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Last modified 2005-03-09 08:34 AM

Poor ambitions for the world

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Despite its bold name, the new celebrity campaign won't Make Poverty History.



by Daniel Ben-Ami

There can be few more worthwhile goals for humanity than to make poverty history. The problem with the Make Poverty History campaign, recently launched by many charities, religious organisations and celebrities, is that it does not live up to its name. Judging by its publicly stated aims, it would be more accurate to call the campaign: 'Slightly alleviate the most extreme aspects of poverty over the very long-term, maybe.'

Make Poverty History aims to ensure that the Millennium Development Goals, officially endorsed by every member of the United Nations in 2000, are met. According to the campaign's manifesto: 'By mobilising popular support across a unique string of events and actions, we will press our own government to compel rich countries to fulfil their obligations and promises to help eradicate poverty, and to rethink some long-held assumptions.' (1) To the extent that it is critical of governments, it is because they are not moving fast enough to achieve the goals by the target year of 2015. The campaign estimates that at the current level of progress, the goal of halving extreme poverty will not be reached until 2150 (2). But even if these goals are achieved the world will be far from making poverty history.

The first of the development goals is to halve the proportion of people living on less than one dollar (around 52p at current exchange rates) a day in 2015, but this would still leave many hundreds of millions of people below the threshold (3). Even the World Bank's official development goals website concedes that the achievement of such a goal would not make poverty history: 'while poverty would not be eradicated, that would bring us much closer to the day when we can say that all the world's people have at least the bare minimum to eat and clothe themselves.' (4)

However, if ending poverty is defined in relation to what is considered acceptable in Britain, the picture looks radically different. In the European Union a widely used threshold for poverty is 60 percent of median income. By this measure in 2001/2, the poverty threshold in Britain was £187 per week for a couple with no children, £114 for a single person with no children, £273 for a couple with two children aged five and 11, and £200 for a single parent with children aged five and 11 (5). In contrast, the World Bank says that 1.1billion people worldwide live on less than $1 a day (about £4 a week) and 2.7 billion on less than $2 (6). The two sets of statistics are not strictly comparable, as they are not calculated in exactly the same way. But they give an idea of the vast gulf between what is regarded as poverty in Britain and the level considered acceptable for the third world. Clearly there is a huge amount of work to be done, in a genuinely bold programme, even to bring the world up to the current British level.

No doubt many supporters of the Make Poverty History campaign would argue that such an ambition is unrealistic. But if that is the case they should at least stop using grand rhetoric about ending global poverty. They should also remember that earlier generations were far more ambitious than those currently in power. For example, in Harry S Truman's 1949 inaugural address as American president he argued that: 'We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.' (7) The breadth of Truman's vision, as expressed over half a century ago, was much wider than that of today's anti-poverty campaigners. It is hard to imagine the current generation of leaders unequivocally advocating 'industrial progress' while scientific advance, although paid lip service, is generally viewed with anxiety (8).

As it happens, real reductions in poverty have come about through rapid economic growth rather than pious proclamations by politicians or celebrities. According to a recent report by the United Nations: 'The poverty rate in China dropped from 33 per cent to 17 per cent between 1990 and 2001, and in India from 42 per cent to 35 per cent' (9). Strong growth has created the conditions that have enabled Asia's two demographic giants to cut their poverty rates.

It should also be acknowledged that the Millennium Development Goals are not just about poverty in the sense of low incomes. They also include other targets such as achieving universal primary education, halting and starting to reverse the spread of HIV-AIDS, and starting to reverse the incidence of malaria. However, these goals also lack ambition. For example, in the developed world it is normal for children to finish secondary school with many going on to university. In relation to HIV-AIDS, even if the target is met the disease will remain prevalent - 39million people in developing countries had the disease in 2003 (10).

The case of malaria is even more shocking. The United Nations Development Programme has estimated that a million people a year die from the disease while others put the figure higher. Yet malaria is entirely preventable - and has been virtually eliminated in developed countries such as America. Measures such as spraying with the insecticide DDT, draining swamps, treatment with drugs and special bed netting coated with insecticide can contain the disease (11). Yet the Millennium Development Goal target is to start to reverse the incidence of malaria by 2015, rather than to eradicate the disease.

The Make Poverty History campaign gives the impression that it is a grassroots anti-government campaign. For instance, one of its key documents is entitled: 'A challenge to the British prime minister in 2005' (12). Yet all of the key measures advocated by the campaign have been supported by the British government, and are part of a broader international consensus. Few, if any, of the world's leaders would argue with the slogans: 'Trade justice. Drop the debt. More and better aid.' For example, UK chancellor Gordon Brown expressed support for debt relief, fair trade and more aid in a speech on international development at the start of 2005 (13). Back in February 2004 he expressed support for the same goals, in an article in the Guardian that he wrote jointly with Jim Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank (14). Even the World Economic Forum, an annual summit for business and political leaders, made helping the global poor its key theme this year (15).

Anyone who follows the development discussion cannot fail to be struck by how often such promises are recycled. The target of raising the level of Official Development Assistance to 0.7 per cent of gross national product was agreed by the UN general assembly back in 1970, and was expected to be achieved by the middle of the decade (16). It has been reiterated as an official goal several times since. Official support for debt relief goes back almost as far. Back in the late 1970s, official creditors forgave debt of $6billion to 45 small countries (17). Other similar initiatives have followed since.

Given this inadequate track record, a campaign that genuinely sought to eradicate poverty should not be parroting the government's own proposals on the topic. It should question whether such initiatives are the right way to generate development, and query why they have often been preached but never implemented.

However, there have been significant changes in the development debate since the 1970s. One of the most important shifts is the growing insistence by Western governments and multilateral organisations on their right to impose detailed conditions on aid and debt relief. Under the guise of battling corruption, improving governance and increasing transparency, the conditions imposed on poorer countries are more extensive than ever before. They are expected to conform to a wide range of codes and standards on corporate, economic and social matters.

Make Poverty History does reject some forms of conditionality. For instance, it objects to aid being made conditional on deregulation or privatisation. But it is not against conditionality in principle. One of its goals in relation to aid is that 'aid needs to focus on poor people's needs. This means more aid being spent on such areas as basic healthcare and education' (18). While this might sound like an innocuous, even admirable, condition, it implicitly goes along with the trend of ever-tightening conditionality on poor countries. What if a country wants to build roads or factories as a way to promote development? Or perhaps it wants to prioritise non-basic healthcare or university education? Presumably such activity could fall foul of new-style conditionality. In the name of prioritising the interests of the poor the new conditionality encourages poor countries to have low aspirations about development.

Ultimately the Make Poverty History campaign might achieve more in terms of making its supporters feel good about themselves than in third world development. By wearing a white band they can somehow feel that they are behaving in a morally righteous way. But the limited goals that they support, even if achieved, would not make the scourge of poverty history, and can only help unwittingly to reinforce a climate of low expectations.

Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

Development should mean more than survival, by Daniel Ben-Ami

The coffee con, by Daniel Ben-Ami

Why shouldn't Tanzania have air traffic control?, by John Pender

(1) Make Poverty History manifesto

(2) See A challenge to the British prime minister in 2005, Make Poverty History [pdf format]. Gordon Brown's estimate is the same. See Speech by the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer at a DfID/UNDP seminar - 'Words into Action in 2005', Lancaster House, London. 26 January 2005

(3) The dollar a day threshold is calculated on the basis of 1993 purchasing power parity dollars. See Goal 1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, UN Statistics Division

(4) Development goals website

(5) National Statistics Households Below Average Income: First Release, 13 March 2003

(6) World Bank figures from Global Poverty Down By Half Since 1981 But Progress Uneven As Economic Growth Eludes Many Countries, World Bank news release, 23 April 2004

(7) Truman's inaugural address, Truman Presidential Museum and Library

(8) Tony Blair did in fact advocate industrial progress in his October 2001 speech to the Labour party conference but he made it conditional on being 'without the factory conditions of the 19th Century'. This is typical of how such arguments are posed nowadays. Rather than outright opposition to growth or development, any support for such a programme is subject to numerous caveats. Full text: Tony Blair's speech (part one), Guardian, 2 October 2001

(9) Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, United Nations , p38

(10) UNDP Human Development Report 2003, p8

(11) Malaria: the vaccine challenge, BBC Four. The existence of current ways of dealing with malaria clearly should not preclude the development of a malaria vaccine

(12) See A challenge to the British prime minister in 2005, Make Poverty History [pdf format]

(13) Speech by the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the National Gallery of Scotland, 6 January 2005

(14 ) A new deal for the world's poor, Gordon Brown and Jim Wolfensohn, Guardian, 16 February 2004

(15) See 'Obligation to poor is key Davos theme', Financial Times, 29 January 2005

(16) For the 1970 target see International Development Bill 49, 2000-2001, p8

(17) William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth, MIT Press 2002, p124-5

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