The Power of Aspiring to More
Written by Katharina Hammler, Methodology and Investigations
Do you think of modesty and contentment as important virtues? If so, you wouldn’t be alone . But what if these virtues were actually holding people back in life?
The anthropologist Arjan Appadurai suggests that being content with the life one leads and not wishing for more may actually stand in the way of climbing out of poverty. Appadurai proposes that in addition to other skills, people need the capacity to aspire to a better life in order to overcome poverty. Namely, they need to be able to imagine a better future for themselves and believe it is a viable option.
To illustrate this point, ask yourself the following question: What steps have you taken to buy a two-story beach-front house? Chances are, your answer is “none.” Now, you might say that you have not taken any steps because you do not plan to buy such a home, or you do not even want one. But is that really true? Do you really not want a two-story beach-front house, or do you simply view it as something you could not obtain and thus, avoid wasting any energy thinking about it?
Appadurai proposes that something similar explains why families who live in poverty do not invest sufficiently in the education of their children, have a modern bathroom or fiercely demand the municipal government to pave roads. They might not see those things as something they could actually obtain.
What people aspire to and what they see as achievable in their lives are influenced to a large degree by the surrounding social structures and the opportunities available to them. People form aspirations for their own lives based on what others who seem similar to them have achieved. This puts those living in poverty at a double disadvantage; not only do they have to live with hardships, but their situation might also limit their capacity to aspire to more.
Debraj Ray, an economist, believes that this limitation can create a poverty trap. He thinks that people form aspiration windows which contain the different realities that people come to see as possible for themselves. Ray refers to the difference between someone’s current reality and their aspiration window as the “aspiration gap,” and suggests that people will only work to overcome this gap if the efforts required to close it appear small compared to the improvements they expect for their lives. Hence, people will only try to improve their situation if they believe that an improvement is possible , and the gap is neither too small (which would mean diminutive benefits from improvement) nor too big (which would mean that too much effort is required). In other words, people may experience an aspiration failure and get stuck in poverty simply because they fail to imagine a pathway out.
The Poverty Stoplight program can help people overcome such aspiration failures by helping them expand their aspiration windows and overcome their gaps. For instance, the Poverty Stoplight can show that being “green” is possible, by demonstrating that one’s goal is in fact within reach through positive behavior in the community. It can also decrease the perceived or actual cost of achieving a goal by helping people identify resources available to them, or by enabling them to develop strategies to create such resources. By helping people analyze the value of being “green” in an indicator for their own lives, the Poverty Stoplight helps increase the perceived benefit of reaching an objective and creates positive feedback loops for individuals and families in the community.
Fundación Paraguaya firmly believes in the power of aspiring to more. Research indicates that clients who participate in the Poverty Stoplight program move out of poverty up to three times faster than clients who only receive microfinance assistance. An ongoing research from the Institute of Development Studies explores this finding in more depth, asking what role agency, empowerment, and aspirations play when people use the Poverty Stoplight to guide their pathway out of poverty. Some interesting findings have already emerged from thisresearch. For instance, in a participatory mapping exercise, about half of the participants spontaneously said that the Poverty Stoplight program helped them believe in a better future for themselves without having been asked about the concept first.
Being content with what one has might be a virtue, and it might even help people feel happy about their lives; however, when it comes to eliminating poverty, it can be a handicap. The capacity to aspire to a better life is an important resource for the pathway out of poverty, and needs to be nurtured and trained just like any other skill or capacity. The Poverty Stoplight can help to do just that.