I confess to being totally fed up with this slogan and others like it that adorn the backs of cars. Car stickers are advertising and, as advertising goes, this one is a total failure. If I want to make poverty history how is this facile slogan going to help? It is nothing more than a vague catch phrase that someone can put on their car to make themselves feel less guilty about their rapacious consumerism. They don’t actually have to do anything. A more practical and effective slogan would tell us in 25 words or less what we can really do to facilitate this aim. Perhaps “Help Make Poverty History: Buy Fair Trade Coffee”? Or “Help Make Poverty History: Don’t Buy Nestle” (as they have encouraged mothers to buy their products instead of feeding their infants breast milk). Something tangible that might, in some tiny way, make a difference.
I do wonder about the origins and continuation of poverty. Why are some countries developed, while others never seem to stop developing? I thought Jared Diamond made an interesting point in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (unfortunately I haven’t read the book, only seen the TV series: http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/). He believes that the wealthier nations were lucky enough to settle on fertile ground containing animal species suitable for domestication making it easier to grow crops, feed their families and improve their standard of living, while the less fortunate ones spent proportionately longer periods of time foraging for grubs and berries. The free time not spent on agriculture was available for extra activities such as inventing the wheel, dreaming up imaginary friends to keep the populace in check, and exploiting those other less fortunate cultures. Once the ball of inequality had been set rolling it quickly gathered pace and momentum with the wealthier and more powerful nations dominating and exploiting the rest with ever greater ferocity.
This economic exploitation of the poor by the rich has certainly been well documented with particular emphasis usually being placed on the role of the US. For an especially florid account of their raping and pillaging read John Perkins’ book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” (http://www.johnperkins.org/).
While it is easy and often justified to point the finger at developed countries as the cause of the entire developing world’s problems this view is far too simplistic. Why have some countries, such as the Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), been able to drag themselves out of the mire and into the light, while others continue to go nowhere but down? Of the 183 countries listed in the United Nations 2011 Human Development Report (http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2011_EN_Summary.pdf) all but one of the bottom 29 countries is in Africa (Afghanistan is the exception in case you are wondering. And Norway tops the list followed by Australia, the Netherlands and the US, in case you are thinking of emigrating). Surely this can’t be blamed solely on the Americans? Developing countries need to shoulder at least some of the blame for the state of their backyards because at least some of the impediments to development are entirely home grown.
One of these is war, which has become a constant companion in places like Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. While the influence of external politics and interference in these conflicts can be argued it is obviously impossible to develop an economy, educate children and live happily ever after while ducking bullets, dodging packages of anthrax and avoiding land mines.
The other home grown issue delaying development is corruption. Each year Transparency International releases its Corruption Index (http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2011/results/). Not surprisingly our friends in Somalia are top of the list, along with North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan. And where is the best place to do business? New Zealand is the world’s least corrupt country, closely followed by the Scandinavian countries and Singapore. And what does this mean?
Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa and also has that continent’s highest per capita GDP. As for the corruption kings, Somalia and North Korea are so bad that figures are not available while, according to the IMF, Afghanistan’s GDP ranks 168 out of 183, with Myanmar coming in at 156. The bottom 15 countries for GDP are all in Africa. Regarding GDP for our non-corrupt friends New Zealand comes in at 23, Singapore at 11, and the lowest of the four Scandinavian countries comes in at 13. Clearly corruption isn’t the only issue but it certainly doesn’t help matters.
The Doing Business Project (http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings) provides objective measures of business regulations and their enforcement across 183 economies. Not surprisingly GDP is often related to the ease of doing business with Singapore topping the list followed by Hong Kong, New Zealand, USA and Denmark. Fourteen of the bottom 17 countries are in Africa. Starting to see a pattern?
With high levels of corruption and difficult business conditions it is hardly surprising that African countries rank so low in terms of GDP. The World Bank’s Africa Competitiveness Report 2011 (http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GCR_Africa_Report_2011.pdf) also makes illuminating reading. This report tries to quantify the reasons why doing business is so difficult on this continent. Of the 35 countries listed in this report (which doesn’t include some of the past and present basket cases such as Somalia, DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan) 21 listed corruption as one of the top three impediments to successful business ventures, 12 listed inefficient government bureaucracy, 13 mentioned inadequate infrastructure, eight complained of poor education but, overwhelmingly, 28 out of 35 listed inadequate access to finance with 19 of those citing it as the number one barrier.
Unfortunately things like corruption need to be dealt with by the countries themselves and, until they are, will always be a millstone around the neck of developing economies. But what we can help with is providing access to finance. This does not have to occur on a grand scale but can be as little as providing a loan to a struggling business person to help them grow their business and prosper. If you really are serious about doing something about poverty check out http://www.kiva.org. The Kiva organisation facilitates the provision of interest free loans to small business entrepreneurs around the world. These are not handouts. Loans are expected to be repaid and start from as little as $25. This is real aid provided to people who want to help themselves. You can loan money as an individual or as part of a team. Vetsbeyondreason have gotten on board this exciting initiative. How about you? Do something real to “make poverty history.”
Dr. F. Bunny