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Sun, Jan 09, 2000 - Page 9 News List

How to rid the world of poverty

There is no country in the world which, if it redirected its resources away from the military, from an over-paid, under-employed civil service or from large scale infrastructure projects, could not change the face of human poverty

By Jonathan Power

Illustration: Mountain People

The last century found, willynilly, 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 17, 1998, 120 nations voted (but not the US, 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 illusive phenomenon. George Gershwin, suggesting poverty was at least partly a state of mind, made Porgy sing in Porgy and Bess: "Oh, I got plenty of nothing, and nothing'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 20 years ago, Poverty in the United Kingdom, 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," Townsend wrote.

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