how much could we really combat poverty?

Today, extreme poverty is not an issue of insufficient resources, but of politics and allocation. And that makes it much harder to address.
future slum
Illustration by Gilles Ketting

It’s one thing to pledge to end poverty within a decade and a half in an ambitious meeting which tackles every shortfall in every facet of developing nations at once, channeling tens of billions of dollars to advance primary education, women’s rights, basic infrastructure and sanitation, healthcare, sustainable industrialization, and global trade in the world’s poorest countries over the last ten years. Actually accomplishing that goal is a very complicated and thorny problem. So while the Millennium Development Goals project has managed to make great strides in helping to lift tens of millions out of destitution, more than a quarter of all humans subsist on just $1.25 a day, nearly a third lack access to basic sanitation, and millions of people die from preventable and treatable diseases every year. So what does it take to eliminate poverty and could we ever succeed?

According to the people who keep track of these things, if you ever managed to find yourself in the supremely privileged position of having all the money in the world to allocate to every person on our planet, you would be sitting on a pile of some $61.1 trillion, which seems like a lot until you divide it by the 6.7 billion of us, giving a seemingly generous $9,119.40 to every man, woman, and child on Earth. But the problem is that much of the money in question is virtual, already belongs to people who need it to build multi-trillion dollar infrastructures, hoard it from others, use it to build war machines and acquire the resources they need to keep their countries going, and so on. In the end, the resources we can allocate to the poor are limited and without a strategic and long-term approach which tries to make sure that developing nations get up on their feet and stay that way, an enormous monetary blitz against disease, hunger, and slums may end up doing more harm than good. Local economies may never develop, local resources mined out, or used as untouchable hedges for the future and a pitch for more money. In fact, this is what’s happening in much of Africa.

But the unfortunate part of all this, is that the more money is poured into alleviating poverty, the more of it ends up with corrupt politicians or dictators who use it to help maintain their stranglehold on nations where typical citizens have little access to things those of us in developed nations consider essential to daily life. If we want to create a more open, democratic world in which trade and local industries provide a steady supply of cash, and access to basic resources for everyone, there needs to be some meddling. Dictators would have to keep being knocked off their perches. Kleptocrats would have to be arrested and the money they stole and spent on themselves and their families recovered and put back into the system. Cultures would have to be re-educated to accept women and those with other faith as equals. You would need strict global controls over government bodies and monetary policy. Sovereignty would have to be partially traded away for global stability and groups a lot like the much prophesized and feared New World Order would have to be put in charge. Otherwise, it’s going to be very difficult to make any poverty-fighting goal legally binding over the long term. Though having to give up your cultural heritage, the ownership of your finances, and your independence, is almost certainly way too steep of a price for building a truly, genuinely, poverty-free world.

Today, humans are far, far more divided than they are united, and no one will be willing to trade their wealth or political and military power for the sake of helping the world’s poor any more than they want to help. And that’s why we will always have poverty and even with projects like MDG, all our efforts will do is make it slightly less miserable for the billions who have to endure it. Of course at the same time, we would hope that things won’t get worse for the world as a whole as even more people will be vying for even more limited resources, but it does look rather likely that we’re beginning to reach the limits of our population and if anything, the usually expanding numbers of humans will slowly begin to level off if not dip over the next century or so. And what the world of the future may be willing to do to end poverty once and for all is something that could be debated for a very, very long time. Though it’s pretty much a given that the messes they’d need to untangle would be similar to the ones we see today in developing nations across the globe.

# politics // economics / global population / government / poverty

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