When the word “poverty” is mentioned, it likely evokes an image much like the one above. One involving hand-me-down clothes, shared and insufficient resources, and often focusing on children. Most in the Western world are aware of the deluge of commercials promising that for just a few dollars a day we too can turn some starving child’s life around, and when confronted with images like this or more disturbing visuals like the one below, it’s easy to believe that’s possible, that because of such poor conditions the only thing that must be provided is a little bit of capital to raise lives from subsistence to unthreatened existence.
This is, to an unfortunate degree, an unintentional lie. Jacqueline Novogratz identifies this well in her TED Talk Invest In Africa’s Own Solutions, when discussing what must be truly done to eliminate poverty: “ [T]he only way to end poverty, to make it history, is to build viable systems on the ground that deliver critical and affordable goods and services to the poor, in ways that are financially sustainable and scaleable.” (Novogratz 5:12) Poverty is not just starving, exposed children, desperate parents, or financial want and need. Poverty, as identified by Novogratz, is a fundamental lack of resources, yes, but also the infrastructure to distribute, obtain, and sustain those resources in a way that can grow organically and encourage advancement rather than provide temporary relief to systemic problems.
Things such as the MDGs and SDGs set forth by international initiatives and debated by political and social scientists endeavor to treat poverty in this manner, by addressing fundamental infrastructure issues such as a non-functioning or stifled economy, a lack of readily accessible and thorough education, gender and racial inequality, environmental damage or misuse, and political corruption. In theory, these goals could solve many of the underlying issues of poverty by equalizing the footing of the population, restoring or preserving the environment for sustainable development, agriculture, and basic needs such as water and shelter, encouraging development and hope through inspiring unique long-term goals in the surrounding population once the constant threats of disease, malnourishment, environmental stressors, and more are removed, and aiding in establishing a system of self-governance that works for each unique culture. These are noble goals, but far easier said than done. While many have expressed concerns over neoliberal influence causing a decrease in funding to these initiatives, I think other concerns may be more pertinent. Papers such as Can post-2015 sustainable development goals survive neoliberalism? by Emmanuel Kumi, Albert A. Arhin, and Thomas Yeboah make persuasive arguments that a reduction in funds from neoliberalism encourages problematic factors such as environmental exploitation to fill the gaps and provide temporary relief for the populace, I think issues like this expose a fundamental flaw in mindset that must be addressed before aid can be effective. All the money in the world will not solve a single problem if those it is being given to cannot use it for long term planning of their own accord, after all. While aid is important, addressing this gap that exists as a part of natural human survival instincts to plug the holes we have today without a care for the ones that may appear tomorrow is fundamental for long-term, sustainable development. While neoliberalism may prove to be a hindrance in that direction, it is far from a root cause.
This issue of mindset is not unique to countries that need aid, however. John McArthur makes a pointed effort to highlight the hypocrisy of “players on the bench,” members of the international community who have the tools and resources to make change occur, and have even placed themselves on the “team” of change, but then refuse to “play.” (McArthur 4-5) Specifically, he names players such as the Bush and Obama administrations, and the World Bank, who pledged to the idea of the Millennium Declaration, but then failed to support the MDGs themselves. Essentially, these players pay lip service to the idea of development and advancement, but refuse to, as Norogatz phrases it, “get skin in the game” and really work towards fulfilling tangible, sustainable goals. As a consequence, these goals often go unmet or poorly supported due to a lack of international framework and understanding for long-term stability rather than short-term results.
Nancy Birdsall, Dani Rodrik, and Arvind Subramanian expound upon this issue in their article “How to Help Poor Countries?” They identify two core fallacies of monetary aid, those being that developed countries even can explicitly shape development without outright imperialism, and that more money solves more problems. While the idea from the halls of government to the television of the common citizen has often been expressed succinctly as “give more, save more,” in reality it has been clear for years that more aid does not equate to more solutions, and may in fact be damaging to the host country. Birdsall, et. al., essentially argue that we should be working smarter, not harder. Making more results happen more efficiently with less aid, rather than bloating local economies with goods, services, and capital that will have no sustainable impact. Building economies and infrastructure, not donating ever-increasing sums.
Poverty is a complex issue. It’s questionable whether it will ever truly cease to exist or simply take new forms as society advances. However, we know it in its present form, and it seems that we are ignoring nearly every lesson it has taught us throughout history. The fact of the matter remains that we cannot simply throw money at the problem and hope it goes away. Real, structural change must be brought about if we are ever to see any hope of significantly reducing the effects of poverty on the global populace.