Panel featuring Katherine Boo outlines strategies for anti-poverty initiatives

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Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, spoke on campus Friday at a panel addressing anti-poverty strategies.

The panel — entitled “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: What Works for Tackling Poverty” — was a part of the campus’s On the Same Page Program, a campuswide reading initiative.

Panelists included Jason Corburn, associate professor in the campus’s department of city and regional planning; Tapan Parikh, associate professor in the campus School of Information; and Isha Ray, associate professor with the campus’s Energy & Resources Group.

Panelists agreed that it is necessary to include the urban poor’s wants and needs when creating new policy and structural changes.

“We need to prioritize and place at the center folks who are in slums,” Corburn said. “They need support, but they don’t need to be told what to do. They have lots of innovation and ideas.”

Panelists also acknowledged the rise of public health crises in extremely poor countries, with residents becoming “constantly sick from everything” because of impotable water and lack of access to safe energy sources, Ray said.

According to Ray, without access to clean water and energy, it will be difficult to alleviate the plight of impoverished nations.

Ray also emphasized the importance of the state as a possible tool for solving extreme poverty. She acknowledged the work of private organizations, such as nongovernmental organizations, but said government intervention is necessary for serious transformation.

“The state has a certain reach that is very difficult for other entities to have if you really want to think about affecting thousands and thousands of households,” Ray said. “That being said, it’s really not the case that all states are ready for that challenge or willing to rise to that challenge.”

Parikh agreed, adding that this transformation can be achieved in the local governments and not just at the national level. He also noted that rather than simply focusing on numerical results, all aspects of data collection must be scrutinized in order to truly understand and interpret them.

“It still seems that people think of data as an object and as objective truth,” Parikh said. “When you just focus on that end product of the data, you forget that data is a process of turning our experience into some recorded form and can be used strategically and tactically in various situations.”

Alex Hughes-Smith, a first-year graduate student in the campus’s development practice program, said he was very interested in Parikh’s opinions on data.

“What I’m taking from this a bit more is that the story is more nuanced and more complex than a large data set can tell you, and academics sometimes forget that and they want data to be everything,” Hughes-Smith said.

The panelists also noted that ordinary people, such as students, can help end poverty. Individuals don’t need to travel far to see poverty, Corburn said, because it can often be found “in our own (local) communities,” such as on campus or in the city of Berkeley.

Boo added that there is no “right” way to fight poverty and that a one-size-fits-all approach will not be efficient in solving problems in severely impoverished nations.

“What you do has to be related to something that you care about,” Boo said. “You have to figure out what motivates you.”

Boo is working on improving specific social programs while also writing new material.

“I get money to come here to Berkeley, so I’m going to be spending it in the community on, I hope, useful things while I work on another writing project,” Boo said.

Contact Emma Soldon at [email protected].