Global poverty must be tackled from the ground up

The problem is that our Western approach to development aid is flawed. A former World Bank economist, William Easterly, says it is more about devising solutions than listening to problems, despite the fact that poorer countries are all too aware of the specific needs of their people.

Whanganui hospital chaplain David Scoullar wrote this article on global poverty for a Wellington Catholic Education Centre course on Catholic social teaching.

Global poverty must be tackled from the ground up Archdiocese of Wellington Pope John Paul II (On Social Concerns 1987) spoke out about the persistent and widening gap between the more developed North and the developing South.
Flash forward to 2000, at the Millennium Development Summit in New York the leaders of 180 countries, including all the major affluent nations, promise that by 2015 they will together achieve the Millennium Development Goals. These goals include halving the proportion of people living in poverty. Since then the commitments made by most countries have fallen short of what is required.

Rethink global poverty—Pope
Flash forward to 2009 and political leaders and economists warn that the current global economic crisis is resulting in increasing poverty worldwide. Pope Benedict XVI ( The Tablet, London, January 2009) says the crisis demands a rethink on global poverty. Last year, before the United Nations summit on poverty and the Millennium Development Goals, the Pope urged world leaders to act which resulted in US$15 billion pledged towards combating poverty.

What would be the result if the Pope made this plea today? Is this the wrong time to call on affluent people to boost their efforts to end poverty? Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University says emphatically that it is not. He warns that if governments or individuals use this as an excuse to reduce assistance to the poorest people, they will only multiply the seriousness of the problem for the world as a whole ( Dominion Post, Wellington, April 2009).

Millions more poor
And the problem is multiplying, anyway. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says that one hundred million more people have been forced into poverty ( The Tablet, London, February 2009).
We know that, if extreme poverty is allowed to increase, it will cause new problems, including new diseases that will spread from countries that cannot provide adequate healthcare to those that can.

Poverty will lead to more migrants seeking to move, legally or not, to rich countries. When there is eventually an economic recovery, the global economy will be smaller than it would be if all the world’s people could take part in it.
Poverty, then, seems like an issue almost too big to comprehend, let alone do something about. How can it be solved when despite all the good intentions, all the efforts, we are told that the very poor are actually getting poorer? ( Vital, magazine of Trade Aid, Autumn 2009). Clearly, there is no one answer to poverty. To be effective, anti-poverty measures must be applied on many fronts.

Yes, we need to keep pumping in even more development aid to poor countries; yes, we need to campaign for cancelling Third World debt. But first let us recognise, as Pope Benedict said on New Year’s Day, that the causes of poverty lie in the human heart—in greed and narrow vision (Message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2009).
Something is radically wrong when forms of aid are of more benefit to the donor country than to the recipient nation, when they come tied to a raft of conditions and when aid recipients are forced to liberalise service sectors and trade in industrial goods in order to access aid or debt relief.

So in eliminating poverty, we, those who would help, need the right motivation—the will to reach out to others without thought of gain for ourselves.

The problem is that our Western approach to development aid is flawed. A former World Bank economist, William Easterly, says it is more about devising solutions than listening to problems, despite the fact that poorer countries are all too aware of the specific needs of their people ( The White Man’s Burden, Penguin, 2006).

Small more effective
This approach, he maintains, is ineffective. Supporting small, often piecemeal solutions that respond directly to the needs of a specific group in a specific country is far more effective than applying large-scale initiatives across the developing world.

Easterly and other critics of the way we tackle poverty cite many examples of small-scale initiatives that work alongside local customs, traditional farming practices and family arrangements to effectively address poverty. They are also able to identify many large-scale plans that cost millions of dollars with no positive benefit to the poor.

Therefore, if we are to be more receptive to the needs of those we aim to help or, as Pope Benedict put it, if we are really serious about accompanying others on journeys of authentic human development, we must see development, aid and international cooperation as attending to the human element, not just the technical questions of establishing structures, setting up trade agreements and allocating funding impersonally (Message for World Day of Peace).

Going the wrong way
In this context, the current move to shift the focus of New Zealand’s overseas aid from poverty elimination to economic development is a move in the wrong direction. It means that the government wants its aid programme to be driven by foreign policy considerations—in the opposite direction to what Pope Benedict says should happen.

In an open letter of protest to Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand says that while the New Zealand Government has an important role in eliminating poverty in the Pacific and around the world, economic development is not an end in itself but must serve the needs of people.

The stance of the Catholic agency for justice, peace and development is based on its knowledge that Pacific Island nations are strongly concerned with an aid programme with insufficient focus on poverty alleviation, development impacts and outcomes.

Does New Zealand then epitomise this problem that, for too many donor countries, the battle to overcome world poverty is clearly linked with their national self-interest? Is it listening? Is it ignoring the desires, needs, knowledge and skills of the recipient groups? Donor nations must ask themselves hard questions and come up with honest answers.

Easterly insists that aid can work in the war on world poverty. However, rather than couching it in utopian, think-big strategies that typify the modern development industry, there should be more consultation, more feedback, more accountability, more incentives and greater collaboration in order to better support small-scale, grassroots initiatives with specific and measurable goals.

And we need to encourage, in fact insist on, fair trade. This is vital because it works to support self-help organisations that communities have established in response to the specific needs of a particular region. As the Trade Aid movement explains, these are not Western constructs imposed on poor countries but local cooperatives growing into self-sufficient enterprises and reaching their markets through fair trade networks ( Vital).

In other words, let’s focus on building from the bottom up, facilitating local solutions to local problems, engaging with sensitivity and compassion and always bearing in mind the key Catholic Social Teaching planks of the common good, the principle of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor to make a significant contribution towards eliminating global poverty.