Message from NSTF Executive Director

What to do about poverty?

Understanding how poverty is a wicked problem

Poverty is an ongoing ‘wicked’ problem. That is to say a complex problem requiring extraordinary problem-solving skills. Wikipedia defines a ‘wicked problem’ as follows:

“A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”

Strategies for tackling wicked problems fall into three areas:

* Authoritative: with the responsibility for solving the problem falls under a few people. It reduces complexity making it easier to deal with yet this also reduces the many perspectives to the problem.

* Competitive: pitting opposing points of view with aligned solutions against each other. While creating an environment for the best solution it is also counterproductive for knowledge sharing, is confrontational, and is self-interest driven.

* Collaborative: where all stakeholders are engaged to reach the best solution. This is time consuming and complex.

Consider addressing poverty at a national level, and how this falls within the above strategies. The Authoritative and Competitive strategies do not seem very useful – yet these are the strategies that tend to be used in politics. Authoritative approaches often do not draw on various strengths and insights to solve the problem. Party politics, on which our democracy is based, are premised on a competitive and confrontational approach. This leads to parties investing most of their efforts in mutual competition instead of working together to solve problems.

The most viable strategy appears to be the collaborative approach, where a common understanding is sought and all stakeholders are involved. This is the approach promoted by the National Development Plan (NDP) and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Partnerships and collaboration are crucial
NSTF recently hosted a discussion forum on the SDGs. Eradicating poverty features prominently among the SDGs, explicitly addressed in Goal 1. However, progress on all the SDGs would have a positive effect on reducing poverty.

The SDGs acknowledge that partnerships are crucial for the attainment of the goals (Goal 17). This goal states: “A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.”

This is the NSTF’s purpose – to promote dialogue, debate and collaboration among Government, private sector and civil society – making NSTF the ideal platform for making progress on the SDGs by finding common ground among stakeholders.

NDP says small businesses will create employment
The NDP also gives poverty the attention it deserves. Ultimately, the NDP advises that small businesses will make a huge difference, by creating employment and contributing to economic growth. But how do we get there?

The first problem is the regulatory environment for SMMEs. Compliance is onerous, with SMMEs subject to similar requirements for big business. (See the Companies Act.)

Compliance involves resources – legal fees, administrative labour, and perhaps remuneration or stipends for company directors to ensure that the company has committed directors to make its board sustainable. Simplifying and streamlining Government bureaucracy to ease this burden on small business would go some way towards creating a more sustainable business environment.

Creating a culture of entrepreneurship – believing in your ability to change lives
The other problem is that a culture of entrepreneurship is a precondition for the healthy growth of small business numbers. What would it take to create such a culture? People need to have a sense that they can make a difference to their own lives and those of others, a sense of agency and self-confidence. At the same time, poverty and unemployment undermine precisely these necessary attitudes.

One of the solutions is education. If children are raised in a manner that doesn’t reproduce the traditional culture of obedience and submissiveness, there is an opportunity as  adults for them to take initiative.

A sense of agency is also related to the ability to innovate. There is much talk about the importance of innovation in the economy, and in science and technology. All the policy and regulatory mechanisms and directives will make no difference, if people do not believe in their own abilities to change their lives.

Let us know your comments in this regard.