Resolve, not resignation, is a pre-requisite for change.
Yesterday economist Jeffery Sachs, senior UN advisor, columnist, and author of The End of Poverty, ran an article in the NY Times entitled “The End of Poverty, Soon.” Now Sachs is a realist, more firmly aware than most of the monumental challenges, complex economic webs, and poverty traps that keep many countries and large segments of the global population systemically trapped in poverty. But his is a refreshing voice of optimism in a sea of voices crying futility in the fight against poverty, hunger, and injustice.
Ending extreme poverty, Sachs argues, is possible (not guaranteed) within our generation if global powers, private market forces, and individuals all set their resolve, policies, and hearts on the goal. The World Bank Development Committee’s goal of ending extreme global poverty by 2030, and the UN’s stated goal of “eradicating global poverty in a generation” are examples of high-level steps in the right direction.
Economic growth in a market economy, major infrastructure investment (take note South Sudan), and private financing, the rapid dispersion of mass communication (smart phones taking root everywhere you look), new medical breakthroughs, and more effective combatting of malaria, have all been key gains in turning the tide of poverty on a global scale. The emphasis here is on the need for both the public and private sectors to align. In one of Sachs’ most interesting lines, he writes: “One can say that the fight to end poverty is helping to forge a new kind of mixed capitalism.”
Sachs cites World Bank data showing the number of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line has been steadily on the decline since the 1980s, as has the infant mortality rate in Africa, as evidence that progress towards ending poverty can be and is being made and that such an end is possible. Real dents can be made in problems on a global scale.
This sort of optimistic realism, big dreams tempered by a complex understanding of international economics, is good to hear. Combined resolution and efforts by governments, large-scale private investment, and small-scale individual efforts and grassroots development or business have actual efficacy to change lives, increase standards of living, and fight poverty.
Poverty matters in the world of justice and human trafficking as well. Many of the girls trapped in the sex trade are there in the first place as a direct result of their poverty. Starving families with few options sell off daughters or nieces to traffickers who in turn sell them to brothels for sexual exploitation. Young women from rural villages with no employment alternatives are promised good jobs in the big city where they can send money back to their impoverished families, but then end up trapped in a life of forced prostitution. Then there’s the matters of power – these injustices happen to the poor, precisely because the poor all to often have no defense, no one to turn to and no resources to draw from. Thus, economic development and combatting poverty at a grassroots level, from the villages to the cities, actually plays a major role in the prevention of human trafficking.
Of course, there’s always more layers to muddy the waters. In his article “Sexploitation: the Economics of Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking,” Dr. Mark Russell writes: “…economic progress can sometime lead to greater human destruction, not less.”
Russell notes that the increase in ultrasound machines throughout India (coinciding with widespread poverty reduction) simultaneously resulted in a decrease in previously very high infant mortality rates, and, with the newfound ability to determine a child’s gender before birth, an increase in “gender selected abortion.” Likely in part because of the dowry expenses inherent in having a daughter, male children are greatly preferred – resulting in a rather high (and increasing) male to female ratio in the Indian population. That, according to Russell, means less available Indian women to be wives, and an increased demand for prostitution, leading in turn to an increase in supply via human trafficking.
Russell writes: “The situation in India demonstrates why wealth creation must always be accompanied by a broader understanding of ethics and human rights. In India what should have helped more baby girls survive has actually led to their destruction in many cases. Wealth and technology have not changed unbiblical attitudes towards women in India or anywhere else.”
That doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on India, or on economic development in general. On the contrary, as mentioned above, development and turning the tide of poverty is a means of empowerment that is one of the most effective ways to fight human trafficking from the source.
It does mean that we ought to be informed about the complexities and potential consequences of economic development, and that we ought to be prepared to try and address poverty and injustices holistically – and that includes cultural implications. It also means that efforts specifically aimed at fighting human trafficking through empowering women economically and socially (like bakeries and factories employing women trapped in the sex trade), are particularly important in addressing systemic injustice on multiple fronts.
If Sachs is right, then the campaign taglines that you and I often dismiss as unachievable, naïve dreams – End Poverty. End Hunger. End Slavery. – while often oversimplified and cliche, are not to be laughed at. They’re subjects for study, concerted, multidimensional effort, and a healthy dose of passion.
I don’t know that we’ll see the end of poverty, or hunger, or slavery, in this generation. But I’d rather see people fighting those battles than dismissing them as unrealistic.
So, Homework: go read The End of Poverty by Sachs, The Bottom Billion by Collier, and all of the Economist, and then buy me a beer and we’ll have a good, long discussion about the economics of poverty and injustice. Aaaaaaand, Go.