Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ending Poverty

I scrubbed my kitchen floor today! People are coming over for Thanksgiving! Oy! But the novel, she sits, lonely and neglected.

I also recently wrote a newsletter article about the next lecture for the series. Here it is:

In Matthew 26:11, Jesus said: “the poor you will always have with you,” to disciples criticizing a woman who poured expensive perfume on Christ’s head just before his crucifixion. As Steve F. at the blog Ragamuffin Ramblings put it: “For me, the real danger is that we hear ‘The poor you will always have with you...’ and we allow the unspoken tagline to be ‘...so screw 'em - we can't fix 'em all, anyway.’ However, if you look at the record of Christ's work while here on earth, it shows that he spent much, much more time healing, feeding, and restoring ‘the least of these’ than he did anything else. Sure, Jesus didn't heal them all, or feed them all - but that's no reason not to make efforts to try a priority.”

In macroeconomist Jeffrey Sachs’ book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, Sachs argues that this is the first time in history we have a real chance to end extreme poverty in our lifetimes. In countries blessed by fertile soil, long coastlines and other advantages, humans have overcome the technological hurdles to putting food into hungry bellies and shelter over homeless men, women and children. The last hurdle left is to make it universal: here and abroad.

There are about 6.5 billion people in the world. About one-sixth, just over 1 billion people, live in extreme poverty – on less than $1 per day, hungry, without safe drinking water, sanitation, health care, education for their children, and possibly without shelter. 93% of those people live in East Asia, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Another 1.5 billion people are “poor” – they have food and shelter, but live just over the subsistence level. The extreme poor and poor together comprise 40% of our fellow earthlings.

Then there are about 2.5 billion people in “middle income” households, with incomes of a few thousand dollars per year, who eat enough, have decent shelter (possibly with indoor plumbing) and can send their children to school. The remaining 1 to 1.5 billion are people like us, who live in the high-income world of abundant food, big houses, cars, computers, toys.

Sachs’ view is that economic development is like a ladder. Once a country is on the bottom rung, hard work and accountable management will, over time, continue to move the people up the ladder to better standards of living. But people in extreme poverty are standing on tiptoe way under the ladder and can’t even graze the bottom rung with the tips of their outstretched fingers.

Sachs also believes that donor intervention by the IMF, World Bank, rich-country governments, and non-governmental organizations will not be effective if it’s applied, as it has been, one-size-fits-all: “Open your markets, tighten your belts, pay your debts.” He practices “clinical economics,” diagnosing the problems that keep a country in poverty: demographic trends, land-locked geography, endemic malaria, frequent droughts, unpaved roads, high debt-servicing costs and dozens of other relevant factors. Just as in medicine, diagnosis permits targeted treatment: debt relief, and large, effective investments to bring agriculture, basic health, safe drinking water, sanitation, education, power, transportation, communication and other vital systems up to the threshold where people can begin to take care of themselves sustainably.

True, rich countries have exploited, and continue to exploit, the people and resources of developing nations. True, rich countries have been extremely stingy in providing foreign aid: during the “heyday” of the Marshall Plan, U.S. aid to other countries was 2% of GNP. By 2004, U.S. Official Development Assistance was $15 billion: 0.14% of GNP.

Corruption, guilt, despair, fears about global warming, over-consumption and overpopulation also sap public will, but those are practical concerns with practical, field-tested solutions. For example, village control of aid money promotes open, honest administration of donor funds, and improved maternal and child health and education lower fertility rates, as women are empowered to choose to have fewer children, so they can better care for each one, creating cycles of improvement from one generation to the next while reducing population.

Those facts – the overwhelming power and resources at rich countries’ disposal, and poor people’s proven ability to use generous, targeted help to create conditions of self-sufficiency – underpin the argument that the power and money could be effectively used to lift the poorest of the poor up to the bottom rung. As Bono puts it at the One Campaign: “It’s not about charity. It’s about justice.”

(Other recommended reading: Joseph Stiglitz’ Globalization and Its Discontents.)


  • Hi KW! I work with the ONE Campaign and I just came across your blog, and I wanted to say thanks for the great post regarding ONE and poverty in the world. I also wanted to see if it might be possible for ONE to add your blog to our list of supporters? We're currently in the process of updating and restructuring our blog page,in an effort to build up the poverty/AIDS blogoshpere, and we would love to add yours to our list. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns you might have, at: meagan@data.org. Thanks again for your support, and I look forward to hearing from you soon!

    Meagan McManus
    The ONE Campaign

    By Blogger Meagan, At 10:35 AM  

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