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What will it take to alleviate poverty?

Published by Newsweek on 1999-12-01

A British civil servant who was stationed in 19th century India increasingly felt that colonial administrators were dangerously disconnected with social and economic conditions throughout the Raj. He was particularly appalled by the disparities of wealth and by the ostentatiousness and inequities of India's class system. The Englishman, Allan Octavian Hume, who founded the Indian National Congress in 1885, said: "You cannot have separate, unequal peoples living alongside in great riches and deep poverty, without inviting catastrophe."

His warning resonated with subsequent Congress leaders such as Mohandas K. Gandhi--the Mahatma--and Jawaharlal Nehru. These founders of independent India held that lasting solutions to economic and social problems could only come if colonial territories achieved self-rule. Freedom, they reasoned, would foster more mass-oriented polices. That belief, which eventually galvanized scores of local leaders in other parts of Asia, Africa and South America, led to the emergence of nearly 130 independent countries in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties.

However, decades down the road, this political freedom hasn't brought a better life for most of the world's people. More than a hundred years after Allan Octavian Hume articulated his anguish, severe economic and social dislocations continue to afflict much of the developing world. And as a new century--and a new millennium--dawns, the global imbalance of misery is far more dramatic than anything that Hume, or Gandhi or Nehru ever imagined: two billion of the world's population of six billion live under the poverty line--which is to say, they subsist on less than the equivalent of a dollar a day. While industrialized countries are largely awash with prosperity, the benefits of globalization seem to elude growing numbers of people in more and more countries. For many of these people, it has been a transition from Raj to rags.

This isn't to say that development investment through foreign aid and local mobilization has failed totally. (Donor countries have contributed more than a trillion dollars in assistance to developing states in the last five decades.) To be sure, there have been significant gains: a global increase in food production that has diminished prospects of famine; falling death rates because of better access to vaccines and primary health-care; declining infant and maternal mortality; widening literacy. But such progress has hardly been commensurate with the hopes engendered by the flow of capital and technology, and the expectations of self government.

"These are important advances in themselves, but they are only a Maginot line confronting a rising tide of despair--a small, strategically inadequate firewall that may not continue to hold," says New York University's Ralph Buultjens. "Recent upheavals between authorities and grassroots activists could be a foretaste of sustained civil strife by the excluded."

The reference was to the strident demonstrations by nongovernmental groups at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle in December; the WTO's 135 member states failed to agree on an agenda for new negotiations to further liberalize the global trade regime and were confounded by the passions of the protestors. For those proponents of trade who believed that it should serve as an effective substitute for aid, Seattle was a sobering experience. "It is becoming evident that the prosperity of globalization cannot be sustained by purely economic criteria," Professor Buultjens adds. "What's needed is a new dynamic of globalization--nothing short of a new compact between the forces of globalization and the reformist elements among the world's dispossessed."

What would constitute the structure of this "new compact"? If mantras such as "trade, not aid" have run out of steam, what will it take to jumpstart economic and social development in what was once called the third world? The myriad international conferences of the Nineties have helped clarify global problems relating to economic growth, protection of the environment, rights of women and children, family-planning, food security, and other social issues. While global consensus on the need to resolve problems is encouraging, ultimately all meaningful progress can only be accomplished at the local level:

_ Institution building. Nehru's signal contribution to post-independent India was his emphasis on strengthening local institutions of governance and parliamentary processes--village councils, district courts, among others. More developing nations need to institute such programs, perhaps in cooperation with international organizations that have the funds and expertise to help enhance local capacity-building.

_ Local leadership. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. points out that just 60 years ago there only a dozen democratic countries; now more than half of the world's population lives in states where elections are generally held. Still, there's a striking paucity of youthful leaders in most developing nations: young professionals and others who might otherwise consider public service are often dispirited by rampant corruption, nepotism and the kleptocracy that characterize their polities. Shouldn't Western universities, businesses and think-tanks devise more programs for supporting developing-country leaders of tomorrow? Perhaps subsidized programs of training and access to an international support system could well be the incentives that trigger a rekindling of participation in public life.

_ Education of women. Nehru once said that by educating girls, a nation "can revolution its economy and its society." It's been long established that educated women tend to postpone marriage, have fewer children, and contribute significantly to economic productivity. But not enough developing countries have gone past lip service to the notion of women's education. This is where Western institutions of learning, and also multilateral and bilateral aid organizations, can promote specific projects with accelerated intensity.

_ New partnerships. There will be an unprecedented $10 trillion transfer of wealth between the generations over the next five decades in the United States alone--the primary beneficiaries being private philanthropies. Foundations need to construct more sophisticated programs that are not only culturally sensitive but also stimulate concepts such as individual entrepreneurship--so that everyday people can obtain greater personal stake in their own economic output. Nongovernmental organizations, too, should be doing more than man barricades in protest; more tending of the grassroots is sorely needed, not travel to global talkfests at fancy resorts.

This isn't a new millennium for every culture--Buddhists, Chinese, Hindus, Jews and Muslims observe different calendars. But the year 2000 can be more than a marker in the Gregorian calendar. This is an opportunity to foster what Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore called "a rising tide of peace and genuine prosperity." Such a universal vision can only be realized by shedding shibboleths of the past, yet learning from recent history. Otherwise, the new millennium will be consigned to a rerun of our collective--and colossal--failures.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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