By Connor J. Wangler
Before one can help “the poor,” one must understand who exactly “the poor” are. Economic and developmental definitions are often the primary means used in describing what makes a person poor. Many consider anyone making between $1 to $4 per day to fall under the classification of “poor.” In a 2009 Ted talk, Jacqueline Novogratz argues to be labeled as poor requires a much more complex set of circumstances, income only being one variable. Poor, to her, should be defined on one’s ability to make decisions. Whether one can choose a job without affecting their dignity, or whether one can choose to live in safe and healthy conditions, are examples of these decisions.
The global discourse on eliminating extreme poverty has been ongoing for hundreds of years. Henry George wrote one of the earliest works on poverty reduction in 1879 by focusing on why poverty exists. His work led to a school of economic thought, known as georgism, focusing on enabling the poor to raise themselves out of poverty. Jacqueline Novogratz promotes this idea in her TED talk in 2005. She urges those leading the world in development aid to “build viable systems on the ground that deliver critical and affordable goods and services to the poor in ways that are financially sustainable and scalable.” Novogratz sees this as an opportunity for innovation in creating new types of business. In essence, she claims poverty can only be reduced by giving the impoverished the means to provide for themselves in ways that can grow in scale as capacity and demand allows.
This worldwide campaign reached a new level of organization in 2000 when the United Nations released the Millennium Development Goals, “a global agenda of inter-connected development goals.” The Millennium Declaration identified specific areas as the main challenges to global development. These goals include: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development.
The MDGs are often juxtaposed against neoliberal economic policies that were purported by leading international institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF. Neoliberalism was meant to remove government regulation on markets to encourage growth in developing countries. The unfortunate consequences of these policies were cutting government expenditures on social services and effectively removing any safety-net for the poor. Neoliberalism also deregulated economies allowing for transnational corporations to gain control of local markets and prevent local economies from growing. The MDGs, on the other hand, attempt to build local economies from the ground up placing the responsibility within the hands of those benefitting from this growth.
The campaign to eliminate extreme poverty is not without its bumps. Many international institutions and global powers have been reluctant to accept the MDGs for a variety of reasons. In 2013, John McArthur argued that global powers, like the United States and the World Bank, were acting as “players on the bench” in the implementation of MDG targets. The US has indeed made great efforts towards MDGs goals in its own way, such as the creation of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. By not actively supporting the MDGs, however, the US is “missing an opportunity to highlight contributions to development efforts and foster international goodwill.” McArthur argues the World Bank, especially, should be helping poor countries assess how to achieve these development goals and keeping tabs on international donor financing. Fortunately, in the past two to three years, both have made progress in aligning their policies to supporting the MDGs. Below is a short piece by the World Bank on the importance of trade in fighting extreme poverty:
Beyond accepting a singular agenda to combatting this problem, there is a question of how to achieve any development goal. Many prominent economic and political leaders, such as Tony Blair, have called for increasing aid to developing countries. This demand is the result of positive reactions to locally scaled, narrowly targeted programs. Not all, however, agree with the assessment that more money is the solution. In 2005, Nancy Birdsall, Dani Rodrik, and Arvind Subramanian argued the linkage between increased aid and development is more complex than many think. One problem many see in aid usage is the recipient country’s incapacity, either from corruption or lack of formal structure, to effectively use the funds. Another area is the complex conditions placed on aid packages by donors that constrict the ability of developing countries to invest the money where it is needed. They contend before the international community injects more aid it needs to reduce aid restrictions and give recipients room for policy experimentation. Furthermore, they must commit themselves to fighting corrupt leaders who misuse aid funds. Consultancy Africa Intelligence provides an in-depth look at Uganda as a case study of foreign aid’s effects, especially governance corruption.
This necessary fight to rid humanity of extreme poverty has been a global experimentation in building development capacity. The word “experimentation” is critical to understanding what is happening because there is no for-sure way to ending poverty and the debate rages on. Somethings are for certain, such as the need to fight corrupt leaders, and other things are less clear, such as at what scale development should be focused on. The call to action demanded by absolving humanity of this age-old injustice, however, requires our efforts no matter which direction the debate takes.