Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Reducing poverty in ten easy steps 

The United Nations' Millennium Project has been released. The documents contains the blueprint for reduction of poverty and improving lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. It's an ambitious and ambiguous document, but should not be dismissed out of hand by the UN's many critics as yet another meaningless wish-list from an impotent organization - if only because it has been complied under the direction of Dr Jeffrey Sachs, the architect of the tough economic stimulus package which helped many (through not all) Central and Eastern European countries to jumpstart their economies in the early 1990s.

Needless to say, the media has generally focused on one aspect of the Project - the foreign aid, and the fact that the developed world is not giving "enough." This opening paragraph from

"More than 500 million people can escape abject poverty, 250 million people will no longer go to bed hungry and 30 million children can be saved if rich countries double development aid over the next 10 years to $195 billion."
And this from Australia's ABC:

"The United Nations (UN) Millennium Project wants Australia and other western countries to dramatically increase foreign aid to help lift living standards in the world's poorest areas."
Lost somewhere in the rush to point fingers at the stingy West is the fact that the Millennium Project also asks the developing countries themselves to undertake some significant reforms (link in PDF). The list of suggestions is so broad-ranging as to make one's head spin, as well as doubt how much of it can realistically be implemented: proposals range from political liberalization and market reforms, through greater spending on health and education, to improving nutrition and building more roads; all to be accomplished with the greater input from local civil societies.

All laudable goals, but how realistic? Since there is a fair correlation between poverty and lack of freedom, I'm not sure how confident we can be that many of the governments throughout the developing world really want us to help them help themselves. Government corruption and mismanagement aside, it's also difficult to expect more social spending until economies are functioning well enough to generate a secure tax base.

As the example of East and South East Asia demonstrates, poverty can be drastically reduced; what's needed is a strong commitment to economic growth. But it also takes time - decades, to be exact, which is always difficult to accept for people who think there are some miracle solutions out there ("If only the America gave more...",
"If only Israel didn't exist...")

Still, the Millennium Project has many aspects that deserve closer attention, such as a relatively simple and inexpensive initiative to cut down on malaria-related deaths by providing mosquito nets. This should make the "skeptical environmentalist"
Bjorn Lomborg happy, as has been arguing for a long time now that the limited aid resources should be allocated on the most cost-effective basis instead of spending money on sexy but wasteful projects such as the Kyoto Protocol.


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