I spent the last three years working for Innovations for Poverty Action. They’re an amazing organization dedicated to the mission of “finding and promoting solutions to global poverty problems.” Their mission is largely why I got into international development and has guided my ideas for a long time. But is finding answers and building evidence to help the poor even the right approach?
Zoe Williams of the Guardian writes, “Poverty goals? No, it’s extreme wealth we should be targeting,” and says that we’re looking at the issue of poverty alleviation through the wrong end of the telescope. Her piece is the most recent rebuke of the Sustainable Development Goals, the follow-on to the Millennium Development Goals which the UN released last month with great fanfare.
Williams says that the SDGs boil down to a single failure: not recognising the root cause of poverty as the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth on the planet. Instead of seeing poverty as the result of concentrated wealth, the UN describes poverty as a disease we can cure with more economic growth. Growth and more growth is the answer, the UN says, while simultaneously respecting the environment, consuming more sustainably and combatting climate change. These goals are incompatible, however; the math just doesn’t add up. To sustainably generate enough growth to bring the poor above $1.25 per day could take 100 years, not 15.
Is it always the case that wealth extraction is the root of the problem everywhere? I agree that it is a large part of the puzzle, but surely not all. The problem of global inequality is commonplace, more in our everyday lives. Does my existence as an American male from suburbia generate global poverty? Maybe. Perhaps we can try to learn more about the linkages between wealth and opportunity in wealthy countries, and how policies of corporations, governments, and the actions of individuals generate poverty. Can we prove that there are direct linkages between my choice to drive a big SUV in suburbia and a rural farmer’s low income in Rwanda?
What are the solutions?
To remedy the situation, Williams wonders what would have happened if we had “spent the past 30 years asking questions about the rich: their characters, their honesty, their industriousness, their contribution to society?” as opposed to constantly turning to growth as the answer. If the stream of wealth from the hands of the poor to the rich is causing poverty, let’s go to the root of the problem rather than treating the symptoms.
I don’t think we just should grab our pitchforks and torches and storm Trump tower. The super-rich are an easy target and a large part of the problem. The questions about what policies are in place that allow them to accumulate so much wealth certainly need to be asked. Focusing solely on extreme wealth makes the conversation stagnant: us vs. them. The burden should fall on all of us that grew up in wealthy countries; or the wealthy in poor countries.
The SDGs and IPA may continue to fail in their mission because they’re searching for solutions to global poverty problems. Why aren’t we searching for solutions to global wealth problems? Or why are we not searching for the causes of, rather that solutions to, global poverty problems?
Suma Chakrabarti, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), in defending the SDGs proposes that we must develop partnerships between states and the private sector. Because public funding will not be able to pay for the SDGs, the private sector must fill the gap, he says. Maybe this is the answer we’ve been looking for, or maybe this will widen the wealth gap. Research will need to change gears and adapt to study the impact of these partnerships on the SDGs’ targets.
Instead of a Poverty Action Lab, let’s create the Wealth Action Lab (WAL). A Swedish musical duo, The Knife, had a cartoon attached to their last album released in 2013 that was recirculated when the SDGs came out. They essentially proposed the WAL. What are the policies that generate wealth and how is extreme wealth directly linked to poverty? Instead of the Jameel-Abdul Latif Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) studying the spending habits of the poor, why not study the spending habits of Jameel-Abdul? Research on poverty is very concerned with what proportion of their income the poor dedicate to education, healthcare, and saving for the future. What proportion of Mohammad Jameel-Adbul Latif’s income fights global poverty and how much goes to maintenance of his super yacht? While gifts to J-PAL from the Jameel-Abdul Latif family have generously allowed the organization to flourish, what proportion of the donor’s $5 billion net worth are the gifts? As we generate programs and policies to alleviate poverty, it may be helpful to simultaneously examine policies that allow for so much accumulation of wealth.
For those of us that work in the international development sector, how do we go about raising the incomes of the global poor above $1.25 per day without looking at the incomes of UN staff and other well-paid foreign workers who live in the same countries as the poorest in the world?
If we can nudge farmers to use fertilizer, maybe we can nudge folks into consuming fewer lattés and donating those savings to worthy causes. More than asking a new set of questions directed at those with money rather than those without, there are things we can do to change the situation every day. Tearing apart the SDGs and pointing fingers at the super wealthy and claiming they’re the problem, not me, is easy – so is donating a portion of your salary to worthy causes; or buying clothes that cost what they should from companies that aren’t exacerbating global development problems.
I’m not satisfied with studying only global poverty. The SDGs might be a watered down wish list to save the world because those that wrote them benefit from their continued failure. Sustainable development won’t happen until we look in the mirror and see that it’s not the poor who have a problem, it’s me.
Note: This blog is a repost from the author’s personal website. Read more at www.zachclemence.com.
Zach Clemence is a student in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) graduate programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to the MPA, he worked as a research coordinator at Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) in Uganda and Rwanda. Zach is interested in using research to advocate for evidence-based policymaking.