07 November 2007

How To Make Ultra Poverty History

The World's Most Deprived [IFPRI]"If concentrated in a single nation, the world's poorest people—the ultra poor—would comprise the world's seventh most populous country."

Until now, analysis of global poverty has tended to focus on the almost one billion people who live on less than a dollar a day. A new report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) breaks this group down into those who live on between 75 cents and $1 a day, those who live on 50 to 75 cents a day, and the "ultra poor" who live on less than 50 cents a day. It finds that 162 million people are ultra poor and that, although economic growth is the factor that has had the greatest impact on poverty, for instance in countries such as China and India, the very poorest people benefit the least from reductions in poverty and typically need specific action to be taken to enable them to participate in growth. "The World's Most Deprived: Characteristics and Causes of Extreme Poverty and Hunger" concludes:

Looking at the characteristics of the poorest, we found that the poorest are those from excluded groups, those living in rural remote areas with little education, those with few assets, and—in Asia—those without land.

The analysis suggests that interventions to insure the poor against health shocks, address the exclusion of certain groups, prevent child malnutrition, and enable investment in education and other capital for those with few assets are essential to help the poorest move out of poverty.
Once again, in the reference to those "with few assets" and "without land," we see the wisdom of Old Testament economics, where every family was guaranteed shared access to and use of the land and its natural resources. To the extent that Israel served as a model of God's original economic purposes in creation, we are surely justified in asking how these family-oriented economic principles should be applied in the wider world of modern-day secular society. How, for instance, might enforceable property rights be ensured for those who have been trapped in the downward spiral of debt, poverty, dispossession, and bondage?

Around the world, governments regularly assert ownership of land that local communities believe was theirs and collude with powerful interests to seize land and resources from the poor. Examples that come to mind include: Tajikistan, where I recall whole neighbourhoods being given just weeks to find somewhere else to live in order to make way for a new presidential development in the capital; Chile, where the government sold the Araucaria forests of the Pehuenche people to logging companies; and Laos, where some 6,200 villagers are to be displaced by the Nam Theun 2 dam project, financed by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and resettled on insufficient land. To see what happens when property rights are not guaranteed, one only needs to look at what Robert Mugabe has done to the former "bread basket of Africa", Zimbabwe.

As the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (author of The Other Path: The economic answer to terrorism) has noted, "They have houses but not titles; crops but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation." Without clear title to their land, houses, and businesses, the poor cannot sell their assets or borrow against them and lack incentive to invest in that which could be taken from them at any moment; and thus they remain poor. De Soto has calculated the amount of "dead capital" in untitled assets held by the world's poor to be "at least $9.3 trillion" — a sum that dwarfs the amount of foreign aid given to the developing world since 1945.

Those who maintain religion has no place in politics and the Bible (whose vision for society they have probably never sought to read, let alone understand) has no relevance to the many social challenges facing the world might care to reflect that the answers might have been staring us in the face all along ... or rather have been sitting on the bookshelf, just waiting for us to rediscover them.