Fighting Poverty: The Wrong Approach

Source: wikipedia 
Fighting poverty is controversial and complex.

Why? Because it is a highly politicized and misunderstood social issue.

Conservatives inevitably will clash with liberals when the issue comes up. The conservatives are convinced that if people are poor it's their own fault while the liberals lay the blame squarely on the rich.

It is deeply ironic that one of the historically iconic images of the cinema is Charlie Chaplin's tramp character, drolly shimmying his way through the Big Depression, yet setting the crowds howling with laughter.

And it is deeply symbolic of the complexity of the issue.

Both the clash and the misunderstanding were brought to me vividly this week-end with a clever video about fighting poverty that was just uploaded on YouTube and that I  first saw on Thingser, a fascinating new social media that brings together people around their interests - and, if you follow this blog, you'll know what my interests are: social issues in general, the United Nations in particular and how that organization is involved, inter alia, in fighting poverty. That's why I saw this video a couple of days ago when I opened up "my things" page on Thingser

Here's the video, with a frontal attack on the United Nations' efforts to fight poverty:

As you can see, this is visually very effective.

It manipulates you emotionally before you have time to reflect on the message. 

The video is produced by the  Rules org and it sits on their home page. These are undoubtedly people of good will, genuinely concerned with poverty. They describe themselves as "a decentralized movement of activists campaigning around the world against poverty"  and this is how they express their mission:
The richest 300 people have as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion. This inequality is no accident; those in power write the rules. We can change them. 
What a shame their video is so wrong.

I was immediately moved to clarify where this video had gone wrong and responded on Thingser (if you're curious and want to see the post and my comments on Thingser, click here). But I wanted to share with you here a more thoughtful response.

First, the complexity of the issue.

In a short blog post, it's impossible to explore - suffice it to say that poverty is not a Third World monopoly or an outcome of "under-development".

Extreme poverty exists in the developed world too and can be excruciating. Affluent Americans may believe this is not the case in the US, but that comfortable view is demolished in a new book just published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, with the arresting title: $2.00 A DAY, Living on Almost Nothing in America.

Written by two American academics, Kathryn J. Edin, a leading poverty researcher and sociologist teaching at John Hopkins University and H. Luke Shaefer, professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, it sheds light on the poor and explains how the number of destitute families in the US has more than doubled since 1996 to 1.5 million households, with some 3 million children. As Harvard professor William Julius Wilson writes in the New York Times:
This essential book is a call to action, and one hopes it will accomplish what Michael Harrington's "The Other America" achieved in the 1960s - arousing both the nation's consciousness and conscience about the plight of a growing number of invisible citizens. 
Oddly enough, just as this book came out, Hollywood once again focused on poverty in two new films (see NYT review here) - but this time, nothing like Charlie Chaplin's comedic approach.

Richard Gere stars in Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind, a film that explores homelessness in New York, here's the trailer:


And here's what Paul Bettany, the director of the other film, Shelter, has to say about his film featuring a homeless couple in New York, with his wife, actress Jennifer Connelly, in the role of a heroin addict and Anthony Mackie as an African immigrant:

Yes, he too worries about the "judgment" people have about poverty, their erroneous conviction that the poor are to blame for their predicament.

I haven't seen the film yet, but since it also focuses on romance and is not all about "dark lives in a dark place", I am willing to bet that it may be better than the other film at creating empathy for the poor.

Second, the role of the UN in fighting poverty.

The UN hopes to push the world into substituting profit-seeking with globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals that respect Nature and restore human dignity to everyone, including and especially the poor.

This has been ably explained by Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of the Columbia University Earth Institute, in his latest book The Age of Sustainable Development  that he presents here:

If you don't have time now for his hour-long presentation (but I recommend you try to find the time, it's worth it), let me cut to the main point I want to make here:

Why the Rules org video is misleading:

(1) There is a suggestion that the First World benefits from the Third World via international trade and investment - thus creating poverty.
That's not the way it is; in fact,  it's the ultra rich in the Third World who "benefits" most from poverty - much more than anyone in the First World. As a matter of statistical and historical fact, really profitable trade always happens between countries at the same economic level (eg. Europe and America).  The roots of poverty are thus far more complex than "man exploiting man";

(2) Changing the financial and monetary system as the video suggests - even if one could do it with a magic wand, which is highly unlikely - would solve nothing.
It might even make matters worse and spread even more poverty as a result of the chaos it would provoke. One of the root causes of wealth is technological change...just as it is a root cause of poverty: progress destroys employment (and income) by removing the need for low skill jobs. With the current wave of increased robotization, even higher level jobs are at risk. This will require yet more efforts to re-balance jobs and skills through training and recycling. In this re-balancing process, education is key. And so is the defense of the environment: if resources like water and sand (as argued in my previous post) disappear because of continued "economic growth", the number of poor will increase exponentially. Hence the importance of reshaping growth in such a way that the Earth's resources are not depleted, i.e. that they remain "sustainable"; and that brings us straight to the key notion underpinning the UN Sustainable Development Goals;

(3) The argument that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN/SDGs) reflect Big Business's grab on the world is simpy wrong;  the UN/SDGs are not predicated on transnational corporations' investments in the Third World or designed to protect them, on the contrary.

The way debates are organized at the United Nations, it is not possible for Big Business, no matter how powerful, to highjack the agenda and obtain every time decisions that are favorable to itself.

There are people standing in the way and they've been fighting Big Business at the UN since the 1992 Rio Conference on the Environment and Development, the so-called "Earth Summit".

Over the past two decades, the importance and influence of civil society organizations at the UN has been constantly rising. And civil society is changing the cards at the UN. For example, indigenous populations are increasingly heard  through their representatives, even in fora as conservative as IFAD, a development bank for the rural world.

The UN has come a long way in the 70 years since it was born as an intergovernmental forum...

At the UN there are basically 3 big groups fighting for attention and trying to grab the world agenda for change:

(1) governments - the delegates who express the official view of their countries - including big business in some cases, like the US that often takes positions favorable to big corporations (but not so often when someone like Samantha Power is US Ambassafor to the UN);

(2) civil society representatives who are increasingly given the "right to speak" and influence the definition of UN/SDGs and adoption of the UN agenda. In UN-speak, this is known as setting up "mechanisms for stakeholder engagement" (for an example, see here the UNEP guidelines). Now, with hundreds of organizations accredited at the UN, civil society is itself highly diversified:
  1. human rights organizations, including the defense of women, workers etc (eg. Amnesty International, Human Watch...);
  2. humanitarians (Oxfam, Save the Children...);
  3. ecologists (World Resources Institute and its Access Initiative, Africa's FADE...)
  4. green business (some of them very honestly green, others not so much); 
  5. big corporations lobbies (that can also masquerade as green business as I just said, but they are quite visible!); 
  6. indigenous people, the most recent and a very fast rising group (eg. South American indians). 

(3) UN staff, the body of professionals - there is a core 45,000 UN civil servants but I estimate some 200,000 people world-wide share in UN values and actively work for them. When the UN Secretary General is able to obtain the advice from a key figure like Professor Sachs, the UN is in fact getting a very powerful voice in support of its "mission and vision".

These are people who, upon entering service, have pledged allegiance to the UN Charter and UN values of equality, dignity and freedom and have done so willingly or they wouldn't have joined the UN in the first place, considering the low level of salaries.

These people are idealists. 

Admittedly, there are exceptions, particularly among high level managers placed there thanks to political pressure from powerful governments like the US, Russia or China: they often (but not always) pursue the agenda of their political sponsors.

UN staff, by definition, is not allowed to speak at the UN but they do respond to questions asked by the delegates and more importantly, they prepare the agenda and documentation for conferences. They register and archive decisions taken and resolutions.

Little by little, those resolutions, unanimously agreed to, get added to a rising pile of international law: To protect and defend that "pile" is the task and duty of UN staff. This is how UN staff action is the source of "soft power" at the UN, at the service of the UN Charter and UN values (the subject of my upcoming book about the UN).

To fix the world is not easy and it won't be done fast. What is really needed to fight poverty are not angry words but concrete action. 

So to change things you need to be pragmatic and start with what you've got.

And go at it step-by-step.

And you need to get everyone around the table to discuss the matter openly - that's what the UN is for.

Mistakes will be made, we're already too late on the climate change question, what's been done so far is not enough - only Europe has tried but what it hasn't gone far enough. Let's hope that something concrete comes out of our next climate change conference, COP21 in Paris in December!

It's our last chance.