Small answers to the big questions

A reporter emailed me this morning to see if I could answer a few questions about poverty. Sure I said. The emailed questions that followed?

  • It is realistic to think that poverty can one day end?
  • What, in your view, are the best global solutions?
  • How urgent is it to act (in the context of climate change)?

My first reaction: thanks for asking the easy questions, lady. Was this serious? How can one possibly answer the grand questions of development in a few sentences?

My second reaction: oh right. I shoot my mouth off all the time. This whole blog is about short, incomplete, probably wrong answers to important questions. This is why you people keep coming back.

Fortunately for her I was jet-lagged and typing by 5am this morning. Here were my responses:

It is realistic to think that poverty can one day end?

In America, you can be poor but own a car, a television, and have food on the table every day. In northern Uganda, that would make you a very wealthy man.

Do I see a world where nearly every household has their basic needs covered, plus some of the comforts of life? Absolutely. I imagine most places on the planet will get to what we now think of as middle-income status—perhaps $8,000 to $14,000 per head in 2011 dollars and purchasing ability. The poorest nations will probably be in those places least advantageous to trade (the landlocked, for instance) and where cultures or political systems restrict innovation and freedoms.

But poverty is a relative measure, and short of a Star Trek world where you can summon food and items out of a wall unit, there will always be people who struggle to keep up.

What, in your view, are the best global solutions?

There are plenty aid programs that seem to work, from de-worming to small business grants to incentives to send children to school. But none of these programs are likely to have transformative effects.

The difference between a country with $1,500 and $15,000 of income a head a head is simple: industry. All the microfinance and microenterprise programs in the world are not going to build large firms and import technology and provide most people with what they really want: a stable job, regular wages, and a decent work environment.

How you get these firms is the tricky question. Only a few firms will be home grown; most will be firms that spread across borders, because they have the markets and know-how. Probably we’ll need to see wages rise in China and India before manufacturing ever spreads to the poorest places on the planet, like Central Asia and Africa.

The countries that will get them first are the ones that are close to trade routes, have stable political climates, make it easy to get finance, are open to trade, have large domestic markets, have able and educated workforces (i.e. secondary education), and have leaders in charge who don’t see the industrial sector as either a threat to their power or a garden from which they get to select the sweetest fruits for themselves.

How urgent is it to act (in the context of climate change)?

The short answer: I wouldn’t know. For the US and China and Europe and India, they must change because if they don’t nothing will.

For the Ugandas or Uzbekistans or Bolivias of the world, I can’t see it making a difference. Let them develop as green as possible, but let’s not impede their growth because of it, and rob them of the opportunity we took ourselves.

Readers: contesting views?

13 thoughts on “Small answers to the big questions

  1. massively agree with number 3. I’m personally hugely skeptical that the big economies will ever agree to do anything serious about climate change, so I’m holding out for a technological solution for clean energy, like nuclear fusion. Otherwise we’re all doomed.

  2. Agree with two and three, for a lot of people (more than I have imagined in my life-sample) think that ” the end of poverty” means holding hands and everyone being “equal”, which is not necessarily the concept thought by others. Trying to get everyone with basic needs is the key, either way there will always be poor people if someone is richer than the other one. For number two, I thought she meant policies as in promote temporary migration.. http://goo.gl/Ij7VN..

  3. Chris, I agree with your vision for a future with less poverty, but with one caveat that hits your responses to 1) and 3). We have a bit of a problem right now, as we butt up against the capacity of our ecosystems to serve our needs and absorb our outputs. We laid this out pretty clearly in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment several years back, and things have deteriorated since. I am not sure how much consumption per capita we can enable at this point, especially in a world headed to 9 billion (all of this assuming, of course, that nobody actually figures fusion out and provides us with clean, effectively free, limitless energy – that would change the math). This means that “green” growth may be the only option available for much of the Global South . . . how much more manufacturing can we support? The old development pathways are closed – the world economy is different, the global environment is different . . . which to me isn’t necessarily bad. It is freeing – we can now think about what different really looks like.

  4. Chris,
    I wholeheartedly agree with your responses. Obviously the most important questions dealing with your first response are not “if” this will happen, but “how” and “when”. As you said, relativity – and defining poverty – is key when discussing these lines (is the reporter referring to an Americanized version of poverty where you get a check from the government, or severe poverty, where food and clean water are scarce?).
    Dealing with the third response, if I have interpreted it correctly, albeit brief, this is one of the best responses I have come across. My personal view is that the most pressing concern right now is to bring work, eventually spurning trade, education, adequate working conditions, etc to regions of extreme poverty. Once they have jobs, the availability of an education and medicine, and an infrastructure to support growth and trade we can worry about sustainability and the environment. I guess that it’s a lesser of two evils approach, but the way I see it, when faced with the question of no jobs and no pollution, or many jobs coming from an industry that will temporarily pollute, I’ll choose to side with people.

  5. “we’ll need to see wages rise in China and India before manufacturing ever spreads to the poorest places on the planet, like Central Asia and Africa.”

    Given your posts about construction and manufacturing growth in Ethiopia, coupled with recent news about rising inflation in China, are we on the cusp of seeing manufacturing expand in many African countries? What are the limiting factors?

  6. How quickly we forget our own blogposts…
    http://chrisblattman.com/2010/12/08/whats-the-most-effective-development-intervention-we-know/
    I think the future of most of the developing world doesn’t have anything to do with industry, but has more to do with this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morristown,_Tennessee
    it’s where they filmed The Evil Dead.
    Get it… location site for bad movie, metaphor for town, real and in movie… I’m just beginning to understand the layered irony.

  7. Disagree with 3. What if India and large parts of China were to be seen as a collection of smaller, but still relatively poor states? Would you then tolerate some pollution in favour of growth? Why should India and China pay a special green tax for being large and relatively stable political unions?

  8. Good point with 3. I think many have forgotten how much we waste and constantly disregard things to get to the top. The developed countries should start leading by example before they pitch expensive development ideas to those countries scrapping to get by.

  9. I agree with your thoughts, especially number one. There is no easy way to solve the world wide problem of poverty. As Americans we have a distorted outlook on the necessities of life. Most of us cannot identify with the poverty faced by millions around the world. I think the most important way Americans can try to aid in the fight against global poverty is by keeping our society, especially the youth, aware of issues affecting people around the world. Younger generations should learn to appreciate the basic necessities they have been given and realize that not everyone is given equal opportunities to succeed.

  10. With poverty, I see it as an issue of greed. Yes, there are plenty of resources out there for everybody, but sometimes there is someone, who has their own lunch money but wants your lunch money as well. While the bigger countries are making steps to changing their public perceptions, there was once a time when western countries were those bullies collecting lunch money from the other countries. The bigger countries must continue to provide positive examples for their ‘little brothers’ because a significant amount of the time it’s monkey see monkey do when it comes to policies.