Running out of goals? Poverty remains...
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October 1, 2009
LONDON - The last century found, willy-nilly, it had goals aplenty. There was always the social goal of ending unemployment, a purpose that fired people as varied as John Maynard Keynes and Adolf Hitler. There was the goal of spreading capitalism or building socialism, depending on which side of the fence you were on. Later there was the goal of defeating fascism and later still communism. Then there was the goal of ending war and the creation of a United Nations. Not least there was the goal of spreading democracy and, hard on its heels, ending colonialism. Finally, and most recently, there was the goal of spreading human rights. It was appropriate that just before the century ended on July 17th 1998, 120 nations voted (but not the U.S., China, India and Israel) to adopt a statute creating an International Criminal Court to try war crimes.
What goals are left for this century's new generations? It would be hard to make a list to rival the above for substance. But that is understandable. As the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, "Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards". Still, one unfinished task stands out head and shoulders above all others: it is to end poverty. There are around 800 million people living in poverty, a large number but not an overwhelming number when one considers how fast the world's population has grown the last 50 years and how most of those have found a way through life without falling into poverty.
Yet poverty is as misunderstood as any subject can be. We don't even understand what causes it. John Kenneth Galbraith in his essay, "The Nature of Mass Poverty", asks if it is because of differences in natural resources? Obviously not, or Japan would be among the poorest in the world. Is it the legacy of colonialism? But many of the former English-speaking colonies are now better off than the mother country, while uncolonized Ethiopia and Nepal remain poor.
Poverty is enormously difficult to put one's finger on. Poverty at one extreme we can recognize - no clothes, no food, inadequate shelter and bad health. But a notch above the bottom level it can become an elusive phenomenon. George Gershwin, suggesting poverty was at least partly a state of mind, made Porgy in "Porgy and Bess" sing: "Oh, I got plenty o'nuttin, an' nuttin's plenty for me; I got no car, got no mule, got no misery."
Is poverty then an absolute or a relative state? Karl Marx, confronting the question, surmised: "Whether the house be large or small, it meets all that is required of a dwelling from the social point of view as long as the surrounding houses are of the same size. If a palace is erected besides it, however, the little house shrivels up to become a hut".
In his mammoth study of some twenty years ago, "Poverty in the United Kingdom", Professor Peter Townsend of the London School of Economics, came to a similar conclusion, "Poverty is the absence of or inadequacy of those diets, amenities, standards, services and activities which are common and customary in society".
But to think of poverty in world terms as a relative condition opens up a Pandora's Box. As the World Bank has often observed, current trends show that gap between many of the developing countries and the industrialized world may not be narrowing. "Even if these developing countries were to manage to double their per capita growth rate, while the industrialized world maintained its, it would take almost a century to close the absolute income gap between them, so great are the differences in capital and the technological base of the two groups".
This leaves many observers wondering what hope there is for the bottom half of the Third World. Yet for many years, as the World Bank has admitted, its figures underestimated the income of poor countries. The Bank used to measure income by looking at its foreign exchange value. Now it prefers to look at income in terms of purchasing power within the local economy. This compelled the Bank to raise India's income by three and a half fold. One should also in a society that is dominated by the subsistence economy add in what villagers earn in kind rather than in cash. A peasant's home-made house and home-made clothes, although not part of the cash economy, have a value.
Once the Bank started to measure and compare economies in this way it found that ratio of income between poverty stricken and industrialized countries was not widening; quite the reverse.
All this is to merely illustrate how complicated it is to make meaningful relative comparisons that carry conviction across cultural and social boundaries. But, however the figures are juggled, there are those that feel that this is missing the point.
One such is Albert Tevoedjre, from Benin in West Africa, a former deputy director-general of the International Labour Organization. In his book, "Poverty, Wealth of Mankind" he debunks the urge of the Third World to "catch up". "Why should the Third World", he asks, "adopt a model that has broken down and has sometimes even turned out to be positively harmful? If the Third World insists on judging its performance by how well it emulates the West it will never learn to stand on its own two feet".
The only poverty that matters to Tevoedjre is the poverty one can recognize in the dark - rice bowls half empty, putrid water, kwashiorkor and river blindness, no school, no health clinics and no land. This, he says, is the poverty that could be solved for the most part by a better use of the present resources allocated for "development" and, what is more, could be solved reasonably quickly.
Relative concepts, in truth, don't take us very far. The prospects of ending poverty so defined look hopeless. Only the utopia of egalitarianism at some distant date can provide an answer to the rat race. This may make sense for a hard-bitten Marxist, an ever hopeful socialist or even an ambitious capitalist. But for those who have a sense of priorities and possibilities, only a commitment to provide mankind's basic needs can produce tangible dividends.
There is no country in the world which if it redirected its resources away from the military, from the overpaid, under employed civil service or from large scale infrastructure projects could not change the face on human poverty within a decade. Nor is there any aid giver in the industrialised world which could not match such an effort by a judicious re-ordering of its present aid budget, without added expenditure.
Yes, it would take only a decade of this century, two at the most. Every twenty year old idealist could see the results well before he or she were 40. Then? Then they would have to find some other goal to go for.
Copyright © 2009 Jonathan
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of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging
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hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.
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