Perspective: The challenge of extreme poverty

For as long as can be remembered, even people of good conscience have dismissed the challenge posed by extreme poverty as something too overwhelming, too vast, and too complicated to be solved.

But now a team of 265 development experts and economists has concluded that it is possible to end extreme poverty in 20 years.

The team's plan, outlined in the UN Millennium Project Report, which was issued in January, argues that the world now has enough knowledge about the methods and technologies of development to finally end the suffering of the poorest of the poor. What is needed, the Report says, is for the world to move forward in a unified and coordinated manner — and for the rich nations of the world to live up to financial commitments they have already promised.

It's a bold idea, though it should not be.

Extreme poverty is condition faced by some 1.1 billion people, according to The World Bank. It is defined by a livelihood of less than US$1 a day, and as Millennium Project leader Jeffrey Sachs puts it in his new book, The End of Poverty:

“Extreme poverty means that households cannot meet basic needs for survival. They are chronically hungry, unable to access health care, lack the amenities of safe drinking water and sanitation, cannot afford education for some or all of the children, and perhaps lack rudimentary shelter — a roof to keep the rain out of the hut, a chimney to remove smoke from the cook stove — and basic articles of clothing, such as shoes.”

The expenditure of about $65 per year for each could end their misery, according to the Project. That is enough to boost the poor to the first rung of the so-called development ladder, after which they can begin to climb further on their own.

Such an expenditure, which amounts to about $150 billion a year for the next 20 years, is less than the 0.7 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP) that developed nations of the world have collectively promised to devote to overseas development assistance at various UN conferences.

Given even the remote possibility that this new plan could end extreme poverty, the moral imperative for action becomes very high. Although the history of international development efforts is mixed, with the failure of various grand plans weighing heavily on the minds of donors, the sophisticated and careful analysis undertaken by the Millennium Project requires that we treat the plan very seriously.

The Bahá'í International Community has long believed that poverty can and will be eradicated. More than 100 years ago, Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, said that humanity has entered a new age of maturity, in which collective undertakings on a global scale would at long last become possible, to the degree that universal peace and prosperity are on the near horizon.

“The potentialities inherent in the station of man, the full measure of his destiny on earth, the innate excellence of his reality, must all be manifested in this promised Day of God,” wrote Bahá'u'lláh.

In numerous statements, the Community has outlined principles that it believes are essential to the prosecution of successful social and economic development. Many of these are echoed in the Millennium Report.

The Report, for example, calls for an emphasis on education, the recognition of the importance of women in the development process, and the need to encourage grassroots participation and the engagement of civil society. The Report also stresses the importance of applying science and technology to the development process, and the need to encourage good governance.

These and other points have long been advocated by the Community as fundamental to any overall plan for development. One thing, however, that Bahá'ís view as essential and which is not quite so clearly addressed in the Report is the significance of spiritual principles in providing an underlying motivation and direction to the development process.

As the world considers the prospects for the kind of large-scale, globally coordinated effort that is proposed by the Millennium Development Project, it is worth reiterating the necessity of a spiritual perspective.

A purely materialistic approach to development ignores the essential reality of human nature and so fails to draw on the motivational powers of the human spirit. Untempered materialism also opens the door to corruption, abuse, and other problems that underlie the failure of the grand development schemes of the past.

Bahá'ís understand that by starting with a spiritual framework, however, such problems can be better overcome. For example, Bahá'ís view the equality of women and men as something more than simply a matter of human rights. Rather, equality is raised to the level of spiritual principle. In this way, countervailing attitudes of superiority and submissiveness entrenched in many populations can be more easily transformed.

Likewise, the Bahá'í spiritual teachings elevate the idea of productive work to the level of worship. This concept, Bahá'ís believe, offers an important means for motivating those populations where an inadequate work ethic impedes development. “Please God, the poor may exert themselves and strive to earn the means of livelihood,” Bahá'u'lláh wrote. “This is a duty which, in this most great Revelation, hath been prescribed unto every one, and is accounted in the sight of God as a goodly deed.”

Or take the issue of so-called “popular participation,” which has become a buzzword for the idea that the target population must be engaged in the process of its own development. Bahá'ís wholeheartedly embrace this principle and more, long advocating that without the essential involvement of people at the grassroots, development efforts tend to be layered on top and, as such, nearly always falter and fail.

Too often, development protagonists from the outside are unwittingly responsible for this problem. Despite good intentions, they sometimes come with an attitude — often quite subtle — that they know what's best for people at the grassroots.

When the spiritual principle of the oneness of humanity is embraced by all participants, however, the genuine give-and-take that is necessary in any successful program of development assistance is better able to flourish.

Apart from making the Millennium Project plan more coherent, consideration of underlying spiritual principles provides another important contribution towards ending poverty. Chief among the conceptual elements of the Millennium Project plan is the importance of outside help. The plan's economists believe firmly that the extreme poor cannot lift themselves out of poverty on their own. In economic terms, the extreme poor don't have enough capital resources, whether fiscal, human, or environmental, to advance beyond the subsistence level. And because capital inevitably depreciates — money is used for subsistence or eaten by inflation, human capital deteriorates as people age or succumb to disease, and environmental capital depreciates when fields lose their fertility, etc. — they sink lower and lower without resources from the outside.

In other words, the poor cannot be expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don't have boots.

Yet the rich nations of the world have failed to fulfill the promises that they have made. On average, according to the Report, rich nations currently give about .2 percent of their annual economic output for international development assistance. Yet, when it comes to internal development, those same countries spend upwards of 30 percent of their GNP on education, infrastructure, health, and other “common goods” aimed at pulling their own societies even further up the development ladder.

The political reality is that rich countries' political leaders perceive that most of their constituents are not willing to make the sacrifice that would be required to send higher levels of aid to non-countrymen overseas.

Bahá'ís would suggest an understanding of spiritual principles could, again, provide motivation on this point. From a materialistic frame of mind, the only incentive to help others is self-interest. And, indeed, the Millennium Project appeals to this sense of self-interest by noting that extreme poverty ultimately contributes to global insecurity, environmental damage, and, even, terrorism.

Yet it does not hurt to be reminded that all of the world's religious systems have placed a high moral value on helping the poor. The Bahá'í Faith is no exception. “They who are possessed of riches, however, must have the utmost regard for the poor,” wrote Bahá'u'lláh.

All religions speak of the Golden Rule, asking us to consider the needs of our neighbor as much as ourselves. Bahá'ís believe that our sense of neighborhood must today be enlarged to encompass the entire planet. We now live in a global neighborhood, and the suffering of one is the suffering of all.

Consider the resources that might be unlocked if people in rich countries were to fully embrace this principle. In the words of Bahá'u'lláh: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”