Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Wretched of the Earth? Hope and Progress in the Battle Against Global Poverty

Nicholas Kristof has published an awesome article on the crisis of global poverty in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

Did you know that 30 thousand children around the world will die today from starvation? This trajedy results largley from the fact that the majority of the world's poor survive on less that $2 a day, a common statistic cited in developmental studies. But more particularly, Kristof analyzes the (sometimes disastrous) coping strategies of the poor -- for example, trade-offs they make between, say, buying more than one anti-malarial mosquito net for their outside sleeping quarters in the jungles of Cambodia (the nets cost about $5 a piece), or sufficing with just one and then deciding which one of their children should be protected from mosquitos when bedding down for the night.

Kristof notes that poverty is simply a fact of life around the world, even in the U.S. Yet poverty's hidden, for the most part, from the affluent. Says Kristof:
Yet we manage, pretty successfully, to ignore it and insulate ourselves even from poverty in our own country. When it pops out from behind the screen after an episode like the Watts riots of 1965 or the New Orleans hurricane of 2005, then we express horror and indignation and vow change, and finally shrug and move on. Meanwhile, the world's five hundred wealthiest people have the same income as the world's poorest 416 million.
But he adds, optimistically:

These days, however, something interesting is stirring in the world of poverty. People like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have made it almost as prestigious for philanthropists to underwrite vaccinations as to underwrite the ballet. Bono and Angelina Jolie have made Africa almost sexy. And several Democratic presidential candidates have real expertise and interest in the issue, particularly domestically: Barack Obama worked as a grassroots antipoverty organizer in Chicago; Hillary Rodham Clinton has long labored on child poverty; and John Edwards has spent the last few years assiduously studying poverty and speaking out about it. On the Republican side, Sam Brownback is also very serious about poverty and related issues, including prison conditions and recidivism.
That's good news, but developmental economists will tell you that it's going take more than a few celebrity anti-poverty enthusiasts to end the plight of the world's poor (despite the laudatory work of Bono, the Gates', and others (see here and here). In fact, Kristof's piece is excellent in his discussion of what we've learned about what works -- at home and abroad -- in devising strategies to allieviate poverty. (The most important work being done to help the poor in developing countries, he notes, is performed by grassroots antipoverty workers.)

I need to stress again how good this article is. Kristof is extremely balanced in his interpretation, and the books he's reviewing actually argue that globalization is improving the lot of many of the world's poor (thus there's not one hint of anti-Americanism here). I don't read Kristof in the New York Times that often (where he has a regular column, rudely walled-off by the "Times Select" subscription barrier), but he's extremely well traveled, thoughtful, and knows what he's talking about. I particularly liked his discussion on the role of women and his stress on educating children in combating poverty. Note this quote on the lousy choices made by many of the world's poor:

The pattern of misallocation of resources is confirmed by what I've seen in poor countries. It's routine to visit a family with a severely malnourished child (with consequences for the child's cognition if it survives), and find out that the family has some meager savings—but Dad is off drinking them up at a nearby bar. And this is dispiriting for a man to admit, but it's typically that way: abundant research shows that in poor families, women invest money in food, children, and small businesses—and men squander funds on cigarettes, alcohol, video halls, and prostitution.

We should be clear: one smart way to fight poverty is to empower women (by educating girls, by giving daughters legal rights to inheritance, by promoting banking institutions that give women control over the accounts). Once mothers control family spending rather than fathers, family resources are invested more productively, and some families can rise out of poverty very quickly. This makes the fight for gender equality in the developing world not only a moral imperative but also an economic one. Aid groups recognize this and are adjusting their strategies. For example, Helene Gayle, the new head of CARE, is making empowerment of women—including microfinance—a major strategy because of its implications for fighting poverty.
Kristof -- very importantly, I think -- stresses the role of culture as one of the main ingredients in attacking the cycle of poverty:

There is, I think, a liberal squeamishness about confronting the reality that one important element that sustains poverty is culture: a self-destructive pathology that arises from poverty and then entraps the poor in it for generation after generation. The culture varies with the society, and it is different for Dalits (or Untouchables) in India and for villagers in Congo and for the homeless in the US. Often, though, this culture involves elements of hopelessness, substance abuse, underinvestment in education, self-fulfilling expectations of failure, and squandered resources.
That's an honest assessment, but he goes on that culture itself has many facets, and try as they might, many poor aren't successful. Here's Kristof discussing patterns of the poor in the U.S. after working in New Orleans on anti-poverty initiatives following Hurricane Katrina:

What we've seen over and over is that even if there is a free clinic, the poor family may depend on a single mother who doesn't have a car or driver's license and so can't get there. Or she can't afford the gas. Or her car doesn't have insurance. Or she doesn't understand how serious the symptoms are. Or she is working at a low-level job where she can't just ask for time off to take a child to the clinic. Or she doesn't speak English. Or she's illegal and is worried that INS agents may look at the clinic's records. Or she's got three other small children and can't leave two at home while she takes her sick child on a series of bus rides to the clinic. Or...the possibilities are endless. The point is that making medical care accessible to the poor requires much more than making it free.
I can anticipate hard-core cultural conservatives disagreeing here, but read the whole thing for yourself -- again, this is a great, thoughtful review, on a topic -- as a cultural conservative myself -- I've contemplated a lot (even delving into some of the hard-core academic studies from time to time).

I post on poverty issues from time to time as well, especially on the poor in America. For example, see my entries: "
Homeless Families Struggle Amid Holiday Affluence," "Poor Blacks Can Succeed With Encouragment," and "West Fresno Neighborhood Embodies Best of Black America."

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