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How do we talk about poverty? An Ecolinguistic Perspective on The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal ‘No Poverty’

By: Denise Abrahamsen

In 2015, the UN’s 17 SDGs were adopted by world heads of state and heads of government at the United Nations Summit in New York. The first goal deals with ending poverty, and especially extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as a daily income of $1.9, which equates to approximately DKK 13. 

In a conversation, Sune Vork Steffensen, Professor of language, interaction and cognition, Head of the Centre for Human Interactivity and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Language Sciences, suggests how we can use ecolinguistics partly to understand how we are talking about poverty, but also what considerations are at play when someone lives in poverty while others live in wealth.

Aims of ecolinguistics

Ecolinguistics concerns how languages are linked to the outside world.

‘Ecolinguistics examines how the creation of meaning occurs not only in a closed communicative space, but how it has biological and ecological consequences; not just for the individual, but for the whole,’ says Sune Vork Steffensen.

At the same time, ecolinguistics also has an interest in examining how linguistic categories cause us to divide the world into phenomena that as a rule are mutually exclusive. Sune Vork Steffensen says that it could be contradictions such as nature and culture and human and the world, but adds that an interesting aspect is also the relationship between rich and poor.

‘A central point of ecolinguistics is precisely the importance of how language enters into our interaction with each other and thereby acquires meaning,’ says Sune Vork Steffensen, which is interesting when we examine how we understand and relate to a sustainable development goal such as ‘No Poverty’, which first of all is defined by economic terms. 

How do we talk about poverty?

Indeed, the World Bank defines extreme poverty as a personal income of less than $1.9 (DKK 13) a day. 

‘When someone says the poverty line is DKK 13, it is an economic operationalisation of what we understand as poverty,’ Sune Vork Steffensen says. He points out that it is a criterion which assumes that all people are paid in a labour market, thereby completely overlooking the possibility that humans can live rich and meaningful lives without buying and selling labour and goods in a market.

He elaborates in this context that ‘such criteria can both help generate attention but also have the opposite effect’ and explains that when one criterion is established, it may result in other criteria falling into the background.

‘It can establish the idea that as long as you are not down to DKK 13 a day, then there is no problem,’ he says, pointing out that the SDG caters for the sensitivity that is also important in the discussion about poverty.

We need to remember the sensitivity 

‘If we only speak in absolute terms: poverty, growth and zero growth, then we don’t involve the sensitivity of local differences,’ says Sune Vork Steffensen.

He points out that the ‘No Poverty’ goal has to do a lot of diverse work, since the work needed to end poverty in one area is not necessarily the same kind of work in another country.

‘The belief that the same effort fits all cultures and localities is a neoliberalist mindset,’ says Sune Vork Steffensen, explaining that in order to solve the poverty problem, you will have to delve into different norms, structures and values. This is the best way to find out how different solutions can be made sustainable, including for the people who have the most at stake in the specific context.

In this context, Sune Vork Steffensen also questions how no poverty should be understood: ‘The phrase ‘No Poverty!’ is semantically ambiguous,’ he says, asking: ‘Is it about donating money to poor countries and regions, or is this a major change of structures? And because it is not unambiguously given, many can approve the goal – on paper.’

Is it about donating money to poor countries and regions or is there a major rearrangement of structures?
Who does the responsibility lie with?

There are different ways of talking about guilt and responsibility in a discussion about poverty, says Sune Vork Steffensen, explaining that this way is twofold:

‘On the one hand, there is a guilt-based way of talking about poverty, where global poverty is a result of the economic systems that have been spread to the Global South and from which particular populations have benefited.  A classic leftist would say that we have a duty to compensate for it or make up for it.’ 

On the other hand, there is a model that reads: ‘We live here and they live there. Why should we care about them and how can their situation be our responsibility?’ 

Thus, a field of tension arises in which the two sides probably will never meet in a meaningful conversation.
‘Unless we involve ethical theories and considerations that say we have a duty to take care others,’ says Sune Vork Steffensen, adding that this opens up an even greater discussion on how best to do just that. 

Ending poverty and research at SDU

In a conversation regarding researcher’ inclusion of the SDGs at SDU, Sune Vork Steffensen points to two causal explanations that may underlie why ending poverty may not have as much impact as some of the other SDGs:

‘If a Danish researcher today says that we must end poverty and dismantle an economic system that takes resources from those who have too little and gives to those who already have too much – there will be a political reaction,’ he explains. Many researchers need to apply for external funding, and therefore might be careful about what they research. 

However, Sune Vork Steffensen states that at SDU, a strong emphasis is placed on research and academic freedom, pointing towards Sune Vork Steffensen’s other possible causal explanation:

‘Often it is also about local traditions of what is being researched at each university,’ he says, explaining that just because the SDU works with the SDGs, there is no requirement that one’s research must fit like a glove in every SDG. 

In an ecolinguistic mindset that emphasises the relationship between human and the outside world and focuses on how language has an impact on how we understand not only ourselves and each other, but also the greater whole, Sune Vork Steffensen concludes with the following comment on ending poverty:

‘We owe it to help those who do not have sufficient resources. We must look at the whole and humanity of the outside world, which makes all people have the opportunity to live a life that they find decent and meaningful.’

Last Updated 27.01.2023