Africana Plus

No 14 January 1996.1


An end to poverty

Ten years to eliminate poverty!

The General Assembly of the United Nations is encouraging governments and the international community to actively pursue the objective that is part of the framework of the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty (1996). Furthermore, 1997-2006 was proclaimed the first United Nations decade for the eradication of poverty.

Following the Copenhagen summit on world poverty in March 1995, the Assembly recommended that donor countries make the eradication of poverty a higher priority in their programs and their budgets for bilateral and multilateral assistance.

At the official launch of the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty on December 18, 1995, Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary General of the United Nations, stated that the facts about poverty were known, but largely ignored by most people. More than 1.3 billion struggle to live on less than a dollar per day. Several years ago, this number was 300 million smaller. In 1990, the world's wealthiest 20% had an income 60 times higher than the poorest 20%. In 1960, the difference was only 30 times. Mr. Boutros-Ghali quoted these figures from a study by J. M. Vigil and P. Casaldaliga for the United Nations Development Program in 1994.

Why do 1.3 billion people live in such extreme poverty? It is impossible to understand this phenomenon, which tends to affect people of the South more than the North, without taking a closer look at the main actors in the global economy and world politics. Generally speaking, each and every person in the North benefits from the shameless exploitation of the people of the South. They perpetuate this state of affairs by consuming, saving and voting as the system desires.

But above all, there are 200 multinationals which are responsible for 30% of the North's production, compared to a few dozen that control 80% of world trade flows. Naturally, they do not operate alone: they have the cooperation of the elite of the South, as well as governments and international agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF. Schematically, it can be said that there are three ways in which the multinationals make money on the backs of the people of the South: control of trade, exploitation of workers, and debt. A number of economists feel there is only one way to address the problem, and that is to see the world as a global village with a common destiny. This is what came out of the Copenhagen summit on poverty.

If the world were a village, say a village with a population of 1,000, then 564 would be Asian, 210 European, 86 African, 80 South American and 60 North American. In numbers, members of the Third World would account for most of the population: 730 versus only 270 for the West. As a result, some may conclude that the Third World is overpopulated, and starvation is the main cause of death. Indeed, overpopulation does occur in certain regions of the world, such as Asia (notably India and China) and sub-Saharan Africa. This becomes painfully obvious when a large proportion of the population migrates to urban centres. Excessive urbanization causes more than its share of physical and moral suffering, not to mention the loss of one's culture. And there is a wide gulf between rich and poor.

However, the concept of overpopulation can be very deceptive. Simply take a given population and the territory it covers: as it turns out, the West is more densely populated than the Third World, and yet on the whole people live in plenty. Overpopulation is a smokescreen that hides the real components of the problem, which are economic and social. Westerners think they have the answer when they criticize the people of the Third World: they shouldn't have so many children. The women should be on the Pill. They are being irresponsible towards their offspring. If there weren't so many of them, they could feed the ones they have.

But fewer people does not necessarily guarantee that they will have more to eat. Europe may be overpopulated, but on the whole people are well nourished. Poverty is a terrible problem in Africa, which in areas is very much underpopulated. The imbalance between a population and the resources at its disposal is more closely linked to the prevalent type of production and the distribution of wealth within the society. Too often, it is the poor of the rich countries that wind up giving to the rich of the poor countries.

In that hypothetical village with a population of 1,000, 60 people would account for half of the total income. Five hundred would be hungry, 600 would be living in makeshift houses and 700 would be illiterate.

Just consider the personal fortune of the president of Zaire, somewhere between US $5 and 6 billion. With that kind of money, he could pay off practically all his country's foreign debt, estimated at $7 billion. Instead, he would rather repay $2.8 million a month to the IMF, refusing to index his civil servants' salaries (since July 1994), withholding their pay for months, or simply deciding not to pay them at all.

While this illustrates an imbalance in the distribution of wealth, it is also an example of the economic dependence of the poor on the rich. The South's debt runs to some 1,500 billion dollars. Each month, countries of the southern hemisphere deposit $12.5 billion in bank accounts in the North. Even impoverished sub-Saharan Africa gives the North its mite: $1 billion each month. Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, once angrily demanded: Do we have to starve our children to pay our debts? We have arrived at the absurd state of affairs that the poverty-stricken South is financing the wealthy North.

Third World workers, for instance, often make food products for industrialized countries while they themselves are malnourished. They abandon food crops in favour of a single cash crop desirable to the West (cotton, coffee, peanuts, sisal, etc.).

The intervention of Western countries in the Third World has not achieved the goal it claimed to be targeting, i.e., remedying underdevelopment. Poverty, famine and epidemics are all part of daily life in many countries. Some experts are even wondering if it might not be just as well that development aid is drying up. They have figures to show that while there is a connection between aid and growth, it is the exact opposite of the desired goal: as aid increases, growth declines. The reason is that aid keeps populations on the receiving end of handouts, with no incentive to do anything to change their situation. Having money is not enough to make someone want to invest it rather than spend it. Money that someone has not earned at least in part by his or her own labour or ingenuity is rarely invested wisely.

A country that has not made up its mind to become self-reliant and is not prepared to ask one generation to make sacrifices in order to better educate succeeding generations and to foster entrepreneurs (which is where real aid should be directed) is a country that is unlikely to enter the charmed circle of development. Someone who receives assistance is rarely an architect of development. To paraphrase an old proverb: you cannot prepare for the future if someone is giving you fish for free; first, you have to learn to fish for yourself and then put your know-how into practice. Real aid is something that is designed to make itself obsolete by helping the recipients to take themselves in hand.

Priority should therefore be given to small-scale projects that meet the real needs of the local population. In days gone by, despite primitive techniques, very few people suffered from chronic malnutrition. Development organizations are more and more aware that the multinationals are siphoning off the wealth of poor countries. That is why these organizations now undertake projects only after a series of consultations with and surveys of the local population to identify their needs.

If the world were a village, the size of its population could be perceived as a type of wealth, and person-centred aid could be seen as a resource. It would depend only on the goodwill of other human beings.

The poor will always hope that the better-off will show more solidarity with them. Today, the ones that deserve the most attention are those who live in extreme poverty. It may seem utopian to say that one day there will be no more misery on earth, but it is a worthy aspiration for human beings to cherish.

It is to be hoped that the upcoming UN decade for the eradication of poverty, and especially the International Year in 1996, will provide many with an opportunity to examine the quality of their humanity.

Michel Fortin

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