Resources, Privileges and Underprivileged Communities


The general term ‘underprivileged community' (UPC) is applied to a large number of social groups, in fact to a majority of the human race. It is used to refer to ethnic, religious, cultural, social, political and economic groups. It is employed with reference to small minorities, regional linguistic groups, and even to nations as a whole. The same term is used to denote both primitive tribal communities which have remained isolated from the mainstream of modern civilization and communities which have been forcefully deprived of their heritage by the actions of a powerful adversary from within or outside their society.

Obviously any term which is used in so many different ways and to refer to so many different social situations loses something of its value as a concept for social scientists. This does not imply that any of the usages are wrong, only that a further classification is required for purposes of precision. This becomes of the utmost importance when the objective is to evolve strategies and recommend programmes to improve the social conditions of these people. Therefore we propose to examine this concept in detail, to categorize and subdivide the various groups falling under this broad heading to distinguish those whose condition arise from different causes and whose upliftment can be only brought about by different remedies.

Relationship between Resources and Privileges

All the communities identified as UPCs share a single characteristic: they lack a privilege, right, advantage or benefit which other communities possess. But in all cases the privilege which is lacking and the reason for the deficiency are not the same. On closer examination we discover that the privileges are many and the causes of the deficit are many too.

Privilege is based on the possession of or access to a resource - physical, social or psychological. Those who possess the resource obtain a power or advantage from it which expresses as a benefit or privilege to that community. Those who do not possess or have access to the resource or are unable to utilize it lack the power and the privilege.

There is a commonly held notion that all UPCs have been the victims of conscious oppression and exploitation by more powerful and prosperous communities. But this is an erroneous and overly simplified view. Possession or access to a privilege may be the result of natural conditions such as geography or material resources. Those living in favorable habitats such as a fertile valley gain an adaptive advantage and develop faster and further than those living in less hospitable environments. Privilege also derives from social factors such as education. As educated population is able to respond more effectively to new life opportunities and new technologies. In addition to physical and social conditions, privilege is determined by cultural and psychological factors as well. For example, a community in which traits of individual initiative and risk-taking are dominant can avail of enormous opportunities open to the enterprising pioneer, whereas communities in which authority and social harmony are dominant values may be slower or innovate.

Four Types of UPCs

Possession of, access to and the capacity to utilize a physical, social or psychological resource may be acquired in several ways. Conversely, the lack of a resource which is the basis of underprivileged status may be the result of several conditions. The first, which has already been noted, is simply the coincidence of nature. Certain communities benefit from more advantageous natural or social conditions than others. These communities develop politically, economically, or socially at a more rapid pace; while the less fortunate, less privileged develop more slowly and remain backward or primitive. Note that in this case backwardness is not the result of any outside agency, but simply a natural condition.

The possession of any resource and the privilege it bestows tend to be accompanied by additional advantages. For instance, educational privilege generated by the proximity of a school opens better opportunities for employment and a higher status in society. Therefore we can speak of "compound privileges", advantages which provide multidimensional benefits to the privileged. Conversely, those who lack one basic privilege often lack a host of others as well. The educationally backward also tend to be economically and socially backward. When the factors contributing to backwardness are many - absence of material resources, absence of social infrastructure, absence of psychological capacities - we may refer to the community as "deprived". Here too the term is used in the passive sense and does not imply that someone has actively deprived this group.

But there are innumerable instances where a UPC is the direct object of discrimination by another group. A more privileged community which possesses or controls physical and social resources utilizes those resources for their own exclusive benefit and denies access to others. Certain groups are excluded from access to education, political office, high paying jobs, prestigious social positions, so that all benefits of these privileges are denied to them.

Finally there are instances where one community is consciously exploited for the benefit of another. One group is intentionally denied access to resources and privileges which others enjoy because the others obtain some direct advantage from that denial. Exploited UPCs are often dispossessed of resources like land which they once enjoyed or are victims of more violent forms of exploitation like enforced labour.

We have now identified four major categories of UPCs: Backward communities whose lack of a particular resource results in retarded development in a particular field; Deprived UPCs which lack several major resources and privileges available to others; Excluded UPCs which are intentionally denied certain resources and privileges; and Exploited UPCs which are oppressed for the benefit of another group.

Difficulties in Categorizing UPCs

In practice a particular community may fall in more than one of these categories with respect to different resources and at different points of time. For instance, in the 17th and 18th centuries the coastal tribes of Western Africa lagged far behind Europe in the development of technology. Consequently they were powerless against the modern weapons of European slave traders and were easily captured and transported to the New World to do forced labour. The Backward UPCs of Africa became then the Exploited UPCs in North America working on tobacco and cotton plantations in the southern colonies. About two hundred years later, after the American Civil War slavery was abolished and the more overt forms of exploitation were eliminated. The former slaves found themselves ostensibly free in a country thousands of miles from their homeland, but they lacked nearly all the resources necessary for development. They had neither land, nor capital, nor technology, nor education, nor skills. In many areas they were actively barred from schools and all but the most menial jobs. These people now became an Excluded UPC. During the last 30 years American society has attempted to improve the position of this minority by banning discrimination against blacks in schools and jobs and by an active programme of support through scholarships, business loans, and job reservations. Though racial discrimination has been outlawed, functional discrimination remains since a large proportion of black Americans lack the education, skills and experience required for access to higher levels of privilege. Moreover, several centuries of exploitation and discrimination by a hostile society have prevented the development of positive psychological resources and constructive social attitudes making achievement in this highly competitive society more difficult. What 300 years ago was a technologically and economically Backward UPC simply by virtue of its isolation from Europe has become a Deprived UPC as a result of exploitation by and exclusion from the society in which it lives.

This example illustrates the difficulty in categorizing UPCs. It points to the inadequacy of broad generalized explanations regarding the origin of underprivileged status in each particular case. It also underlines the need for evolving remedial strategies specifically tailored to the past experience and present circumstances of each particular group.

Privileges Derived from Physical Resources

The relationship between privileges and underprivileged communities can be examined in detail with reference to physical, social and psychological resources.

  • Geography: The most basic of all physical resources is natural geography. Some nations are blessed by protective features like mountains, deserts, rivers and oceans which provide a natural fortification for defense. Favourable geography can provide a military advantage over other people and communal security against attack. This power and security are forms of social privilege which bestow an adaptive advantage on the community which possesses them. Violent storms at sea destroyed two huge Mongolian fleets attempting invasion of Japan during the 13th century and for the following 600 years Japan's geographic isolation assured it freedom from any foreign threat until the arrival of the American fleet in 1854. This tranquil security enabled the Japanese to evolve a harmonious society and closely-knit national identity which were the basis for its rapid rise as a world power during the last century. England benefited by its geographic insulation from turmoils on the Continent, thereby enabling it to evolve into the first modern nation state.

Conversely there are many peoples exposed to the constant threat and scourge of war because of indefensible natural boundaries. Ancient Palestine was at the cross-roads of early civilization and was subjected to wave after wave of invasion and subjection whi