2007 Threat #01 Poverty Forecast

PDF: Poverty

THREAT:  Poverty

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. – attributed to. Lao Tzu

Poverty in the developing world should not be confused with emergencies. Anyone can have a sudden need for food and shelter (New Orleans after Katrina). International programs against “poverty” go beyond this to building the capacity of a population to maintain and grow the means of self-sufficiency.

If “real” aid is drilling wells, not bottled water, it is also about training locals to drill wells and maintain machinery. Action against poverty is now seen as a mix of Aid, Trade, Investment, Migration, Environment, Security, Technology. As well as shipping in bags of grain, it is more important to stop the war that will destroy the next crop, to invent appropriate technologies (the cow-dung radio in India), and to build local economies through investment and trade. Migration is contentious – accepting the unskilled and displaced counts as aid, but enticing every trained nurse in Ghana to London not only does not count as aid but is a negative step for Ghana.

The US is 20th in the world for aid as a portion of GDP (0.14%). 72% of this is tied aid (“with strings”) and much goes to less poor and totalitarian regimes.* US aid is perceived to be largely directed by national interest, whereas some nations, such as Denmark (first in world ranking), seem motivated otherwise – if Danish secret agendas exist they are well hidden. But in the broadest view aid is about self-interest. In Somalia, failure to understand root problems and obsession with forming a nation in a preconceived image led to a decade of bronze-age governance. Islamists now seem the only hope for stable government, and a shining hope in Africa for Taliban-style regimes. What started as an aid problem ended as a political problem because the earlier efforts were unbearably tainted with politics.

*Many facts quoted are from Center for Global Development.[USA], http://www.cgdev.org.


For aid to be effective in the longer term – to be “real” – donors need to understand bottom-line causes. Some are geographical (systematic lack of water), many are social/political (enduring clan and tribal rivalries), many are simple perfidy (corrupt regimes and callous middle class elites).  In each case the solution is dictated by the cause and is often obvious. Educating policy-makers in the underlying causes of each aid case goes a long way to making aid effective.


Even blind incompetence is better than aid for doctrinaire or the wrong reasons. The top-down approach of the 1960’s – fortify the rulers and elites and they will fix their countries – is discredited for good reason. It resulted in a sudden demand for Rolls Royce cars, weapons, and deterioration in subsistence societies.  Recipients should not have to convert to Jesus – or the Danish way of life – to eat. A recent notion – fix poverty one village at a time (bottom-up) – is the most rational approach with the best chance of success thus far.


Many Asian nations jumped from primitive telephone net-works to ubiquitous internet and cellular networks. This technological leap-frog awaits developing nations. The West will be burdened with 2nd or 3rd generation modalities when poorest nation will suddenly have 4th generation technol-ogies. In 10 years the West will be weighed down by old costly infrastructure (the London tube) and many “developing” nations will be growing from strength to strength driven by clean, green high-tech practices.