“We know what it takes to lift people out of poverty.”
– Queen Rania of Jordan
“I would like all of our listeners to know we actually know how to lift people out of poverty. Most poor people are working. Most poor people are smart. Most poor people have skills. They don’t have equal access to capital, education and natural resources.”
– President Bill Clinton
What do the Clinton Global Initiative, the UN Millennium Goals Project, hurricane Katrina and the most recent devastating earthquake in Pakistan all have in common? Each one reminds us how prevalent poverty is in the world and how many people out there are needlessly getting caught in the political, cultural and ecological crossfire because of it.
Poverty is a disease. It is one that causes societies to crumble and people to lose all hope. According to the Canadian National Council on Welfare, no one can really measure the costs of poverty, but “There are many indicators, from low birth-weight babies and increased illness to lower labor force participation to family disintegration and young lives lost to homicide or suicide.”
In the aftermath of Katrina, people continued suffering while arguments erupted throughout the U.S. government about what was being done to help the victims. Many of these arguments centered on poverty. People just did not have the means to evacuate and save themselves. After the disaster, it was evident that residents were financially strapped and had no way to recover without significant government assistance.
Katrina forced the West to take a hard look at how similar their problems are to those of the developing world. U.S. shores looked like Asia post tsunami and the victims, like those in the devastating Pakistani earthquake, remind us all how dependent we are on each other. In both cases, survivors simply did not have the means to recover, let alone get out of the poverty cycle.
Everyone now knows that poverty in Africa, Asia, or south of the border is not “their” problem. It is “humanity’s” problem. “Extreme poverty is what is in Louisiana and Mississippi, post-Katrina….We have it in America and we have it in Europe,” said Bono recently on CNN.
Former President Clinton’s Global Initiative participants agree. Mr. Clinton himself states further, “We know how to lift people out of poverty,” but can we? AND, more importantly, does the world have the will and the desire to do so? Do we know that we can eliminate or at least lessen the burden of poverty and still have benefits in our own lives?
A study in the U.S. shows that addressing one small issue, like making sure children get to preschool, which most impoverished children do not do, can make an enormous difference. People who attend preschool are more likely to have higher earnings as adults, pay more taxes, approximately $8,847 per person, and less likely to be involved in crime – either as victims or as perpetrators. This saves the justice system $12,796 and $57,585 in reduced costs for victims of crime per year.
Further, savings to the welfare system is estimated at $2,918 a person.1 These saving and societal benefits are enormous! If you multiply them by half of the world’s population, the amount estimated to live in poverty, people would be living a lot better guaranteed.
Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University has been studying poverty alleviation for years. He has parlayed his studies into a worldwide project at the United Nations by initiating the Millennium Development Goals Project. The United Nations reports that total western government’s contribution to international aid is about $78.6 billion a year, a number that has remained fairly constant
1 Schweinhart, Lawrence J.; Barnes, Helen V. and Weikart, David P., Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27 (Ypsilanti, Michigan: The High/Scope Press, 1993); all figures are in US dollars.
over the last five or more years. The MGP is asking for countries to up the anti to $90 billion. This number, they say, would eradicate poverty.
Many experts believe this to be true as well. However, there are plenty of indications that people with the way do not always seem to have the will. During my time as a contractor with USAID, I saw plenty of waste due to inefficiency. Overhead seemed to be the primary use of funds. Quarreling between all types of government and non-government organizations from various countries was rampant. They would bicker over authority and territory, which often appeared to take precedent over the recipients’ needs. Additionally, it was clear that aid organizations have a tendency to ignore, instead of acknowledge, corruption and other factors that often disrupt projects and financial distributions to the people.
More recently, BBC news reported the “Red Cross criticized aid agencies for failure to coordinate efforts” during the tsunami. The news agency also said that six months after the tsunami, thousands still remain homeless, bodies still have yet to be identified, and much of the money went to prosperous landowners instead of those in need. After Katrina, the same accusations were made. There are reports that U.S. federal efforts lagged, forcing stranded people to suffer needlessly and, after several months, many bodies have not been identified and over 4,000 people are still missing. Much of the money for rebuilding is going to contractors not the residents who have undoubtedly used their last paycheck.
David Ellwood, Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government believes that rebuilding, whether it be in Louisiana or in Sri Lanka, not only needs to bring aid to communities, but should provide residents with work skills so that can help themselves make the leap out of poverty. He counsels against using outsiders to come in and do all the work.
In a statement about Katrina he says, “Hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent. The danger is that the rebuilding will be done by outsiders who earn the money and move on, taking with them both their skills and their incomes. The obvious solution is to link our training for poorer residents to the efforts to rebuild.” Unfortunately, the U.S. government is not listening to these recommendations. Halliburton, for example, a wealthy international energy services firm, is getting $45 million for clean up in Louisiana and contracting much of it out to outside entities, none of which are hiring local workers.
This type of disaster response only makes poverty alleviation efforts much worse. Of course, no one can control natural disasters, but if coordination efforts and post catastrophe implementation are not in cooperation with the local people so that they can own their future; our already modest success rates will be severely compromised.
Moving people out of poverty in any country takes time and patience. Not everyone wants to invest what it takes to close the tremendous gap between the poor and those with economic stability. Of course, this by no means is everyone. Throughout my tenure, I admit that I have seen progress, but I know that we all can do better.
First, the illusion that people do not want to change their lives must end. I have heard too many say that people are poor because “they just don’t get it” or “they are lazy,” etc., but this is rubbish. In the words of Jeffery Sachs, Director of the UN MGP, “These people don’t have boots, they don’t have bootstraps. They can’t tighten their belts; they have no belts. They need help. They’re trapped in extreme poverty, where they don’t have even enough to have enough food to eat in a day, safe drinking water, access to essential health services. So to give a lecture to them isn’t going to do anything.” Using a bit of our tax money now will. As was stated, a little help now saves us a whole lot of welfare and victim compensation funds in the future, which we can instead use for education or healthcare.
Second, a shift in our mindset is required. If we help, it does not take away from our fortune. “We can’t help them too much,” I heard one of my supervisors say one day when I was in the Balkans, “we’ll put ourselves out of a job.” If we alternatively helped a lot, we would still have plenty of work to do. Skills training, infrastructure development, healthcare, conflict resolution and building sustainable governments and businesses are just a few projects that would outlast lifetimes. We should be saying, “Imagine all that brain power and idea generation we could have if the whole world had opportunity!” We could find alternative energy sources, cure the common cold and maybe save a species or two, including ourselves, in no time.
Finally, the world needs to concentrate on alternatives to war. Too many countries are worried about military aid instead of development aid. Foreign Military Financing, a U.S. military aid program, increased by 68% between 2001 and 2003. U.S. development assistance increased only .02%. In most cases, countries with vast amounts of poverty were recipients of FMF. These funds could have no doubt been used for something more essential like tents in Pakistan, housing starts in U.S. areas devastated by hurricanes and food, clean water or healthcare for others who are in desperate need.
Above are only a few examples of why poverty has not been alleviated. Like many global issues, it is often much more complicated than we realize. There are many other grey areas not discussed here.
Nevertheless, it is more important than ever to combat poverty. The U.S. National Intelligence Council estimates that the world population will increase by 1.2 billion a year; that is over 7 billion by 2010. About 95% of this growth will be in developing countries, putting a larger burden on those already in dire straights. However, if we commit ourselves, we will see a world of productive, educated and well-cared for individuals who will give us all more opportunity to create a global abundance, instead of deficiency.
A light does exist at the end of the tunnel. The UN Millennium Project reports that between the years of 1981 and 2001 extreme poverty has been reduced by almost 20%. So, can we all keep going and make it work?
Well, the answer to that is YES! Yet, we have a long way to go. To make the journey more transparent, it might be wise to create a sort of “Development Watch Team,” thereby allowing us to monitor and evaluate progress and post tangible results. We have Human Rights Watch and Crisis Watch, why not “Development Watch?” Such an organization would ensure that aid, financial and otherwise, is used and distributed properly to those who truly need it.
Development Watch can also keep us informed about the issues affecting poverty, in turn making us all more aware. Awareness empowers people to see solutions more clearly and implement processes more effectively. It also helps us change our reality and mindset, allowing us to find alternatives to what is not working.
As an American, I find that although imperfect, our nation clearly shows us that it is possible for all kinds of people from every walk of life to be successful. There is no limit. Providing the assistance people need to overcome poverty, will allow us to make strides and finally understand that “we do know what it takes” to lift people up.
We have the way, now, with the will, we can all make the difference between the continuation of suffering or the creation of a future of prosperous, healthy people who do not just have life, but look forward to living in it.