient answer to a question we’ve been afraid to ask.

0And I think many working officially, not in NGOs put perhaps in governments on issues of poverty have been afraid to ask about social relationships and social isolation for two reasons: their complexity and the im-implications it has for the responsibility.

SKELLY: How do you measure social isolation?

ALKIRE: So let me just give two examples that are just snapshots. One is of a, a couple that John Hammock, my colleague interviewed in Dominican Republic, who were multidimensionally poor in that they were deprived having, had health tragedies in their family, having nobody in their household with five years of schooling and lots of living standards, but the people he-, they sang with, they shopped from, they snuggled with, there were relationships of harmony and affection. And so although there was physical poverty there was not social isolation.

But, GM, a woman about 70 years old in Indonesia, her husband was deaf, her son had intellectual disabilities. And she had a duty of care for them, which required a lot of hard work, but also could only socialize perhaps once a month with others.

But the complexity, I mentioned two challenges, which is what I wanted to put on the table. Two challenges, one is complexity because social isolation is at the individual level with family and the care burden, or difficulty within the people with whom you are close, but also at the level of the group and of-, and perhaps social groups.

And so the measurement of social isolation requires these three or four different levels, and it can come into different domains of a person’s life, which is why the complexity seems to be a challenge for policy. And the other questions that it raises is in a sense — and I wanted to put on the table why are, why is it so difficult to push this issue forward sometimes. And it is then who has the responsibility of addressing it and how can we come along side the different, different groups to, to think very programmatically and very practically of things that can be done by different levels of interventions.

And I think the easiest and perhaps the earliest, the first discussions pointed to that. The easiest is not structural change but really grass roots work. And then a question is how that can be brought up and what should efficiently be brought up to a different level.

SKELLY: Okay, we’ll come back to that in just a moment. We’ve also got Kennedy here who has just arrived today and I’m very pleased that he managed to make it in the end courtesy of Lufthansa.

You have direct personal experience of what we’re talking about here so I wonder what is your feeling about the link between isolation and poverty? And what impact does isolation have on a person’s ability to get out of poverty?

ODEDE: So I want to thank you so much and I’m happy to be here. So today I’ve learned a lot already. I was with Peggy and first of all I thought about isolation is only for the poor people, but isolation can also happen for anybody, even middle class, you know. So with the idea that Peggy went to, to Brazil for me was a breakthrough.

So what is poverty first? What is poverty?

So poverty for me is being less human, okay? When I grew up in Kibera Slum, the largest slum in Africa, where people living under one dollar.

You are less human. Why? You are made to believe so. You can’t afford school fees. You can’t afford food. You can’t afford health care. So that’s the poverty.

Then social isolation becomes whereby you are put in your mind that you can’t make it. And we are put together in the slum, we are all poor, we are all struggling.

And it’s really… I don’t know how it works. It’s really interesting to study it because… poverty [means] that there is no opportunity. There is no link.

So you get that for the just poor there’re walls. So in my life I saw a wall. I saw lack of opportunity. And I just felt like I’m hopelessness.

Another thing come out about the poverty is [lack of] hope. So when you are isolated one thing that happen next is that you believe you cannot do it.

And when you are isolated, socially isolated, what comes to your mind is that if you’re not from the poverty you are like, “Those people are lazy. Those people are poor because they are not working hard.” So that’s how I feel it, you know. So for me at the age of ten my parents were so poor I ran away. I became a street boy, homeless kid eating from the garbage.

At the age of 15 I came across the book of Martin Luther King Jr., the one from the US, and I saw hope, like, “Wow. I’ve been made to believe that I can do anything. Look at this man.”

So that’s when I got my first job in the factory and I bought a soccer ball, and I started a movement. And you can see what happened. Later on we started working on girls’ education and we give people hope that they can do something. [Overcome] social isolation.

Then what happened, I met a group of Americans who were coming to my slum to see what I was doing. And there the wall fell down. I’m able to meet these people. Guess what happened? I got a scholarship and I went to Wesleyan University. You can see that, you know. So I, so social isolation really make you not connect. And that’s part of my story.

SKELLY: Thank you very much.

You’ve been dealing with, Rada, you’ve been dealing with lots of different communities in Bulgaria and so on, but particularly in the Roma community. I would imagine you can hear lots of resonances there with your work. Again, what in your experience are the consequences of the link between poverty and isolation?

STAMENKOVA: I’m usually speaking without reading but this time I brought a list because while waiting to come here I was trying to make a list of words, words that explain why there is social isolation.

Social isolation comes because you are different.

Because you are disabled.

Because you are a newcomer.

Because you are a minority.

Because you are poor.

Because you are oppressed.

Because you are a woman.

Because you are too old.

Because you are too young.

Because you live in the periphery.

Because you are less powerful.

Less educated.

Because you have difficulties to express yourself.

And many, many other “becauses.” And all these things that I, I was list-listing came with the end of because of you.

And it’s not like that. Social isolation is not because of you but it’s the isolated person.

This is because circumstances are so and because majorities in any sense expect isolated to make the steps, you know, that to become less isolated. And it’s a mutual process.

And going from there, from the general thing to the concrete work that we do with Roma minority in Bulgaria and in the neighboring countries, and Roma are the hugest ethnic minority in Europe. They are more than 15,000,000. They have life expectancy less with 12 years less than the average other populations in the country. They, they have in some regions up to 99.9% unemployment and they cannot go out of the vicious circle of poverty.

And they are isolated by the majority and by the community. And they isolate and stigmatize themselves. And we live and see the phenomenon of the ghetto in the ghetto, like the poorest from the poorest that are the most vulner-vulnerable and poverty that is the… main instrument to promote vulnerability.

And I was thinking while listening to my colleagues that there is, there is a way to get out of it. And one of the ways to get out of is to promote the good practice examples. And the other is to work with the community, in my case with the Roma community on capacity building in order to get out and get rid of that.


Lidia, just a word from you as well about your work with the Vancouver Foundation.

You work primarily, it seems to me, within an urban setting, and you’re working in a city which is we know one of the cities of successful western culture. One would imagine there wouldn’t be the same kind of isolation that we’ve, we’ve heard about so far. But what’s your experience?

KEMENY: The Vancouver Foundation actually has a provincial scope. Our work is right across the whole province. And since we started we’ve given away over $1,000,000,000 to communities and organizations across our province. So we have a fairly large scope and influence. The challenge is is that no matter how quickly we try to give away money the need is growing and growing all the time. It’s like the tap on the bottom of the bucket, you know, it just keeps running out. There’s never going to be enough and we’re never alone going to be able to solve the kinds of problems we’re seeing. So we need to engage people and we need to find allies in our province and in our cities to try and address some of the problems, which are very significant, including the highest rates of child poverty in this country. So how do we do that when we know we can’t do that as a lone, as a foundation? And why is it that over the years we started to notice that people are getting involved less, they’re giving less, and they’re caring less?

These problems became an area of huge curiosity for us because we knew that unless we can begin to understand why it is that people are getting involved more the, the poverty that we see around us is going to only increase and continue.

So two years ago we commissioned a survey called our Connect and Engage Report, and I do have a couple of copies if anyone’s interested, where we surveyed—this is what the report looks like — we surveyed 3,800 people in the metro Vancouver region, which is home to 2.3 million people, and we asked them a whole bunch of questions about their personal relationships, about their relationships and their neighborhoods, and their relationship in their community at large.

We were completely unprepared for what we learned because what we found is that people’s relationships are very shallow. They know each other but that depth of relationship is missing. People don’t trust each other. They no longer invite neighbors over to look out for their homes, or bring in their mail, or anything of that sort, and they’re choosing not to get involved.

And when we asked them, “Why aren’t you getting involved,” one of the largest, the most frequent response was people said, “We don’t get involved because we have nothing to offer.” And so that is a, you know, that’s a huge challenge for us because these people don’t feel that they have anything to offer whether it’s money, or whether it’s their energy, or whether it’s volunteer hours, or whether it’s a helping hand, or a loving hug. If you don’t feel you have anything to offer then we as a community foundation also cannot do our work.

SKELLY: Do you see when people say that or when you see it not happening does it then, in your experience, lead to a greater depth of poverty because you’re talking about that?

KEMENY: Yes, it absolutely does.

SKELLY: In what way? Can you give me an example?

KEMENY: Well, you know, one of the ways that we are looking to address this problem is through a grassroots initiative. Because what we learned in our research is that one of the key issues involved in this, in this area of social isolation is the issue of trust. So when people don’t trust each other there’s a whole ripple effect that tends to happen in communities. And what we see where there’s less trust in communities is that there tends to be much greater poverty.

So the question for us is how do we, how do we build trust. And so the way that we have decided to do that is through a grass roots movement where we’re literally giving people money to do something, anything in their neighborhood to bring neighbors together. And the only thing we ask of these people is that they do a project with someone that, that’s in that geographic neighborhood, that they spend the money the way that they say they will, and that they tell us their stories.

And what we’ve learning is that as these stories come to light is we’re beginning to see that these are like the stones that are dropping in the lake, and the ripple effect of these individual projects are having an impact not only on the people who are doing the projects and the people who get involved, but also in the community as a whole. And so there is that very direct connection between personal action, between these feelings of social isolation and beginning to what we call turn the needle on some of these huge community issues like poverty.


ODEDE: And I have something to share quickly. So, okay, so growing up in Kibera it was really good for us to listen. I was very mad and angry at the middle class, at the Kenyans who are not living in Kibera. So in Kenya I became a little bit known for our work because of my… and I got on the TV, you know. So now the Kenyans start knowing me.

Guess what? I was wrong. Really. It’s interesting. I’ve learned a lot. The who were not from the poverty, who were not from Kibera were also having the same thing. So after I’m meeting these people I started talking to them. They’re like, “You know what, Kennedy? We don’t know how to come to Kibera. How do we start? There’s no link.” You know what I mean? And everybody wanted to help. So for me that became really that when there’s social isolation there is misunderstanding. There is no communication. So right now, believe it or not, Shining Hope for Communities is changing the lives of Kenyans.

I see a doctor, a lawyer walking to Kibera Slum to be a mentor. Before they didn’t know how to do it. So for me that’s really something that really moved me that everybody wanted to help but the social isolation brought the walls.

SKELLY: Which comes back to what Sabina was saying about who has the responsibility for doing what. Just very briefly, because I want to turn the tables now on to the tables and to the discussions that you’re going to have, but if each of you could just very, very briefly give one thought to, as it were, spark the conversation on the tables when we’re talking about the connection between poverty and isolation what is the key issue that you think needs addressing, or the key question that could start the conversations in the next session?

ALKIRE: There’s so many poor communities that are rich in, in culture, and in, in relationships. And I think it’s a matter of learning from them. There’s a, a quote from Ashish Nanda, who says, you know, “The search for authenticity in this day of globalization requires the ability to interpret and reinterpret your own traditions, but also the willingness to be allies to others.”

And I think having alliances for us in Ecuador and Bhutan they’re countries that really value and are able now to articulate their value of community, and to have them teach others, and indigenous communities teach us all I think is a way to recapture what we perhaps have forgotten.

SKELLY: So what would the question be though that you would want answering by this group?

ALKIRE: I think the question is, is what are the resources we can draw on to address and confront social isolation.

SKELLY: And Kennedy what would you say?

ODEDE: So what I want to say is that how can we create the bridges. You know what I mean? And I think everybody here has a different perspective on that. And another thing I wanna say about this issue is we are all human.


STAMENKOVA: One of my favorite movies — because Kim [Samuel] was saying something this morning about favorite movies — is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. And there is a fragment saying, “Always look at the bright side of life even when you are crucified.”

I was thinking that maybe when we speak about poverty and about a particular community to think from a SWOP analysis perspective — how to convert weaknesses into strengths and how to convert threats into opportunities from the bright side. And I’m giving a hint, one of the most positive and beautiful things that we’ve been doing with the Roma communities, the creation of the figure of the health mediator, a figure from the community that is the bridge, as Kennedy said, between the vulnerable community and service providers and institutions. So to think about the wild card idea that can be used it can be a social media or something, you know, to go further.

SKELLY: And Lidia then.

KEMENY: So I think an area that is really ripe with opportunities in, in this particular conversation is the understanding that we actually have enough in the world. It’s that the distribution is completely off kilter.

And so many people have this idea that we never have enough, you know, we are not enough — we’re not thin enough, we’re not rich enough, we’re not educated enough. There’s never enough. How do we move from this place of thinking that we are not enough to feeling that we have enough?

And then that feeling of having enough, implicit in that is the sharing of those resources, of those gifts, of that time, of that love. How do we move from a place of lack to a place of gifts? You know, there’s an author, Peter Block, and if, if some of you have not read his work it’s worthwhile reading in the context of what we’re talking about.

He talks about how we need to move from a place of just thinking of ourselves as consumers of this, of this universe. How do we move from being consumers to being participants? And, and that’s really I guess my, my question is, is how do we individually move to action and what will it take for us to create the space and the environments where we can move others to action as well?

SKELLY: Well, thank you very much.