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Posts Tagged ‘poverty and morality’

Why should we care about economic development in some poor country thousands of miles away? Usually, we choose from three reasons:

  1. Third World development serves American economic interest. This vein of thinking represents the classic liberal argument for globalization: a rising tide lifts us all. Its essence is captured in the following phrase prevalent in the business world: emerging markets. In other words, first and foremost, developing countries are markets, destinations for goods and services from the United States and other industrialized economies.
  2. We have a moral responsibility. Peter Singer made this argument famously in a 1972 article. This responsibility comes from the fact that we have the power to reduce harm, and not using that power is immoral. Singer shows the immorality of the British government’s choice to spend more money to develop the supersonic Concorde jet than to help people suffering from famine. Another moral argument, by Thomas Pogge, is that we are “causally deeply involved in their [i.e., the poorer parts of the world] misery” — through colonialism, through lopsided use of common natural resources, and through their exclusion from major decisions about global economic governance.
  3. Our security is at stake. There are two variants of this argument. One is the bold assertion, made explicit in the 2002 US National Security Strategy, that poverty provides an enabling context for terrorism. This assumed link fuels US interest to spread political and economic liberalism around the world. The second variant involves the human security approach. The argument that poverty is a main source of human insecurity. Therefore the security of the world cannot be established only by making states secure; everyday humans must be made secure in their lives.

The first two provided the classic rubric of development since the Second World War, from the Marshall Plan to the bi- and multilateral foreign aid programs. The rhetoric during the current round of global development talks, i.e., the discussion of the MDGs during the most recent UN General Assembly meetings, increasingly involves the third logic.

MDGs must be met, we are told, because of the political risks of poverty. Jeffrey Sachs, for instance, relates the urgency to fund (calling it an “investment in peace”) and implement the MDGs to a set of vivid political risks:

… increasing disarray in the drylands of Africa, the explosive violence in the horn of Africa, the militarisation of Yemen, the ongoing bloodshed in Central Asia, the mass migration and obvious crises that are showing up all over the world [that] are going to cause cascading calamities

The notion of “reduce poverty for peace” provided the context of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, winning the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. In his Nobel Prize lecture, he said:

Half of the world population lives on two dollars a day. Over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. This is no formula for peace … terrorism cannot be won over by military action … I believe that putting resources into improving the lives of the poor people is a better strategy than spending it on guns.

You see a similar logic in a micro-scale, too. The Economist recently highlighted what it feels is one of the biggest political risks of not doing enough about Pakistan’s floods: “Washed-up paupers may provide hands for the jihadists bombing its cities.”

And this is what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues the UN should do more: market poverty reduction as the path to reducing security risks.

[T]he most effective way to market antipoverty work in coming years will be by rebranding it, in part, as a security issue. Rich country budgets are so strained that it’s unrealistic to think that governments will approve much new money — or endorse the excellent suggestion of a financial transactions tax to pay for global health programs — just to ease suffering … But hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent fighting terrorism and bolstering fragile countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. We should note that schools have a better record of fighting terrorism than missiles do and that wobbly governments can be buttressed not just with helicopter gunships but also with school lunch programs (at 25 cents per kid per day). International security is where the money is, but fighting poverty is where the success is.

As a student of globalization and political risk, I agree with the marketing strategy. But with two crucial footnotes: let’s not forget the moral part entirely, for to forget that is to wipe out four centuries of troubling history in North-South relations. And, let’s also not forget the political (rather than developmental) conflicts that continue to engender political violence. Terrorism, after all, is not a monopoly of the least developed countries.

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