Global Community Efforts That Will Improve the World

“Eat your vegetables,” my mother told me when I was growing up in America in the 1950s. “Children are starving in Europe.”

My mother’s postwar economic geography sounds comically antiquated today; she could never have foreseen a world in which the euro is stronger than the U.S. dollar. But in another sense she was half a century ahead of her time; her quaint tactics were designed not only to encourage me to finish a meal but—at least in part, I think—to teach me that the destinies of all people on earth are somehow connected.

Although economic geography has undergone changes my mother never would have imagined, one thing remains unchanged: the key to reducing poverty around the world is to build a sense of community at the global level.

When I was a child, of course, I could find no connection between my uneaten vegetables and hungry people in a faraway land. I knew that cleaning my plate had nothing to do with anyone else’s stomach—not directly, at least. But what I didn’t know then—and what my mother must have known all along—is that, when coupled with the necessary resources, a desire to make a difference is a powerful tool for change.

The most ambitious twentieth-century attempt at changing the world—the United Nations—is generally perceived as having failed to improve political, economic and social conditions around the world. Time after time, the UN has failed to prevent genocide, famine and widespread repression of political freedom. If global collaboration is the key to solving the world’s most pressing problems, then in view of the UN’s dismal performance, do we still have a reason to hope?

The World Development Report has been published annually for the last 30 years by the World Bank. The 2008 Report focused on the key role of agriculture as an instrument for development and poverty reduction. All 191 UN member nations have committed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Goal 1 is to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty.

The nations of the world and the World Bank have thus reached an unusual and perhaps unprecedented consensus; everyone agrees that the key to reducing poverty in the poorest areas of the world is to target more aid money for agricultural development. But as Time recently reported, “This year the U.S. will give more than $800 million to Ethiopia: $460 million for food, $350 million for HIV/AIDS treatment—and just $7 million for agricultural development.”

Spending the bulk of our available resources to treat chronic ills and recurring crises is like treating a cancer patient with band-aids: the deep causes of the patient’s condition go untreated as long as we must respond to one crisis after another, even though we think we know what the root of the problem is and where our money really needs to go.

According to the 2008 World Development Report, 2.1 billion people live on less than $2 a day; 880 million live on less than $1 a day. Agricultural development isn’t a magic bullet; disease, lack of education, social inequality and political corruption are huge obstacles. But since three of every four poor people in the developing world live in rural areas, targeted investment in agriculture promises to pay the most immediate social and economic dividends.

World Development Goal 1 is to cut worldwide poverty and hunger in half by 2015. Even though the G8 leaders have pledged to increase African aid to $50 billion a year by 2010, “Sub-Saharan Africa is at the greatest risk of not achieving the Goals and is struggling to progress on almost every dimension of poverty, including hunger, lack of education, and prevalent disease,” says the UN.

Our Heavy Responsibility

It’s hard to picture a scenario in which the affluent nations of the world will be willing to spend even more money to achieve the MDGs. “You will always have the poor with you,” Jesus told his followers two millennia ago. Although 21st-century economic geography suggests that Jesus was an astute economist, he also exhorted his followers to aid the poor to the best of their ability.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates believes that creative capitalism is the best way to reduce grinding poverty in developing nations. In theory, Gates’ proposed “system innovation” would produce a kind of planetary trickle-down effect by stimulating consumption in affluent economies.

But as long as we live on a planet with limited resources, unrestrained consumerism in wealthy nations can only produce the opposite effect. On a global scale—and in a closed system—an increase in consumption in affluent nations is more likely to bring about a decrease in consumption in the poorest areas of the world.

Wouldn’t it make more economic sense to consume less in rich economies in order to provide more to the world’s poor? As Vic George pointed out two decades ago in Wealth, Poverty and Starvation, “From a rational perspective this would be a desirable trend because most people in affluent countries consume far too much for their own physical and mental health.”

In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Science, wrote, “With adequate social opportunities, individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other.”

Sen has argued that human capability influences rapid change far more than human capital. In view of Sen’s findings, Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child Foundation is one of the most exciting ideas in the global marketplace. There are two reasons why it can work:

1. It stimulates direct targeted investment in the world’s poor.

2. It aims to unleash human capability.

The Mande people of West Africa have a sophisticated belief system. Although primarily an Islamic people, Mande cosmogony hardly sounds foreign to anyone who is familiar with the Old Testament book of Genesis. “When the Everlasting addressed man, He taught him the law by which all the elements of the cosmos were formed and continue to exist. He made man the Guardian and Governor of His universe and charged him with supervision of the maintenance of universal Harmony. That is why being man is a heavy responsibility.”

Our food consumption, to cite one of the most blatant examples of universal disharmony, is out of control. At the beginning of the new millennium, the percentage of obese Americans had skyrocketed to 65%.

“We’ll be cutting down on fast food, sweets and other unnecessary calories,” my mother would have said if she were raising children in 2008 instead of 1958. “We’ll eat better and save more. Let’s see how many laptops we can buy for kids in Africa.” Then she might have added, “We’ll all be healthier and happier for it.”

Teaching children about man’s heavy responsibility is the best education we can give them. Can smarter consumption in affluent countries be channeled into exponentially greater levels of targeted investment in the world’s poorest economies?

It couldn’t hurt to give it a try—we’ve tried everything else. Who knows? We might all be healthier and happier for it.

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