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?