For the first time in human history, the world is within striking distance of ending global poverty. A preposterous claim? Perhaps. After all, the poor seem to be everywhere and are increasing in numbers due to global recession, population growth, and economic mismanagement from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Yet, I'll stick to my claim. If the world -- especially the US and other rich countries -- shift a small amount of their military spending to meeting the needs of the world's poorest people, our generation could free humanity from poverty's iron grip.
I am not speaking of relative poverty, the nearly inevitable fact that some members of society are worse off than others, though to some extent that varies from society to society. I am speaking of the gut-wrenching, life-threatening poverty of living on less than US$1 per day. For the first time ever, the world has it in its power to eliminate those extreme conditions.
Why is this? The world's richest countries have continued their economic ascent for generations, carried forward by the flowering of science and technology. Even though poor countries seem to be falling ever farther behind, the truth is more heartening. Large parts of the so-called developing world, especially in Asia, have made incredible strides away from absolute poverty.
China is the most striking success here, with hundreds of millions of people enjoying higher living standards in the past twenty years, including better health, nutrition, and sanitation. India achieved notable successes more recently, though much remains to be accomplished.
The poorest of the poor in sub-Saharan Africa and in remote areas of Latin America and Central Asia have not shared these successes. At least 1 billion people, perhaps nearly twice that number, live in squalid conditions of hunger, disease, and impoverishment. In many of these countries, the past twenty years have marked a time of regress, not progress.
Disease has swept Africa, with the AIDS pandemic and the resurgence of malaria and tuberculosis. Hunger afflicts hundreds of millions, as world weather patterns seem to become more erratic, with more dangerous droughts and floods associated perhaps with long-term changes in the climate. Millions die each year of poverty -- lives that could be saved if the poor had access to better health care, nutrition, and other essential needs.
The extreme poverty of the bottom billion people is shocking, morally intolerable, and dangerous -- a breeding ground of disease, terrorism, and violence. Yet with the richest countries richer than ever before, and with much of the developing world already escaped from the horrors of extreme poverty, the balance has shifted in favor of ending global poverty.
Rich countries could enable the poorest of the poor to escape from misery by providing just a tiny fraction of their yearly national income -- or, indeed, of their military spending -- to overcome the crises of hunger, education, and disease. That aid, combined with the market-based economic growth, could end extreme poverty.
Importantly, rich countries are committed to working with the poorest countries to meet these objectives. But as with many promises, America and other donor countries have so far failed to live up to their pledges. At the UN's Millennium Summit in September 2000, the world's leaders made solemn pledges to tackle global poverty. They issued a declaration calling for action now, so that extreme poverty can be dramatically reduced by the year 2015. They even pledged to mobilize financial assistance.