In this series, we’ve unpacked popular myths about extreme poverty. We’ve looked at how we’ve gotten stuck. We’ve laid out some key levers for change. And we’ve considered the consequences of success. The developed world, well-motivated governments, and civil society among the last billion poor clearly have the means to eliminate extreme poverty in one lifetime.
So, provided we have the will, where would we begin?
We’d start by focusing rich-world financial and technical resources on the worst-off. Today wealthy nations and institutions sprinkle too little public money in too many countries like magic dust. Devoting disproportionate aid funding to countries that don’t desperately need it is an ethical failure that should be turned on its head.
We’d make aid transfers to lawless regimes only after specific political, military, and humanitarian milestones were met, not based on promises too often broken. To get more aid directly into the hands of people under the worst governance, we’d spend less on general budget support, more on specific project funding, and far more on individual vouchers redeemable at local markets, aid agencies, and NGOs for food, medicines, visits from health workers, seeds, equipment.
We’d build and integrate better online professional clearinghouses for projects, effective practices, technical experts, and people at work in these nations, such as the Global Development Commons launched by Henrietta Fore at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
We’d raise our standards on what we measure and manage. Donors, aid agencies, and NGOs would run controlled project trials wherever feasible, and careful statistical analysis where not – funding what works, reworking what doesn’t, and amply rewarding people for working across organizations to deliver country-based results.
We’d get over the “scandal” that a quarter of aid is technical assistance, decried because recipient countries don’t get cash. Such skills are painfully absent among the last billion, whose educated tend to emigrate. In fact, we’d fund more and better technical assistance – especially in agriculture, property rights, banking, and governance.
The leadership and citizens of African countries, particularly those adjoining landlocked and desperately poor nations, would take bolder steps to diversify their economies, create new markets across borders, cut “protective” tariffs and red tape, clamp down on spurious “fees” that enrich bureaucrats, and implement reforms of their own to avert having terms dictated by wealthy donor nations.
We’d push harder on labor standards by giving the International Labor Organization some real authority to ensure that wealth from business and resource development does more than enrich local elites. A national minimum wage was made law in the US to preempt bottom-fishing in the poorest regions. Given the global nature of markets now, it’s time to negotiate an international minimum wage, pegged to purchasing power parity for a basic basket of subsistence goods.
To stop the flow of aid money siphoned off in fees and bribes by corrupt officials and sent to personal first-world bank accounts, we’d have international banks make the freezing and repatriation of such deposits far easier. We do it with funds suspected of terrorist ties – but not with money sent to save lives? Of the minority of bankers profiting from corrupt deposits, economist Paul Collier pithily notes, “We have a word for people who live on the immoral earnings of others: pimps.”
We’d remove tariffs on goods made in the poorest nations until they get a sustainable export base going. We’d also renegotiate pharmaceutical patent rules that sanction the poorest countries if they don’t enforce them to Western standards. These rules make no sense where lost drug sales would be negligible and millions of lives would be saved.
Where regimes are murderous, we would engage fully capable UN military assets with a Chapter VII mandate as trouble builds, not after the fact. To stanch the flow of Chinese capital to the most grotesque regimes, the West’s trade and financial institutions would positively enlist China’s pragmatic self-interest – in economic, environmental, technological, and trade terms – to support humanitarian outcomes.
Eradicating abject poverty is not a utopian goal; it’s the basis for self-sustaining growth. It doesn’t mean solving the entire world’s problems. It demands that we focus our attention and resources to ensure the survival and progress of the very worst off.
Acting on the conviction that every life is of equal value is as close as your desktop. Enlist the sustainable performance of small enterprise through micro-credit at sites such as kiva.org and opportunity.org. Changingthepresent.org and globalgiving.com let you buy a friend or loved one a small stake in, say, a clean water project in Mozambique. And it’s remarkable how sites such as ONE.org are driving awareness.
To the thousands who give of their time and skills where it most matters, working in some of the most dangerous places in the world, we are all in your debt. And to the citizens of these struggling nations, we know you deserve and are capable of better. Please, tell the rest of us what works. Let us know how we can become a more informed and effective community of conscience.
Originally published in the Monitor March 14, 2008