Global poverty levels are rising again

Global extreme poverty levels have risen for the first time in 20 years (Source: World Bank).

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Quinn Ferris
July 27, 2021 1:14 pm

The rise in poverty after a decline over 20 years has been attributed to the coronavirus pandemic and global climate change. It brings to the fore how the life circumstances of millions of people can be affected by factors that are out of their control. It’s sometimes sad to see that those living in extreme poverty are looked down upon, as if it is entirely their fault they’re in that situation. I understand that people may have made bad decisions and life choices that could reduce their standard of living, but there are people who have been born into poverty as well. I’d like to share a story that highlighted this reality to me.

One day when I was driving back from work I stopped at a red light. Traffic was quite bad that evening so it would take a few turns of the traffic light going from green to red to green again before I could be on my way. A beggar was going from car to car asking for some spare change. As he came close to my car the traffic light had turned green. For whatever reason I drove forward but didn’t try to avoid him and I skimmed past him. Dangerously close. I didn’t know what I was thinking at the time. Why did I do that? I could have swerved a bit, but not only did I ignore the beggar, I purposefully put him in danger.

The beggar was understandably upset. The traffic light had turned red again and as I stopped I could see him approaching my car. When he got close to my car, I rolled down my window and sneered at him, “Have you got something to say?”. The angry and intimidating look on my face had an effect on him, and he recoiled and whimpered a soft-spoken “No” as he walked away.

I felt powerful. A tough guy who can intimidate others. Don’t mess with me, I thought. But as the traffic light turned green and I drove off, my arrogance dissipated. I considered the scenario that just played out. Here was someone who was begging for money. If we considered the power balance between him and me, he was already in a weaker position asking for help. His self-esteem was probably very low. Many people don’t want to beg but sometimes they have no choice. With no provocation I had abused my position of power and made him feel even more little.

I shook my head at the way I had behaved. Did it make me feel big putting someone down? How much rejection and rudeness does he have to face every day? I couldn’t believe what I had just done just to massage some vanity of mine wanting to appear like a tough guy. It also made me think about how many other people do the same thing. If you don’t want to give money, you can say so politely. I must have been one of many others who brushed him off as if he was a fly being swatted away.

The guilt I experienced was pretty bad. I told myself that if I did see him again, I would be sure to help. As it happened a few days later I was driving back home from work and the same beggar was going from car to car, asking for money at the same traffic lights. As he came to my car I rolled down my window and gave him some spare change. I looked him in the eye to see if he recognized me from a few days ago, but there was no sign of it. His response was a simple and authentic “God bless you brother”. He didn’t recognize me, but I certainly recognized him. That interaction is something he probably soon forgot, but it has stayed with me for many years and will probably stay with me my entire lifetime. There are so many small experiences we go through day to day that might appear insignificant to us but could be life-changing to others.

From that experience I have always tried to check myself. That memory of me intimidating someone powerless when he was just asking for help is one of shame. It also changed my attitude toward poverty. Some people are fortunate enough to have been born in the right place at the right time. Others haven’t had such luck. Global poverty levels are rising again but this doesn’t make some of us better than others. We’re all human. Regardless of whether you have a million in the bank or no bank account at all, we all have hopes, dreams, desires and aspirations. My hope is that the impediments to progress brought about from the coronavirus pandemic and climate change can be corrected and we can continue toward a path that eventually leads to the total eradication of poverty.

Anita Chan
July 27, 2021 10:05 pm

Occasionally I hear the argument that poverty relief and international development projects don’t work. The fact that global poverty levels are rising again may be used as evidence of this. However this claim can easily be rejected by looking at the data, specifically how the number of people living in extreme poverty fell from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 650 million in 2018.

A controversial topic is international development aid. I often hear that aid is a waste of money. It could fall into the hands of a corrupt leader or government and not reach the people that need it most. I agree and disagree with this viewpoint. I also believe aid is a necessary component to helping people get out of poverty. The key words here are “helping people”; I will return to this in a moment.

When international development development aid is given, there needs to be accountability from the recipient that the money will go to well-planned, documented and researched projects that can improve the standard of living in the country. Examples could be grants given to a country to help fund universal primary education or boost its healthcare infrastructure. Independent organizations can monitor progress and ensure the money is being put to use as planned. Unfortunately this hasn’t always happened. Money could be siphoned off to support commercial interests of the country’s leaders and their families. This has given aid a bad image.

But there is another side to international development aid that many people miss. Without looking into the statistics, some people believe large amounts of aid has been given without any positive result. I will challenge this on two points. First, the question of positive results. The international development literature is conclusive; “The vast majority of the literature finds that aid is effective in promoting growth, and by implication in reducing poverty“.

Second, has there really been “large amounts” of aid? In ‘The End of Poverty’ book by Jeffrey Sachs, Sachs counters the claim that US foreign aid to sub-Saharan Africa was “money down the drain”. Not because official development assistance is ineffective. But instead because there was barely any aid sent in the first place. In 2002, US foreign aid to sub-Saharan Africa was $3 per sub-Saharan African. Taking out consultant costs and administrative costs, the total amount given per sub-Saharan African was a mere 6 cents! (Source: The End of Poverty, Chapter 16 – Myths and Magic Bullets, Jeffrey Sachs).

How can foreign aid work when it is so miniscule? Ultimately international development aid isn’t about giving handouts. Instead it is to help people get onto the ladder of development, providing the poorest people with the means to help themselves. It is in the interest of richer countries to help developing countries do this. These developing nations have the potential to be future markets for developed countries’ goods and services. Economic progress also provides stability and less susceptibility to falling into regional conflict, which is important for global security.

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Devin Graff
July 29, 2021 10:08 pm

The Global North and the Global South. The rich and the poor. Developed and developing. The world is split between those countries who have had geography, history and luck on their side and those countries whose geography and history have worked against them. Countries that were once considered a backwater and poor are now rich. Other countries that were poor such as China, South Korea and Singapore have achieved spectacular growth in recent decades.

It’s as if there is a continual struggle to enter the rich country club. Some of those in the club want it to be exclusive and are threatened by newcomers. Others outside of the club desperately want to join and associate with highly regarded rich countries – just like in high school, we wanted to be part of the cool group. When I look at the state the world is in, in particular the divide between the rich and poor, I feel that we’re back in high school again. There is a cool kid group that we all want to join. But attempts to improve our social status are sometimes thwarted by those already in the group.

Let’s look at the scourge of HIV / AIDS that badly affected Africa. By the late 1990s antiretroviral drugs had given hope to people infected with AIDS. There was a chance of survival and living a normal life. In Africa, millions of people had been infected and had lost their lives. The arrival of effective treatment was seen as a turning point. Millions of lives could now be saved. The problem was the price. For these millions of people, the cost of treatment was far too expensive. In their desperation those suffering from AIDS decided to acquire imitation drugs from other developing countries, which could produce and sell drugs at a fraction of the price of the original pharmaceutical manufacturers. Doing this was quite literally a matter of life and death. Instead of supporting this drive to save lives, the pharmaceutical companies of the developed world turned their back on the international community and threatened legal action, putting in jeopardy millions of lives. The untold costs of the AIDS epidemic had a light at the end of the tunnel but the developed world was more interested in securing its profits.

These pharmaceutical companies can be given the title of ‘Bad Samaritans’, the namesake of which is a book by Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist. In his book he details how the imposition of intellectual property rights (IPR) has disproportionately affected the developing world. Knowledge transfers from the developed world can help developing countries progress. From managerial expertise to textbooks to the aforementioned procedures to make antiretroviral drugs. However since richer countries have been stricter in imposing their IPR and since the majority or IPR-holders are from rich countries, it has become more expensive for poorer countries to obtain the knowledge they need to progress. A startling figure quoted in Chang’s book is that technology license payments that the developing world would have to pay to the developed world in the mid 2000s was $45 billion. This is almost half the $93 billion that was given to developing countries as foreign aid!! And this was just for technology licensing payments!

There is a distinct difference between wanting to help and giving the appearance of helping. The developing world has incredible resources and potential to take the world on a positive path in the 21st century. All it needs is opportunity.

Art Charrel
July 29, 2021 10:54 am

Sometimes I look at myself and wonder if I do enough to fight against poverty. I have taken part in fundraisers and charity events many times. I feel like I have the ability to do more, so what is stopping me? One one side we may be shielded from true poverty. If you live in a city where the standard of living is high then you might not see or feel the impact of poverty. An appropriate phrase is out of sight, out of mind. We all live busy lives. The number of responsibilities that come from day-to-day living can push charity work and volunteering to the sidelines.

Another aspect is the mind’s tendency to blunt what you see in front of you. I travelled to South Africa in 2010, a beautiful country with welcoming people. I had heard that a large population of the country lived in poverty, but it didn’t prepare me for what I saw. When I saw the state in which some people were living, it had a large impact on me. My mind was going through an internal struggle. I felt guilty that I could live in relative comfort but here there were people living in overcrowded, unclean slums without basic necessities. For the rest of the day the image of a South African slum played in my mind. The next day as I saw the same image I felt a pang of unease but it wasn’t as strong as the day before. This decrease in emotional response continued until a few days later when I barely registered a response. It had become normal to see it. After a while you just accept it as the status quo.

This is worrying because it’s a strong emotional response that galvanizes someone into action. If I had stayed in South Africa for one day, maybe I would have come back home with a new desire to help out. Instead I stayed for almost 2 weeks. Towards the end of my stay I still wanted to help but the emotional response had waned. And then there is the phrase out of sight, out of mind again. How many times have we been strongly motivated to do something and then a few days the later the motivation is a fraction of what it once was? Soon other responsibilities and priorities compete with each other. What you wanted to do so badly a few days ago is now a tiny voice competing against a hundred other voices.

Fortunately there are many organizations and charities doing amazing work. The Sustainable Development Goals promoted by the United Nations explain why we shouldn’t ignore the problem of extreme poverty. It’s also refreshing to see the younger generation taking a stand against complacency, which I have been at fault of. The latest setback in eliminating poverty could be the galvanizing event we need to redouble our efforts.