World leaders can do much more than offer pledges and set deadlines to help the poor. For a start, they can devote more time at home fixing their own unhelpful policies.
Like charity, getting rid of poverty begins at home
Like a gushing beauty queen on her big night, world leaders told us they want to make the world a better place for poor people.
In New York last month, the UN held an appraisal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a set of much-hyped targets laid out in 2000 to reduce global poverty and other ills by 2015.
All that was missing was a basket full of kittens. Improving the plight of the poor is, of course, a noble goal. From the barrios of Rio de Janeiro to the shantytowns of Mombasa, the wail of hungry infants is a constant reminder of the scale of human suffering. So for the leaders of the world to come together and pledge themselves to fighting hunger and disease is to be commended. But what's missing from all this good intent is a willingness to do the dirty work that could end poverty once and for all. For instance, Ethiopia, the poster child of famine, is once again in need; 5 million of its people will need food aid this year, according to the UN.
In 1984, the world came to Ethiopia's aid when a devastating drought combined with the ruling Derg's untenable policy of driving peasants from their land on to collective farms. The Derg is gone, swept away by revolution, but the current leadership in Addis Ababa is no less inept at managing its natural resources. Yet donor nations are reluctant to challenge the government of Meles Zenawi because of his willingness to send Ethiopians to battle warlords in neighbouring Somalia.
Feeding the starving has therefore become a substitute for action. It is not only the developing world's leaders who are guilty of bad decision making. The fight against malaria, another of the millennium goals, is a case in point. Nine out of 10 malaria deaths occur in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation. The chemical DDT has all but eliminated the microbe-carrying mosquito in the developed world. South Africa has used controlled DDT spraying to wipe out malaria with negligible environmental effect.
Yet, under pressure from western environmental groups, international aid agencies refuse to fund DDT spraying where it is desperately needed. Instead, they bankroll the fiction that mosquito nets will save the 1 million people who die every year from the disease. Rich countries also scandalously build trade barriers to imports and flood global markets with cheap produce, ensuring farmers in the developing world remain beggars dependent on handouts. Thanks to subsidies, US cotton is cheaper than that produced in Mali, one of the world's poorest places.
At the same time, Europe and the US impose vicious tariff regimes to protect their often inefficient steel and agriculture industries, shutting out cheaper competitors from countries such as India and Brazil. A trade agreement between southern Africa and the EU was held up for years because Spain was demanding unlimited access to the region's fishing grounds, a bounty it sorely needed after plundering its own pelagic resources almost to extinction.
To be sure, some progress has been made in eroding human suffering. About 400 million Chinese are no longer poverty stricken, says the World Bank; Brazil and Vietnam are also on target to meet most of the millennium goals by 2015. Of course, these countries are also enjoying the fruits of free-market capitalism. Their economies are growing fast because their leaders have abandoned failed socialist experiments. If fewer of their citizens go to bed hungry than did 20 years ago, it has very little to do with the kindness of foreigners. And certainly not because the millennium goals played any significant role in their strategic thinking.
Wise governance will do for poverty and disease what the band aid of foreign assistance has not. Until the rich countries devote more effort to ending bad policies at home and elsewhere, poverty will remain with us into the next millennium. firstname.lastname@example.org