The Rich Should Keep Their Word

For the first time in human history, the world is within striking distance of ending global poverty. A preposterous claim? Perhaps. After all, the poor seem to be everywhere and are increasing in numbers due to global recession, population growth, and economic mismanagement from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Yet, I'll stick to my claim. If the world - especially the US and other rich countries - shift a small amount of their military spending to meeting the needs of the world's poorest people, our generation could free humanity from poverty's iron grip.

I am not speaking of relative poverty, the nearly inevitable fact that some members of society are worse off than others, though to some extent that varies society to society. I am speaking of the gut-wrenching, life-threatening poverty of living on less than $1 per day. For the first time ever, the world has it in its power to eliminate those extreme conditions.

Why is this? The world's richest countries have continued their economic ascent for generations, carried forward by the flowering of science and technology. Even though poor countries seem to be falling ever farther behind, the truth is more heartening. Large parts of the so-called developing world, especially in Asia, have made incredible strides away from absolute poverty.

China is the most striking success here, with hundreds of millions of people enjoying higher living standards in the past twenty years, including better health, nutrition, and sanitation. India achieved notable successes more recently, though much remains to be accomplished.

The poorest of the poor in sub-Saharan Africa and in remote areas of Latin America and Central Asia have not shared these successes. At least 1 billion people, perhaps nearly twice that number, live in squalid conditions of hunger, disease, and impoverishment. In many of these countries, the past twenty years have marked a time of regress, not progress.

Disease has swept Africa, with the AIDS pandemic and the resurgence of malaria and tuberculosis. Hunger afflicts hundreds of millions, as world weather patterns seem to become more erratic, with more dangerous droughts and floods associated perhaps with long-term changes in the climate. Millions die each year of poverty - lives that could be saved if the poor had access to better health care, nutrition, and other essential needs.

The extreme poverty of the bottom billion people is shocking, morally intolerable, and dangerous - a breeding ground of disease, terrorism, and violence. Yet with the richest countries richer than ever before, and with much of the developing world already escaped from the horrors of extreme poverty, the balance has shifted in favor of ending global poverty.

Rich countries could enable the poorest of the poor to escape from misery by providing just a tiny fraction of their yearly national income - or, indeed, of their military spending - to overcome the crises of hunger, education, and disease. That aid, combined with the market-based economic growth, could end extreme poverty.

Importantly, rich countries are committed to working with the poorest countries to meet these objectives. But as with many promises, America and other donor countries have so far failed to live up to their pledges. At the UN's Millennium Summit in September 2000, the world's leaders made solemn pledges to tackle global poverty. They issued a declaration calling for action now, so that extreme poverty can be dramatically reduced by the year 2015. They even pledged to mobilize financial assistance.

Within the broad Millennium Declaration is a set of specific targets for reducing poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy, and environmental degradation. They provide explicit, detailed commitments. For example, rich and poor countries together have committed to reducing infant mortality rates by two-thirds as of 2015, compared with the levels in countries as of 1990. Sadly, for dozens of countries around the world, that target is not being met, because too little money is invested in health.

Many studies, including those that I did for the World Health Organization, show that for a modest amount of money worldwide, perhaps an extra $50 - $100 billion per year in aid from rich countries, the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved. That may seem like a lot of money, but not in comparison with the $25 trillion in income each year earned by rich countries, or the roughly $500 billion spent each year on their militaries.

Much of the world looks at the US and other rich countries with resentment, feeling that they don't keep their commitments to help less fortunate countries. The rich world can redeem itself, indeed promote its interests in global peace and prosperity, by proving that the Millennium Development Goals are not empty words. The key test of those commitments will come next month at a UN Conference in Monterrey, Mexico on Finance for Development. The conference will focus on the bottom line - where is the money to fight poverty and disease? Will the rich follow promises with actions?

In Monterrey, rich countries can show the rest of humanity, especially the poorest of the poor, that they've gotten the message. Let's hope, for our common future, that the world's leaders get it right this time around.