Say Goodbye to

If you eat three meals a day, taste this page!

 Richard Parncutt 2004-2013

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012
Who is responsible?
Can it be eliminated?
What can I do?

For a billion people, poverty is our most serious problem.

To be sure, there are other extremely serious problems: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, loss of biodiversity, and competition for limited resources such as water and fuel (source). All of these problems threaten billions of people in the long term, and although there is a lot of talk and news about them, and increasing amounts of investment in possible solutions, not nearly enough is being done. Too little too late?

Of these problems, global poverty is the biggest, because it is affecting one billion people right now.
Poverty is a state in which basic needs such as food, water, clothing, shelter, and hygiene are not met. The exact number of poor people depends on whether you define poverty as income of less than $1, $2, or $3 per day (source).  

Article no. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood (sic)." Most nations of the world have signed this principle into law. The implications are clear: poverty is everyone's problem, and we are not doing nearly enough about it.
Given the technical abilities of modern humans and the material abundance of the rich world, it is scandalous that any people at all must live in poverty.

Poverty is also a serious problem in rich countries. Think of the USA's inner city slums. Realistic proposals exist to tackle this problem (here is an example), but they are not being taken seriously. People seem more interested in partial solutions. Why? Do they believe that poverty is inevitable? Just imagine - no poverty! Why are we not talking about getting rid of it? Do we really want a world without poverty? Are we capable of imagining a world without poverty? Or are we just being selfish?

Why we ignore poverty

There are several reasons for ignoring poverty - all of them bad. They include media suppression, psychological numbnessexaggerated fears, racism, blaming the poor, and religious hypocrisy. To solve the problem we should consider each one separately.

Media suppression. We do not know much about poverty, because we do not hear much about it. That's understandable, because news about poverty is not good for business in the media industry. It may make valuable customers feel feel guilty as they sip their capuccinos and snack on their carrot cakes. Many readers and viewers seem to enjoy reading scandalous, tragic or even bloodthirsty stories about individuals with whom they can relate, but they find it hard to connect with the tragedies of large numbers of people in far-away places. A typical consumer can only take so much of that before switching to a different newspaper or TV show. (Are you enjoying reading this website, by the way?) Between the lines, even "quality media" like the New York Times seem to be telling us Westerners between the lines that our extravagant consumerist lifestyle is ok, even though half of the world is poor - if only because the issue is so seldom addressed. Deception? 

Psychological numbness. From a psychological point of view, we are limited in our ability to imagine things that are very big, complex and emotional. Every day, some 16 000 children die of hunger, and almost a billion people don't have enough to eat (source). Can you imagine that? I can't. I can't even comprehend what it is like to experience the death of just one child from hunger. Imagine - your own daughter or son. Now, imagine walking through 365 graveyards, each with 16 000 small white crosses. That's six million children per year, and every year it continues. In the face of catastrophes of holocaust-like dimensions, we tend to retreat into a kind of psychological numbness (source), otherwise we couldn't function in our daily lives. But that doesn't make the problem go away, and it's certainly no excuse to ignore it. If there are intelligent beings in the universe (for intelligence does not yet seem to have emerged on earth), they would be astounded at the gap between what humans say about morality and what they do about it.  Ostriches do not, in fact, hide their heads in the sand. But in dangerous situations they do try to avoid being seen by curling up and laying their heads on the ground, suggesting that humans and ostriches may have a common ancestor.

Exaggerated fears. Those who donate to international charities are understandably worried about corruption and inefficiency in poor countries. Of course this is a serious problem and of course a proportion of all foreign aid is lost that way. Conversely, every large transaction of funds involving many people has the same problem. We use credit cards, although the credit card companies take a percentage at both ends. We still buy bananas, although we know that the banana growers get only a fraction of what we spend. We buy tickets for large concerts, although the performers get only a fraction of the money. In fact, the recipients of foreign aid get a larger proportion of our money than those banana growers and musical performers. -- Corruption and inefficiency in foreign aid are complex problems whose solution requires experience and expertise. Countless non-govermental and governmental organisations have acquired that experience and expertise on local, national and global levels through financial interactions in with specific countries, companies, projects and so on. Thousands of experts know very well how to deal with the problem, and since their motives are largely altruistic and they are (or can be) subject to multiple independent controls, they can be trusted - more so than most other international organisations, in fact. -- Other fears are exaggerated by politicians and media. Terrorism gets a lot of attention, for example, because attacks happen only occasionally and are therefore big news. Poverty is relatively constant. But how many lives are threatened by terrorism? A thousand? Ten thousand? Of course every death is a tragedy. But these numbers are small by comparison to the billions of people who are threatened by poverty. Terrorism is no small problem - but it is also important to get our priorities straight. The problem of poverty and hunger is 100,000 times more important than terrorism, because 100,000 times more people are affected. 

Racism. Another reason why terrorism gets so much attention is that those threatened by terrorism are often white, whereas those threatened by hunger are mainly black. The poverty and hunger cannot clearly be separated from racism. Would we tolerate a billion poor, hungry white people? I doubt it. Even within countries, both rich and poor, rates of poverty among blacks (or non-whites) are consistently higher than among whites. This is true not only for the USA, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and so on, but for just about any country in the world. The trend is amazingly consistent. It follows that we will not honestly be able to claim to have conquered racism until we have conquered poverty - and vice-versa. Until then, the familiar expression "I'm not racist, but..." will sound a little shallow. 

Blaming the poor.  Poor countries are generally unlucky in one or more of the following areas: history, geography and climate, natural resources such as food and minerals, natural communications such as ports and rivers, and health (or lack of disease) (source). The citizens of poor countries did not create these problems, so it is not their fault that they have them. The problems can be overcome, but only with international support. The poorest countries cannot escape from poverty by themselves - no matter how hard their citizens work. -- Poor countries are not poor because their citizens are lazy. Any anthropologist or historian will tell you that there is no such thing as an inherently lazy culture or country. And any empirical sociologist or psychologist will tell you that even if there was such a thing, you could not demonstrate it, because impressions of diligence or laziness depend strongly on context (as defined above). -- So why do so many people believe that poverty is the poor's fault? First, most people have not experienced poverty and hunger, so they don't know what it is like. Second, most people have experienced the material benefits of working hard, and assume that that experience is available to anyone - which is not a logical conclusion. Third, most people feel guilty about poverty, so they welcome any theory that can explain away their guilt. Fourth, academics in relevant disciplines are not addressing this problem often or clearly enough, or having little impact when they do. -- The widespread idea that poverty is the fault of the poor is what one might call a Great Lie. The truth is that nobody wants to be poor - and there are diligent and lazy people in every culture, rich or poor.

Religious hypocrisy. Many center-right political parties in Western countries (US Republicans, German CDU, etc.) regard themselves as "Christian" but at the same time resist efforts by secular center-left parties to address and alleviate poverty. Do Christians read their Bibles? Have they really thought about what Jesus said, or is supposed to have said? -- Christians are right to complain about Islamic extremism, but what about Christian extremism of the kind that leads to the teaching of creationism rather than evolution in American schools and the election of political parties that promote the indiscriminate bombing of innocent people in foreign countries? Since the Second World War, a Christian country, the United States of America, has bombed innocent citizens of over 20 countries. -- Many world religions encourage voluntary charitable donations at levels such as 5% or even 10% of income to alleviate poverty. Since Christianity is the world's richest religion, Christianity as a whole has a greater moral obligation to alleviate poverty than other religions. If all Christians started donating 5% of their income to projects that tackle poverty, the problem would quickly be solved. Clearly, they are not doing that, nor does the Pope or any other high-profile Christian leader have the courage to ask them to do it. Why not? What have religious leaders got to lose?

In a globalized world, poverty is everyone's problem.

This claim has two aspects - a moral or altruistic aspect, and a purely selfish aspect.

  • The moral or altruistic aspect: We are obliged to solve the problem of world poverty because we are closely connected to the global poor through global trade. The people who are suffering are not completely remote from us, nor are we completely remote from them. We can get on an aeroplane and visit those people, if we want.
  • The selfish aspect ("looking after number one"): Even if we in the rich countries care only about our own interests and those of our children and grandchildren, we should be trying to solve the problem of global poverty. Consider the example of immigration and asylum. It's one of the most important election issues in rich countries these days. Far-right politicians try to solve the problem by making immigration and asylum more difficult. In fact, that is exacerbating the problem. The fewer people are permitted to migrate, the more will need to, in the long-term. The only realistic long-term solution to the problem of immigration and asylum is to address the underlying global causes: conflict, poverty, and diminishing natural resources (often caused by climate change). If the problem of poverty continues to be neglected, our children and grandchildren in rich countries (if they are still rich) will be presented with the legacy of our blatant selfishness: increasing pressure on immigration, increasing numbers of asylum seekers, rising political instability, more wars, increasingly violent competition for basic resources, more terrorism, and so on.

Global poverty could be eliminated in 20 years.

Most people believe that the problem of global poverty is impossible to solve. There will always be poverty, they say. Is that another Great Lie?

Sure, there has always been poverty. But that does not mean that poverty is normal, or that the problem cannot be solved, or should be tolerated. Humankind can and does make progress. The history of humanity includes such milestones as the French revolution, the abolishment of slavery, equal voting rights for women, and the international declaration of human rights. All of these were all firsts - nothing of a similar nature or magnitude had ever happened before.

In his book The End of Poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that extreme poverty can be eliminated in 20 years, if only rich countries would live up to their pledge of investing 0.7% of gross national product (GNP) in foreign aid. Consistent investment at this level over 20 years will enable the poorest countries to escape from the poverty trap in which they find themselves. Their economies will then at last begin to grow and they will at last become financially independent. Sachs also made clear that giving less than that amount, as we do now, will never solve the problem. This is not conjecture, but the result of hard-nosed economic calculation.

0.7% of GNP is not much. The USA spends 6% of GDP on the military but less than 0.2% of GNI on foreign aid. The USA could solve the problem by transferring only 10% of their military spending to foreign aid. West European countries typically spend 0.4% of GDP on foreign aid. The only countries who currently exceed 0.7% of GNP are Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and the Netherlands. Most other developed countries pledged 0.7% long ago, but are not paying up.

All developed countries can easily afford 0.7% of GNP for foreign aid. The typical citizen in a rich country has over 100 times as much money as a typical citizen in poor country. The citizens of rich countries will not notice if their wealth is reduced by (say) 1%, but the citizens of poor countries will experience an enormous difference if their wealth is increased by (say) 100%. From this point of view, the value for money - the return on investment - on foreign aid is extraordinarily high. 

In 2011 the Eurobarometer survey found out that 85% of EU citizens regard development aid as either important or very important - in spite of the international financial crisis (Weltnachrichten, 2011/4, p. 15; So why is only half of the money flowing? Why do we donate just enough to keep the poor countries poor indefinitely? Just enough to make us feel feel good about helping?

Ordinary people like you and me can do something.

How? Here are some ideas: The main thing is to do something. Overcome psychological numbness!

Ideas and projects to reduce global poverty

Further links from Avaaz
Global Hunger worsening, warns UN
Only 15% of G8 pledge is new money, Reuters
Small scale farming systems critical in tackling hunger and poverty
ActionAid´s HungerFREE global campaign
Enough food  in the world for everyone
World Food Summit
Initiative Entwicklung (Austria)

Erich Fried: Völlig veraltete Klassenkampftheorie
Was den Armen zu wünschen wäre
für eine bessere Zukunft?
Nur daß sie alle
im Kampf gegen die Reichen
so unbeirrbar sein sollen
so findig
und so beständig
wie die Reichen im Kampf
gegen die Armen sind

The opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at
Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage