by David Oliphant
According to the latest living conditions survey of 2008/09 – around 52.3% of the population are living below R577 a month while 26 .6% of the population have passed matric with a qualification required to enter a university institution.These statistics speak to a structural cause and effect that slows both economic and personal growth in the individual and society as a whole. The consequence of a decreased access to education is often a decreased economic ability later in life – and with 77.4% of South Africa not meeting university entry requirements, more than half of our population being affected by severe poverty has become a perpetuated result.

Education is not simply a means to an end – it stimulates the capacity for a much more intuitive thinking and a more advanced cognitive skills-set – attributes that might not have been present had education been absent. It offers different thought and contrasting opinion. We are introduced to new ways of life and new paths of understanding on a socio-economic level. Essentially, it empowers what you as an individual are able to achieve simply because your parameters for success have broadened to include a skills-set which may improve your access to quality social services. With an increased economic ability, our ability to choose in society is improved upon, our parameters widen even more and our economic position in society is now sustained because we have found sustainable methods of maintaining our standard of living through a stable income stream – a sustainability which underpins positive social progress of the individual and ultimately society as a whole.Yes, I have described the ideal world, but how can we achieve sustainable progress for all, if our thinking is not at least a bit idealistic – within the framework of reality of course.

The point I am trying to underline is the degree to which education can empower the individual, remove social stereotypes and promote a societal understanding that moves towards sustainability. In the words of the late American Civil Rights Activist, Barbara Jordan – “Education remains the key to both economic and political freedom.” Seems a perfectly fundamental theory does it not – very fundamental indeed. Education does not only allow you choice, it changes your perception to the choices at your disposal. Choice then ushers in freedom, or a degree of freedom, via our inherent perceptions – perceptions which ultimately form our understanding regarding what we feel we are able to achieve within society’s structures.Perceptions are tricky though – developing a perception hinges on two things, the extrinsic and the intrinsic:

  1. The extrinsic factors are the provisions society has to care for us individuals such as the access to quality social services, for example education, security, etc.
  2.  The intrinsic are our inherent reactions to the environment around us – in this case, our reaction and understanding towards the either adequate or limited access to quality social services.

Both these factors must be understood and quantified to understand a particular perception regarding economic freedom and the consequences thereof. To put into context the perception held by the poverty affected population of our country, we must recognise the extrinsic factors which contribute to their intrinsic thoughts.

These perceptions are unfortunately passed from generation to generation. A father gripped by poverty will have his work cut out for him to alleviate the circumstances affecting his children, circumstance which many of those children may succumb to later in life. Similarly, children born into an affluent society will find it difficult to backslide into a poverty affected environment – this represents the passive consequence of your environment – passive in the sense that poverty, or affluent circumstance, becomes an inherited consciousness for the generations born into it.

But this same humanistic, habitual nature can also provide us with a solution geared specifically to changing the collective consciousness from being hinged on the external environment to one guided by internal desire – a perception can be engineered which will redefine what the majority of our population is capable of. A social engineering focused on providing the ideologies necessary of a sustainable society.

Social engineering has roots in the Neuro-scientific theory of how human society has developed (Social Intelligence – Daniel Goleman). Neuroscience suggests that humans have developed so much faster than any other species simply because of the much more advanced neurons in our brain which carry hereditary information regarding social constructs, understanding and even perception forming information – these are called mirror neurons – simply put, these neurons try their utmost to observe and copy the actions of our environment – both for purposes of development and survival. Even more fascinating is that these neurons go further and attach these observations not to specific movements, but rather specific goals we as individuals hold within society (Scientific American – Ben Thomas) – therefore, animals might only recognise action through their observation of each other, whereas humans try and align the actions with certain goals we have outlined. If these goals could be innovatively engineered to empower society then a new consciousness would have been formed – a consciousness aware of your inherent potential and a perception which strives to achieve that potential. But all it takes is for one generation to become economically empowered; one member of the family to have achieved a tertiary qualification and by this display of what is possible, society will know what can be achieved.

Again, it is idealistic, but over the long-term, with the proper structures and methods of implementation defined, it does remain possible.

When humans feel empowered, perceptions change, a willingness to achieve is fostered, economic ability increases and freedom of choice becomes a reality. By the physiological nature of our species, this process can become habitual – our mirror neurons kick and this consciousness of understanding is adopted by society around you – but, government must endeavour to ensure this consciousness becomes a result of their policy and legislation.

This type of understanding has been achieved in Asia after governments focused their efforts to shift the perceptions of individuals to believe in the structures of society and ultimately believe in their inherent potential (Rural Poverty Portal – University of London). For example, poverty in Asia was reduced by 50% in 10 years because government’s priority in that period was to take internet and telecommunication solutions to rural areas to educate and ultimately empower the rural population. In this way, government made service delivery a priority within society. When the access to this social service was improved, perceptions changed, a new consciousness was formed and poverty alleviation became a reality. To this day, the created perception continues to passively reverse the effects of poverty from one generation to the next.

Another success case of this theory is India and the social business called Grameen Bank. Grameen Bank is similar to the World Bank but it focuses on micro-lending to the poor of India, and now other countries across the world, to firstly improve their economic ability in society and secondly, to monitor the debt borrowed and ensure that it develops into a beneficial entrepreneurial venture for the borrower. This has greatly aided in developing and ultimately uplifting much of India from severe structural poverty. These communities are now, through these micro-loans, able to open their own businesses, educate their children, feed their families and ultimately, empower themselves and the society around them by becoming conscious consumers, able to better their economic position in the long-term and alleviate their poverty affected circumstance – please read the book, Creating a World Without Poverty, by Muhammad Yunus.

Social re-engineering is therefore a possibility, a reality and most of all, a sustainable means to eradicating poverty.  It focuses on goals of educating society regarding the successes available to them, developing the structures within which to succeed and thereby change the consciousness society has towards what we are able to achieve.  The benefit over and above all of this will be the passive nature by which each generation to follow will inherit and emulate the ideals of those that have come before them – it is our duty to foster ideals towards positive social progress.

Personally, we have begun the structures to promote these ideals. In Cape Town, South Africa, a NPO called The Euclid Society was formed in 2014 to address the consciousness of poverty affected South Africa. We hope to be a display for what is possible and form a medium through which those possibilities may be realised. We begin work in March 2014 and we will continue to update society regarding the social benefit we have achieved and endeavour to achieve in the future.